“Which one are we seeing first again?”
My wife rolled her eyes. It was the third or fourth time I’d asked the question since we’d arrived in the movie theater. I’d had a long day and had a bit of a cold, so focusing on any one thing was not my strong point.
“Doctor Strange first, then Fantastic Beasts”, she replied.
The problem was simple: after a year of, let’s face it, fairly lackluster blockbusters, we’d found ourselves spoilt for choice when trying to decide what to see. My parents had come up to babysit our toddler, and the decision had been made to get the most out of our time by watching two magical movies back to back.
Going into the theater, I was pretty worried. If I couldn’t even keep track of which film I was watching first, would I actually be able to spot where one movie ended and the next began? Would both bleed into each other within my head?
Turns out, I needn’t have worried. While both movies focus on the same subject matter—dudes with magical powers—they both approached it from a completely different direction.
First off, let me say that I thoroughly enjoyed both of these movies. I’m an enormous fan of the source material in both cases, and I’m pleased to report that they entirely lived up to my expectations.
That said, I enjoyed them for very different reasons.
It’s worth noting that while both of these movies are about magic, they tackle this subject matter in completely different ways.
Unlike in Marvel comics, where a Sorcerer Supreme can pretty much conjure up whatever he wants when fighting some powerful foe, Doctor Strange has a very rigid set of laws that govern what can and can’t be done.
You can’t break these rules for the sake of a more impressive fight—all disciples of The Ancient One are schooled in the same basic techniques, including Astral Projection, Sling Ring teleportation, weird mind dagger things, and travel into the Mirror Dimension.
In the comics, Doctor Strange is basically capable of doing anything he wants, but in the movie, the decision has been made to limit his fantastic abilities to make them a little easier to digest. This does make a lot of sense—in a movie that’s as trippy as Doctor Strange, it helps that neither the heroes or the villains can pull out some unexplained deus ex machina to save the day.
In Fantastic Beasts, on the other hand, anything goes. If JK Rowling can think of it, you can be sure it’ll appear in the movie in some form or other.
Fantastic Beasts has the advantage of having eight movies’ worth of exposition to build upon. Apparation, wizard dueling, suitcases that are bigger on the inside, and mind wiping, are all thrown around without explanation, as the viewer is expected to already have a working knowledge of these concepts.
It helps that, even for Harry Potter newbies, you don’t really need a lot of explanation for instant teleportation or how Newt’s suitcase works. The movie takes a “show, don’t tell” attitude to most of its weird and wonderful features, and it’s all the more enjoyable as a result.
Even a lot of the brand new concepts that are introduced into these movies need little more explanation that “because it’s magic”, and this means that things don’t need to slow down with lengthy exposition before the movie can get to the fun bits.
One thing that Fantastic Beasts does go a bit overboard with, though, is placing the movie in the wider context of Harry Potter lore. There’s a Quidditch reference early on, for example, where Eddie Redmayne all but turns to wink at the camera. It’s a harmless enough moment, but it’s clear that it only exists to make fans of the series smile in recognition.
This happens a lot. Dumbledore gets name-dropped for no reason other than to jam his name in, and there’s an awkward conversation about which is the best Wizarding school that distracts from the flow of the movie, and probably won’t mean anything to anyone who hasn’t devoted their life to Pottermore.
Conversely, Doctor Strange is actually refreshingly shrewd when it comes to worldbuilding references.
The MCU has a bad reputation for beating audiences over the head with what are essentially commercials for other movies. Nobody liked Thor’s magic Ragnarok bubblebath in Age of Ultron, and Ant-Man’s tussle with Falcon in his first movie was clearly just an attempt to squeeze in an extra Avenger cameo.
Doctor Strange has none of this. The Avengers get name-dropped once, but in an appropriate context that doesn’t slow down the movie’s pace—heck, Beyonce literally gets a bigger reference than any existing Marvel movie.
References are subtle throughout. Avengers Tower is seen in the New York skyline. Doctor Strange gets a phone call at one point about a guy who broke his spine in some experimental power armor—it’s never stated who this guy is, and the reference seems to exist only to help connect the movie to the wider MCU lore without getting bogged down in specifics.
Of course, the end credits are a different thing entirely, but that’s to be expected.
All in all, it’s interesting to see where both movies succeed, and where they differ hugely in their focus. For two movies about magical sorcery, they both attack their respective subject matters with such a wildly different approach that it’s hard to get them confused, even if you’re tired and watching them back to back.
Doctor Strange is a fun, smart, tight movie that does a great job of further expanding the MCU. It’s funny, it’s witty, and if you approach comic book movies like some people approach wine tastings, there’s plenty here to get excited about.
Fantastic Beasts, on the other hand, is a joyous, childish romp that’s packed with wonderful characters. You might find yourself questioning the movie’s logic at times, but if you’re willing to switch off your analytical brain and just embrace the absurdity, this is arguably the more enjoyable picture.
Alternatively, you could avoid both of them and go watch Arrival instead. Supposedly that’s pretty decent too.