The strongest scene in “Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness” takes place in an alternate reality, but it foreshadows the biggest chances and problems that Marvel will face in this one.
In the film’s most popular scene, the main character encounters a ruling council from another universe, which includes Reed Richards (John Krasinski), the Fantastic Four’s leader, and Professor Charles Xavier (Patrick Stewart, reprising his role from the “X-Men” movie).
The inclusion of those two properties, both of which were under the stewardship of 20th Century Fox before Marvel’s parent Disney acquired its entertainment assets, points to what is likely to be a big part of the studio’s next chapter: capitalising on two mistreated comic-book properties with deep, deep roots in lore.
The Fantastic Four has been adapted twice previously, once in 2005 (followed by a sequel) and again a decade later with a mediocre reboot attempt. But now Marvel Studios has announced plans for a reboot of the series that launched Marvel’s renaissance in the 1960s, with writer Stan Lee and artists Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko at the lead.
Indeed, Lee frequently referred to Fantastic Four as the “granddaddy” of Marvel’s silver-age resurgence, the comic he created for himself when he was on the verge of abandoning the medium. Lee’s idea came from his wife Joan encouraging him, “Why not write a book the way you want to do it?” in his latter years.
Lee’s epic creative output with Kirby — which encompassed Thor, the Hulk, X-Men, the Avengers, Ant-Man, and restoring Captain America — and Ditko, his colleague on Spider-Man and Doctor Strange — was paved by the success of the cosmic-ray-altered quartet.
On screen, however, the Fantastic Four has been a source of frustration, with a misguided low-budget Roger Corman-produced film that was never formally released in the 1990s, and an animated series that replaced the Human Torch, whose TV rights had been optioned away, with a wisecracking robot for contractual reasons.
X-Men, on the other hand, has had considerable success since the 2000 film directed by Bryan Singer, but the franchise has recently suffered from a pair of commercial and critical flops: “Dark Phoenix,” which mishandled a storied comic-book saga and underperformed at the box office; and “The New Mutants,” a horror-tinged offshoot hampered by Covid-related release delays, not that the film would have thrived under perfect situations.
The 2019 Disney-Fox deal sparked immediate speculation about a grand reunion incorporating the Fantastic Four and X-Men into the Marvel Cinematic Universe, much like Marvel has aided Sony in assuming creative control of Spider-Man through its partnership with Sony, the longtime holder of those rights.
Still, movie production takes time, which is why seeing Mr. Fantastic and Professor X in “Doctor Strange” seems like a substantial appetiser for the meal to come.
Marvel has already confirmed a Fantastic Four film, but the project has recently been hampered by the departure of Jon Watts, the director of the most recent “Spider-Man” trilogy.
Looking ahead, Marvel faces high expectations from fans who want to see the X-Men resurrected and the Fantastic Four upgraded to a cinematic status worthy of its legendary status in comic books. However, the benefits might be enormous.
Marvel has demonstrated a penchant for creating intricate puzzles, having created its formula of interconnected movies and now TV shows. While “Doctor Strange’s” tease brilliantly depicts the universe as a realm of unlimited possibilities, the excitement over introducing the X-Men and Fantastic Four into the mix may easily turn into disappointment if they get those pieces incorrect.