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Amidst all the excitement — or, perhaps, cautious optimism — created in the wake of the news that Benedict Cumberbatch will play Marvel Studios’ Sorcerer Supreme, Stephen Strange, one factor appears to be overlooked about the whole thing: the casting is more than a little unlike Marvel.
Robert Downey Jr. aside (and even that is arguable), Marvel has traditionally tended toward less-high profile actors for its leads in various projects — or, at least, actors with no discernible history or following amongst genre audiences (Chris Evans may be an exception to this rule, although when he was announced as Captain America, his Fantastic Four experience may have been more of a mark against him in the eyes of fans). Even names like Paul Rudd and Chris Pratt seemed unexpected and daring at the time, making some ask a variation on “But they’re comedy actors! Can they pull off being a superhero?”
By contrast, Cumberbatch is firmly ensconced in the minds of genre fans. And it’s not simply because of Sherlock, which for all its fandom and Stephen Moffat associations is essentially just straight crime fiction. It’s his role in 2013’s Star Trek Into Darkness and his voice acting in Peter Jackson’s The Hobbit trilogy; fans think of him as “one of us,” in some weird, possessive way.
And that, almost more than anything else, is what makes Marvel’s choice seem unusually safe — and, as a result, potentially disappointing to those who might have come to expect more from the studio. While the Marvel House Style ensures a certain level of continuity between the various movies in terms of aesthetics, tone and quality, there’s always been something about the casting that has seemed pleasingly unusual, and seeing Cumberbatch take the role is just the opposite. The most surprising thing about it is how conservative it feels.
(The choice of Cumberbatch arguably seems more conservative when put in context of the other names connected with the role. Out of Cumberbatch, Joaquin Phoenix, Ethan Hawke, Jared Leto and Ryan Gosling, which actor would the hard-core fan base feel most immediately comfortable with?)
It’s possible that Marvel Studios is intentionally playing it safe with this selection in order to provide some level of familiarity for a movie that will, in all other ways, feel unlike the traditional Marvel movie. Doctor Strange is, after all, supposed to be the movie that launches Marvel’s “magic” properties, which could open the horror genre up for the studio in a way that Guardians of the Galaxy managed with space opera; it could be that director Scott Derrickson is planning stuff that’s so out there that audiences will be glad Cumberbatch is there to guide them through it all.
Of course, for all of the above, it’s worth pointing out that Cumberbatch will most likely make a good Strange; his Sherlock role has shown that he can remain charismatic even while acting disconnected and superior to all around him. If that doesn’t sound like good grounding for the most powerful magician in the world, I don’t know what does.
Only time — and Marvel itself — will tell if Cumberbatch’s casting proves to be an irregularity in its lack of surprise, or the shape of things to come. Marvel got to be as successful as it has by making unexpected choices in terms of its lead actors, but it wouldn’t be the first studio to become more anxious and less daring the bigger it gets. If Martin Freeman is announced as Doctor Strange’s faithful companion Wong, however, it may be safe to assume that something important has changed.
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