Losing Joaquin Phoenix Shouldn’t Discourage Marvel’s Risk-Taking

By  · Published on October 3rd, 2014

Warner Bros.

The casting you expected to not pan out has, indeed, not panned out. Joaquin Phoenix is not, according to the reporting of Deadline, going to be donning a billowy red cloak and a Van Dyke to become Marvel Studios’ Doctor Strange. Phoenix had been in talks for the role since July, upgrading to “final talks” status in August, and losing him this late in the game means Marvel is most likely going to have to repeat the whole process again with someone else (that’s what Deadline indicates, anyway, in titling their expose “Back to Square One”).

As a gut reaction, this is saddening news. Phoenix is a truly phenomenal performer; there must have been something in Doctor Strange that piqued a creative spark inside him (why else wade through three months of contract negotiations?), and I would have loved to see Phoenix take that spark and let it amplify out into a stunning performance. As entertaining as most Marvel movies are, nobody’s winning an Oscar for their harrowing portrait of an Avenger. It’s not likely Phoenix would have changed that, but he would have brought a gravitas to the performance that guys like Chris Hemsworth or Chris Pratt, hilarious and/or ripped as they are, simply can’t match.

Also, playing Stephen Strange requires bellowing “by the hoary hosts of Hoggoth!” at least once, and not sounding like an escaped mental patient or a dinner theater actor. Good luck to whomever Marvel finds to take Phoenix’s place on that one.

Courting Phoenix for a role that’s guaranteed to come with a six or nine or twelve-picture deal was always a risk. Phoenix hasn’t done a big blustery blockbuster in a decade; since The Village in 2004, he’s stuck pretty much exclusively to people doing the auteur thing. The huge, high profile auteur thing, maybe (stuff like The Master, Her and Woody Allen’s latest), but nothing that would involve extensive green screens and wire work and Marvel owning a small piece of your soul forever.

Phoenix was always a flight risk. Yet Marvel embraced him anyway, and slugged it out through three months before the two parted ways (Entertainment Weekly is saying the talks ended with “neither side willing to commit,” which sounds a lot like the “creative differences” from both sides that killed Edgar Wright’s involvement with Ant-Man). And kudos to them, because embracing the risky endeavors is something Marvel absolutely needs to keep doing – even if it doesn’t always pan out. The studio has a tendency to go the safer route with its director/actor picks, choosing someone who’s either low profile enough that they presumably wouldn’t mind kowtowing to Marvel’s overall vision (Alan Taylor, Peyton Reed, the Russos), or high profile and known for mainstream action flicks (Shane Black, Joe Johnston, Louis Leterrier).

Sometimes, these choices end with a win – handing Captain America over to a pair of sitcom directors was a thing of genius – but oftentimes the safe choices leave us with safe movies. Thirty years from now, when the Marvel Cinematic Universe is either burned out or controlling the entire creative output of Hollywood, what will you look back fondly on? Thor: The Dark World and Iron Man 3 (which were perfectly fine, if not memorable in the slightest)? Or the times Marvel risked obliterating of a significant part of their universe on a bet? The Avengers was Marvel’s first true foray into the expanded universe thing, and had the film not been a box office hero, that could have been the end of the in-universe tie-ins. Same goes for Guardians of the Galaxy and Cosmic Marvel movies or, next year, Daredevil and Netflix Marvel.

Marvel can’t take that kind of a risk every month, but to keep crushing the comic book movie world, they’ll need the occasional payoff that comes from locking in a guy like Phoenix to a shouty wizard superhero. So even if their post-Phoenix shortlist (at least, the names we know about) is far more mainstream – Tom Hardy, Benedict Cumberbatch, Jared Leto — expect the studio to keep trying for the unexpected choices. Even if that occasionally ends with a celebrated thespian taking his ball and going home.

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