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Mark Ellis on Dr. Strange 2 and the state of comic book films

Mark Ellis is a comedian, actor, podcaster, and self-proclaimed “dog stepfather” who has been dissecting pop culture for over a decade. In addition to performing in comedy clubs nationwide, Ellis co-hosts Rotten Tomatoes is Wrong, where he dissects both critically fresh and rotten movies like Spider-Man 3, Cats, and Thor: The Dark World. He also regularly appears on The Rotten Tomatoes Channel (which can be found on Peacock, The Roku Channel, Xumo TV, and Samsung TV Plus) to discuss a wide variety of topics, from this year’s Academy Awards to the rough critical reception of Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice.

Ellis took time away from his duties as a Rotten Tomatoes contributing editor and correspondent to talk to Digital Trends about the current state of comic book movies. He gives his thoughts on why the genre has dominated pop culture in the last decade, why Morbius failed with both critics and audiences, and what DC can do to catch up to Marvel.

Note: This interview has been edited for length and clarity purposes.

Michael Keaton in Batman.
Image used with permission by copyright holder

Digital Trends: Comic book movies have been a staple in cinemas for decades now. Yet I feel that in the last 10 years, they’ve been more popular than ever. Why do you think that is?

Mark Ellis: It’s a great question. We got Superman in 1978 and Batman in 1989. And then we got cool comic book movies in the ’90slike Blade. But once we got X-Men in 2000, that was the first time that we realized filmmakers had the technology and source material to really get deep into some of these universes or multiverses as the case is now. And I think that it was just a matter of the stars aligning to where the general public and studios would treat comic book movies as serious film endeavors, not just movies meant for kids to sell toys.

So much of that credibility was predicated upon having A-list performers in the films and having them treat the material with respect, too. Robert Downey Jr. is also one of the most revered actors of his generation, so seeing him be the one that kicks off the MCU helped legitimize it. I think that the high-quality filmmaking for most of them, combined with the vision of a guy like [Marvel President] Kevin Feige with the MCU, was also very important. What Feige has done will be considered historically on a par with somebody like George Lucas, who helped shape Star Wars into the phenomenon it is today. Lucas took sci-fi and made it for everyone and Kevin Feige has taken comic books and made them not just for kids like me, who would go to the local comic shop every Wednesday to get new books, but for non-fans as well.

We’ve already had several comic book movies released so far in 2022. The Batman gave Warner Brothers and DC a badly needed hit. Is that movie’s success a fluke or does it signal a change in how DC will move forward with their strategy?

It seems to me that every time DC has taken a step forward, they take two steps back. And I hope that’s not the case this time. It’s never a fluke that a Batman film does well at the box office. It’s all the more impressive that we’re still coming out of the tail end of a pandemic and that it was a new Batman that we were meeting for the first time in Robert Pattinson’s take on the character.

It feels like we have a Batman that a lot of folks are going to gravitate towards, that we’re going to get to grow with this Batman in a way that we didn’t get to do in DCEU movies. And I thought Ben Affleck did a great job, but he’s already established as Batman when we first see him. In The Batman, we get to see Batman sort of coming into his own in the same way that we’ve enjoyed watching Spider-Man come into his own in the MCU for the last few years. And so where is DC going to take that? And I think that they do need to figure out is this going to be the linchpin that ties this whole universe together? And if so, do we still want Aquaman?

I imagine because there’s a new Aquaman movie coming out, DC probably still wants Jason Momoa around and Gal Gadot as Wonder Woman. I don’t know what’s going to happen with The Flash with Ezra Miller making headlines for all the wrong reasons, and that’s such a bummer. Maybe Warner Bros. Discovery will turn things around and everything’s OK and copacetic. But it seemed like DC was really leaning into Flashpoint to be the thing that can bring a bunch of heroes into one movie. I think both Marvel and DC are looking to a multiverse-like dimension to say, “Hey, remember everything you’ve ever loved? Now you can get it all in one movie.” DC and Marvel have those characters and they have a history of greatness and relatable performers that audiences want to see again. It’s just a matter of who can pull it off better. Spider-Man: No Way Home did a great job in opening that door.

Doctor Strange walks through a door portal in Doctor Strange 2.
Image used with permission by copyright holder

Let’s talk about Marvel. Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness is about to be released. This film feels very like an event, more so than a direct sequel to a stand-alone movie from 2016 should feel like. Why is that? Is it because we’re having something we’ve seen in WandaVision pay off here? Is it because the multiverse that was in Spider-Man: No Way Home is going to pop up again?

Well, it’s never a bad thing if you get to follow up Spider-Man: No Way Home, a massively successful film that everybody seems to love. I mean, it got a 93% score on the Tomatometer. And then you follow that up with a trailer at the end for Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness, which everyone is talking about what’s going to happen next with this multiverse thing?

I think that the excitement around this movie is very similar to the anticipation that we felt when Captain America: Civil War was announced. Technically, that was a Captain America movie, but Steve Rogers was really just the anchor to let all these other characters go duke it out.

I would expect that Marvel is starting to look at Benedict Cumberbatch’s character as the new anchor for this current phase because we don’t have a Cap or an Iron Man anymore. We now trust Stephen Strange almost as much as we did Iron Man or even Captain America because of his appearances in the Avengers films and Spider-Man: No Way Home.

Jared Leto walks in a hooded raincoat in a scene from Morbius.
Image used with permission by copyright holder

In contrast to the goodwill supporting Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness, you have the bad critical and audience reception that greeted Morbius last month. What went wrong with that movie?

Well, it’s 17% on the Tomatometer, which makes you think “Oh, my God, that’s a movie about a character that’s in the MCU. What happened?” I think that the quality of the film wasn’t on a par with other Marvel movies. I recently talked about it on my show, Rotten Tomatoes is Wrong, and while I didn’t think it was a great movie by any stretch of the imagination, there’s more redeeming value in it than a 17% rating would indicate.

I just don’t think that Morbius was up to that task of satisfying moviegoers who had just enjoyed Spider-Man: No Way Home. Morbius is not a household name like Venom is, so people stayed away. I don’t see Morbius’ failure impacting Sony’s overall strategy with their Marvel properties, and I certainly don’t see Morbius impacting Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness or the MCU at all.

Will DC ever beat Marvel when it comes to a consistently successful movie slate?

It’s hard to say. Late in 2021, Marvel seemed to stumble a bit. They introduced the Eternals, and it did well at the box office well enough. But again, the Tomatometer seems to indicate at 47% that critics didn’t really respond to it like they did with other MCU movies. But then Spider-Man: No Way Home comes out right after that and it’s a big hit. We’re probably all going to go see Doctor Strange 2 and we’re definitely all going to go see Thor: Love and Thunder. I think that means that even though Iron Man and Captain America are gone, there’s still plenty of ammo left with Marvel.

I think there was the fear that if Marvel didn’t have Robert Downey Jr. as Tony Stark or Chris Evans as Cap, would they still be successful? I mean, you’re going to get the Guardians of the Galaxy in a Thor movie. You’re going to get a bunch of surprises in Multiverse of Madness. And so you’re going to look at those two films and say, “We might see the next decade of Marvel Cinematic Universe films,” with a nod to No Way Home opening up the storytelling possibilities of a multiverse.

DC is not in a position to do that yet. I think that the DC and Warner Brothers figureheads need to create that sandbox for directors to be able to play in, as opposed to letting one director like Zack Snyder create the entire thing. I feel like let’s have a figurehead that is in charge, that is running this ship creatively, and then we can get other creatives to come in here and play in that world, as opposed to letting one play and letting one set the entire world up. A single filmmaker didn’t set up the entire MCU, it was Feige, and I think that that’s probably the way that DC would like to go going forward.

You can follow Mark Ellis on his Twitter page. If you want to hear more from Ellis, Rotten Tomatoes is Wrong is available to download on Apple, Spotify, and other major streaming services.

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Jason Struss
Section Editor, Entertainment
Jason is a writer, editor, and pop culture enthusiast whose love for cinema, television, and cheap comic books has led him to…
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