The Marvel Cinematic Universe is all about the practical. Its heroes engineered their way into power suits, were made super thanks to a medical procedure or nuclear incident, traveled to Earth from a place that physicists can locate, or are rather adept at shooting arrows. It’s a team of scientists, engineers, soldiers and, inexplicably, an archer. It only made sense to add a doctor.
But half an hour into “Doctor Strange,” which comes out this weekend, all that grounding in science and engineering goes out the window in a kaleidoscopic acid trip through the cosmos. The fabric of reality is torn in a gorgeous and terrifying crash course in the mystical and magical. Your arrows will not help you here. There are legit wizards in the Marvel world now.
While superheroes like Strange get all the attention when culture writers talk about big franchises and splashy CGI blockbusters, Hollywood and audiences have for years had a second, maybe even stronger cinematic obsession: magic. And magic is making its way back to the big screen this month in a big way, not only with the introduction of sorcerers into the Marvel Cinematic Universe but also with “Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them,” an extension of the Harry Potter franchise. It’s the first in a film series that will literally end with fighting Nazi wizards.
And it’s about time:
What you see above is a three-year rolling average of annual domestic box-office receipts, as reported by The Numbers database, for movies with the IMDb plot keywords “magic” and “superhero” since 2000. Ever since the Potter octology wrapped, there’s been a dearth of magical tentpoles in the movie world.
Until, that is, November 2016. You like magic? This month, you get magic. “Doctor Strange,” “Trolls,” “Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them” and “Moana” are so lousy with enchantments that there’s a Sorcerer’s General Warning on the outside of the box. It almost makes you worried that Peter Jackson will pull a Beyonce and do a surprise midnight release of a Silmarillion movie. In the era of the superhero, magic is back like a White Walker infestation.
Movies have featured magic more or less as long as there have been movies. “Nosferatu,” “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs” and “The Wizard of Oz” are all remembered as classics, and all of them involve some element of the magical or mystical. These days, films where characters perform actual magic — not just use sleight of hand to pull the rabbit out of the hat — fold these arcane powers into the plot in one of two ways: play it completely straight (There is a rabbit coming out of a hat because the person who did it is a freaking wizard and the hat is actually magic), like the Potter movies do, or pull an Arthur C. Clarke and gussy it up as technology so far advanced beyond contemporary understanding that it becomes indistinguishable from magic (There’s hyperphysics in that top hat). The latter technique is the one the latest MCU installment uses to sell Doctor Strange on the hocus pocus in his debut; when he’s not on board with the whole “sorcerer” deal on day one, he’s told that magic can be thought of as futzing with “the source code of the Universe.”
But all this lampshade-hanging is odd, given that as a medium, superhero films — the film industry’s most-fetishized genre these days — owe everything to magical literature. No disrespect to Stan Lee, but several of the origin stories and modus operandi of Marvel heroes — Hulk, Invisible Woman, the Asgardians, Namor — are pretty much ripped directly from a Gothic novel, a magical myth, or a supernatural legend.
And the early development of superheroes in general would have been impossible without magic. The comic production houses existed before guys with capes, and they had to be writing something. That something was stories about wizards and monsters and whatnot. “Spider-Man” first appeared on the page in 1962 in “Amazing Fantasy #15.” Well, #14 was about leprechauns, #9 involved genies granting wishes, #7 had witches and #2 involved Atlantis. The creative mind-set that enabled the creation of the D.C. and Marvel superhero universes was first honed in the world of magic, the supernatural, monsters and the unexplainable. You couldn’t write the legacy-defining story about a Spider-Man without first spending a year cranking out rejected “Twilight Zone” episodes and blatant ripoffs of Mary Shelley and Jules Verne.
So in some ways, “Doctor Strange” is the magic-superhero sibling rivalry coming full circle. And if “Fantastic Beasts” proves to be a hit, then 2016 could see the great rebounding of magic movies over superhero flicks. Indeed, while every country notoriously has their own idiosyncratic taste in movies — Germans love comedies, Spain is obsessed with horror — magic knows no boundaries, and until three years ago, it was crushing the capes internationally.
Granted, much of this has to do with the actions of a very special Hogwarts student — Hermione, the one whose intellect kept Harry Potter alive long enough to make eight international blockbuster hits. With Hermione off the big screen, and with some awful Hobbit movies marching through theaters, the magical genre has taken a serious hit. Until this very month.
Still, films about magic come with a fascinating liability. China limits the number of non-Chinese films that it allows into its theaters each year — the current cap is 34. China is the second-largest movie market on the globe. And Chinese censors hate magic.
Earlier this year, “Super Power Dare-To-Die Team,” released in the U.S. as “Ghostbusters,” was barred from release in the Chinese market because of its supernatural and occult content. “Crimson Peak” was similarly denied. “Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest” never stood a chance because of the number of ghosts involved. If it “promotes cults or superstition” in the eyes of the censors, you’re toast unless you recut.
Both “Doctor Strange” and “Fantastic Beasts” scored release dates, but competition for those 34 slots is fierce, so magical movies outside of the top tier could struggle. And while all of the Potter films have seen a Chinese release — even if they were sometimes delayed for political reasons — concern about being allowed into the Chinese market does help explain why Warner Bros. never called John Cleese to ask him to reprise his stint as the ghost Nearly Headless Nick.
So as the industry’s goals become more global and less about the U.S. and Canada, movies about magic may be at a slight disadvantage here. Unless, of course, the practitioners throw on a cape and a primary color scheme and call themselves superheroes.