What 'Fantastic Beasts' Can Teach Marvel About Movie Heroes

Jaap Buitendijk/Warner Bros.
Newt Scamander, only you can save the superhero movie genre.

On the face of it, there are some unexpected similarities between November's two big genre releases, Marvel's Doctor Strange and Warner Bros' Fantastic Beasts and Where To Find Them. But it's the difference between the movies, and especially their lead characters, that point to a potential future for the superhero movie genre.

It's a good month for audiences looking for a movie with a magical theme, especially audiences with the very specific need for a movie with a magical theme featuring a recognizable English actor in the lead role, traveling outside of their personal comfort zone to a new country that requires learning new customs, with visually spectacular special effects and a peculiar tie to New York City. In almost every other month, that would be a tall order to fulfill, but November 2016 is a month like few others, and Strange and Fantastic offerings are available to choose from in theaters right now.

Despite the crossover between the two movies, they're far from the same thing. Doctor Strange is very much a Marvel movie, after all. Specifically, it's 2008's Iron Man, with better special effects and some DNA from House MD sewn into the opening scenes. (No, really; arrogant white man suffers setback in chosen career, is forced to use his existing skills to construct a recovery plan that also doubles as a way to be a superhero, ends up saving the day but the real victory is that he's slowly becoming a better person. At heart, they're the same movie.) Fantastic Beasts, however, is something else entirely — an attempt to expand the Harry Potter formula in a different direction and explore similar themes with a new cast and, arguably, for an older audience.

Beasts retains the deliberate Potter whimsy, however, and enjoys making its lead the fall guy of the movie's humor. Eddie Redmayne's Newt Scamander is allowed — required, even — to be flawed in ways that Marvel's heroes never are, in order for much of Beasts to work. While Marvel's heroes aren't the humorless heroes of Warner's DC cinematic universe, they're rarely if ever allowed to be the subject of a joke; instead, they're the snarky ones cracking wise and poking fun at situations or other people.

Comparing Newt to Doctor Strange is an instructive exercise; for all that the latter may appear to be an aspirational figure, he remains a distant one. The same is true of almost all of Marvel's heroes, who are exceptional even before they become superhuman: Tony Stark is a billionaire genius, Bruce Banner a groundbreaking scientist, Stephen Strange one of the world's leading surgeons, and so on. (There are exceptions to this norm, kind of: Ant-Man is just a regular Joe, while Star-Lord is just a regular Joe… in space. Notably, both of these characters are also the Marvel heroes most likely to be treated as the butt of a joke.)

Imagine, for a second, putting a character as fallible as Newt into Doctor Strange in place of Benedict Cumberbatch's titular lead. The entire movie would change, but arguably for the better — with a more relatable central character, the movie would lose the arc of Stephen finding purpose outside his own ego, but Marvel already has that covered with Tony Stark, anyway; in its place could be a movie that punctures its own obtuseness with a hero the audience finds it easier to root for because it recognizes itself in him — an idea that calls back to Marvel's comic book origins, when the company sold itself as having heroes like its audience, and stories that took place in the world outside your window.

It's not only Marvel that could use some more human, less idealized heroes, of course; whereas Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice turned its title characters into mythical figures, Suicide Squad arguably leaned too much in the other direction. One of the reasons that the nerdiness of the Flash in the San Diego Comic-Con Justice League footage was such a breath of fresh air was because it offered exactly the kind of everyman appeal that other superheroes lack.

More of this could only be a good thing. By now, it's easy for audiences to believe a man can fly; the trick now is convincing them that their superheroes could handle the supermarket without too much drama.