The second entry in the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s Phase III, Doctor Strange is easily one of the most dynamic and intriguing comic book adaptations yet seen, given its otherworldly subject matter and visual style both.
The film is also one of the most enigmatic upcoming releases; although we’ve gotten our fair share of set photos and posters, the first teaser-trailer that hit just last night kept much in the story department shrouded in mystery.
Still, there is much we can piece together from all the officially released materials, painting a picture that should get any movie-lover worked up in a lather. Here, then, is Everything We Know So Far about Doctor Strange.
The Sorcerer Supreme
Doctor Stephen Vincent Strange was first introduced in 1963, the same year as the X-Men and the Avengers (and just two years after Marvel Comics proper got officially rolling). The brainchild of legendary artist Steve Ditko, the character was conceived of to provide a bit of variety to Marvel’s still-nascent superhero roster; not only would Strange be a practitioner of magic, a hitherto-largely-unexplored aspect of the Marvel Universe, his stories would also be depicted in a surrealist, psychedelic way, predating the counterculture movement of the later ‘60s.
In the decades since then, Doctor Strange has worked his way into prominence in the Marvel Universe, assuming the title of Sorcerer Supreme – the official protector of Earth from various magical threats – after his mentor, the Ancient One, dies; founding the outsider superhero team the Defenders (who are getting their own television series next year on Netflix); and becoming something of a special advisor to the other, pre-existing teams, such as the Fantastic Four and the Avengers. In what can be seen as the ultimate tip of the hat to the character and his importance in the mythos, it was revealed just last decade that Strange is a member of the secretive Illuminati, a group of the most powerful minds in the Marvel Universe that formed years ago in order to prevent various otherworldly threats from harming the human race (other members include such stalwarts as Iron Man’s Tony Stark, The X-Men’s Professor Charles Xavier, Fantastic Four’s Reed Richards, and The Inhumans’s Black Bolt).
The mystical side of the Marvel Cinematic Universe
Given the character’s origins, it’s no surprise that Marvel would want to include Doctor Strange in its ever-more-expanding cinematic universe. Marvel Studios President Kevin Feige has not only discussed the importance of incorporating many different types of tones or genres in order to make the MCU as pervasive as possible, he’s also specifically mentioned the Sorcerer Supreme for the past several years as a particular passion project of his.
Given the subject matter and the mind-bending visuals (more on these in a moment), it’s easy to see why. What isn’t so readily apparent, however, is how this new supernatural element of the MCU will fit into a universe that has been so dependent upon science and technology to realize even its most fantastical elements – Thor and the rest of the Norse pantheon, after all, which are typically depicted as pure magical entities in the comics (hence Stephen Strange’s usual involvement with them throughout the years), have been brought to life on the big screen as an alien civilization with advanced technology that borders on being supernatural. It seems that, despite the recent trailer’s appearance to the contrary, the movie will follow suit, relying upon the strange wonders of quantum physics, string theory, and other cosmological material to justify the good doctor’s reality-hopping adventures.
Building up to Doctor Strange
Although it may seem, on first blush, that Doctor Strange’s mysticism may be incongruous with the more grounded shared universe, Marvel Studios has been hard at work these past few years to start planting the movie’s supernatural seeds: in last year’s Ant-Man, the titular superhero shrinks down to sub-atomic size, taking a strange jaunt through the quantum realm (what will be largely used to explain the doctor’s otherworldly powers), and, even before that, Captain America: The Winter Soldier mentions the Sorcerer Supreme by name, as he is one of the thousands of targets that HYDRA has identified as a potential threat down the road, placing him on its assassination schedule.
And this doesn’t even mention the burgeoning TV side of the Marvel universe. Agent Carter formally introduced viewers to “Zero Matter,” which audiences will get glimpses of as the Dark Dimension in Doctor Strange, while the various Netflix series have already dipped their toes in the supernatural waters (thanks to Daredevil’s ancient Hand adversaries) and will take the full plunge with next year’s Iron Fist.
A visual feast
Marvel has made no secret of the fact that Doctor Strange will be a film with a visual style unlike any other in its 13-film roster – or any other comic book adaptation, as well, for that matter. Hinting that the film will rely heavily on its ‘60s and ’70s psychedelic roots, the trailer has already lived up to that challenge, with Stephen’s consciousness leaving his body and taking to the astral plane, hallways that rotate and dissolve, and a cityscape that breaks apart into three different segments aligned along three different angles, with a character (or characters) falling between them.
It’s exciting that the teaser is, well, only teasing what else awaits. Just as Ant-Man’s marketing materials didn’t betray its quantum realm finale, we expect Marvel Studios to keep a lid on the mind-bending climax, which could very well prove to include some sort of time travel.
Finally, there’s the whole 3D aspect of the film to consider; while the company has been employing the effect in its films for the past five years, Feige has explained that, for Strange, it will “serve and advance the storytelling. And, hopefully, it helps bend people’s minds even more than with just the flat screen.”
Easily the most mysterious element of Marvel’s latest film, the villain that Mads Mikkelsen (Hannibal, Rogue One: A Star Wars Story) plays has been shrouded in mystery since the start of development. Here’s all that the ubiquitous Kevin Feige has had to say on the matter:
Mads’s character is a sorcerer who breaks off into his own sect. [He] believes that the Ancient One is just protecting her own power base, and that the world may be better off if we were to allow some of these other things through.
On the one hand, this is nothing terribly surprising, as it fits the now-refined Marvel formula of having the archnemesis be a dark shadow of the protagonist – hence Iron Man and Iron Monger, the Hulk and the Abomination, Captain America and the Winter Soldier, Ant-Man and Yellowjacket, etc. On the other hand, however, this isn’t terribly much to go on in terms of identifying the character’s equivalent in the comics.
[Potential SPOILERS ahead] our very own Marvel guru, Rob Keyes, has placed him as Kaecilius, which would represent one of the biggest deviations from the comics: he is but a servant of the traditional Strange foe Baron Mordo (Chiwetel Ejiofor). And just to complete the circle, Mordo looks to be a friendly presence throughout the film, either indicating an entirely different tack for the character or foretelling a possible plot twist further on down the cinematic road.
The Ancient One
Doctor Stephen Strange’s mentor in both the comics and the film, the Ancient One has one chief difference between the two different media: on the printed page, the character is a he; on the big screen, it is a she (played by Tilda Swinton).
It seems, however, that the character’s backstory remains intact in both versions. Over 500 years old, the Ancient One was born in Kamar-Taj, a village hidden away in the Himalaya Mountains in modern-day Tibet. Initially content to be a farmer, like the rest of his village, he gets swept up by Kaluu, a resident who somehow learns the secrets of sorcery and deigns to spread the knowledge among the youth of Kamar-Taj. Unsurprisingly, the Ancient One seeks peaceful, beneficial applications of magic, while Kaluu wishes to use it as the basis for building a mighty empire; the resulting battle impresses upon the Ancient One the necessity of warding off evil practitioners of magic. Such devotion leads him to great spiritual – and magical – heights, eventually making him the first human to convene with certain ethereal beings and bestowing upon him the title of Sorcerer Supreme, the Earth’s protector.
The Night Nurse moniker started its life as the name of a comic book series in the ‘70s, in an attempt by Marvel to branch out and reach a whole new demographic, which, in this case, was female readers. The three central characters – headed by Linda Carter, who was a holdover from a previous comic series – had no superpowers, and their various adventures (which included malpracticing doctors and bomb threats in their hospital) had no extensions to the greater Marvel Universe.
But the short-lived title had young fans that would one day go on to write for Marvel themselves, and they were only too happy to resurrect the long-forgotten nugget of comic book history. Chief among these was the company’s head writer, Brian Michael Bendis, who resurrected Linda Carter as an individual with the actual code name of Night Nurse, who specializes in treating injured superheroes.
Given the character’s history with the Sorcerer Supreme over the past 12 years, it would seem that actor Rachael McAdams would be a shoe-in for the part in Doctor Strange, but Marvel Studios has been mum on the character’s name or actual relationship with Benedict Cumberbatch. Adding fuel to the fire is Night Nurse’s originally planned implantation in the Daredevil series, which was pulled when the feature film division noted that it had already had plans for the superheroic doctor. This, then, represents our best guess at McAdams’s character.
Since the very first days of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, the company has expressed an interest in securing talent behind the camera that would have a fresh take on its long-in-the-tooth properties and would also – let’s be honest – not cost it an arm and a leg to hire.
Such a mentality led Marvel to hire Jon Favreau, an established-but-somewhat-down-and-out director, for the first two Iron Mans (he was originally tapped to helm the first Avengers, as well, although his paycheck quickly grew beyond the studio’s purview), and the Russo brothers, two up-and-comers primarily known for television comedy, for Captain America: The Winter Soldier.
This, in turn, has led the company to Scott Derrickson for Doctor Strange, and it initially seemed just as much of an unusual choice as it did for his predecessors: he marks the first horror director (Urban Legends, Hellraiser: Inferno, The Exorcism of Emily Rose, Deliver Us from Evil, the Sinister franchise) for the MCU, though he also has on his resume, notably, the 2008 remake of The Day the Earth Stood Still. However, the recurring theme through all his credits is a strong emphasis on imagery, and given the importance of Strange’s visuas – and strong contingent of visual effects work – it may turn out to be one of Marvel’s biggest no-brainers yet.
The credentials of the film’s two writers are, unsurprisingly, complimentary to director Scott Derrickson’s interests and filmography, but they still possess a variety that may be surprising to audiences. Jon Spaihts, a novelist in addition to a screenwriter, first entered Disney’s services when hired to write the Black Hole adaptation (which, yes, still resides in development hell) six years ago, though his original mainstream claim to fame was Ridley Scott’s Prometheus (which he wrote before Scott brought Damon Lindelof on board to rework his script). He’s currently attached to Pacific Rim 2, another project that may or may not see fruition anytime soon.
Christopher Robert Cargill, meanwhile, started off life as an online movie reviewer (working on Ain’t It Cool News’s “Indie Indie Column”) and podcaster (for Spill.com). His big screenwriting break came when he met up with an admirer-turned-friend, Scott Derrickson, and pitched him on Sinister; the film was fast-tracked, and it’s since led to such high-profile assignments as Strange and the Deus Ex adaptation.
Given the fact that Doctor Strange is the most visual Marvel film yet – and, just possibly, the one with the heaviest use of CGI – the choice of cinematographer may end up being just as important as the talent that’s in front of the cameras.
Ben Davis started his career as a director of photography relatively late in life, originally pulling lengthy duty as a clapper loader, focus puller, and camera operating – all of which formed, essentially, a lengthy and comprehensive hands-on film school. Once he finally became cinematographer in 2002, his career quickly took off, landing such films as Hannibal Rising, Stardust, Kick-Ass, and The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel before being hired for what was his biggest project yet in Guardians of the Galaxy. He’s shown a propensity of sticking with Marvel Studios since then, handling The Avengers: Age of Ultron last year and, of course, Doctor Strange this year.
Taking into consideration just how different Guardians and Ultron are in terms of visual style as well as tone, it’ll be most interesting to see how Davis handles the first magical foray into the Marvel Cinematic Universe – and how many more times he’ll pop up throughout the rest of Phase III.
Did we miss a salient point? Have your own theories as to how all of this will play out on the big screen this November? Be sure to sound off in the comments section.