The latest installment in the Marvel cinematic universe has already made a big impact, with Doctor Strange igniting box offices and passing $100 million at the domestic box office alone. The origin story of Doctor Strange delves into the mystic arts, featuring a rich visual feast for the eyes and mind-bending effects. A 3D viewing is especially worth it here, including stunning graphics inspired by the gravity-defying scenes from Inception and bold artwork from M.C. Escher. The spell-casting movements used in the film were inspired by a dance style called tutting, influenced by hieroglyphics from Egypt.
After suffering an automobile accident, expert surgeon Doctor Strange heads to Kathmandu, Nepal to heal his mangled hands. At Kamar-Taj, he begs the Ancient One to learn about the mystic arts, and Strange discovers his inner powers as a sorcerer. Her casting may have been controversial, but Tilda Swinton stole the show with a captivating performance as the Ancient One.
Now, let’s take a closer look at the highly enigmatic figure known as the Ancient One.
Originally created by artist Steve Ditko, Doctor Strange and his first encounter with the Ancient One happened in Strange Tales #110, released on July 10, 1963. Unfortunately, the character is majorly outdated, and has been heavily criticized for relying on racist Asian stereotypes. Initially referred to as “The Master”, the character was later deemed “The Ancient One” in further appearances. In the comics, the character’s history explored in greater depth than in the recent film.
Born as Yao, the Ancient One came from a remote village nestled in the Himalayas called Kamar-Taj. Yao worked as a farmer with his fellow villagers in Tibet, but learned the ways of sorcery alongside his friend Kaluu. The pair cast a spell on their village that took away all ailments, lifted the villagers out of poverty and suffering, and granted everyone immortality. However, Kaluu was secretly plotting to create a great empire of his own, organizing an army and turning to darkness. Yao tried to rectify things, but because of his inexperience with the mystic arts, he accidentally summoned a spell which caused a pestilence that wiped out the entire village. Afterwards, Kaluu fled, and Yao dedicated the rest of his life to studying sorcery in order to combat evil.
Directed by Patrick Archibald, Jay Oliva, Frank Paur, and Dick Sebast, an animated version entitled Doctor Strange: The Sorcerer Supreme was originally released on August 14, 2007. In the film, actor Michael Yama voiced the Ancient One. Yama has a lengthy resume, including roles in Indiana Jones and voice acting with the G.I. Joe TV series as Torpedo. The animated movie shared close similarities to the original comics, initially depicting Doctor Strange as a highly ambitious and egotistical surgeon. After a devastating automobile accident, Strange becomes desperate for a cure to his extensively damaged hands. As a last resort, he heads to Tibet with not much other than a backpack in search of a way to heal his ailments.
Eventually, Strange finds himself at the feet of the Ancient One, and he is granted permission to study under him. Overwhelmingly stubborn and skeptical of the teachings of the Ancient One, Strange struggles in vain to progress in his training. Strange finds himself continuously blocked by his past attachments, along with his desire to return to his former way of life. Voice by Yama, The Ancient One patiently attempts to get Doctor Strange to see things from an alternative point of view.
There was also 1978 television film entitled Dr. Strange. Featuring Peter Hooten as Stephen Strange and Jessica Walters as Morgan Le Fay, Michael Ansara voiced the Ancient One, who was not shown on screen.
Of course, part of what makes the Ancient One such a compelling character is his (and her!) other-worldly powers. In the comics and film, one of the major powers that the Ancient One has is the ability to astral project. Unlike the physical abilities touted by many of the Avengers, the Ancient One and those who study the mystic arts rely on a power that’s completely out of this world.
The Ancient One is known for mastering astral projection, or the ability to travel while disconnected from the physical self. Completely invisible and intangible, the astral form doesn’t adhere to physical laws, but it does come with a price. While in astral form, one’s physical body remains in a trance and is highly vulnerable to attack. While at his prime in the comics, the Ancient One could stay in his astral form for up to 24 hours before his physical form would begin to deteriorate.
In the film, The Ancient One challenges Doctor Strange, who remains stubbornly insistent on his fixated point of view. When he rejects the idea of healing through belief, he clearly crosses the line and she gives him a taste of her real power. The Ancient One sends a blast of energy towards Strange, causing him to fly backwards in the air and literally disengage from his physical form into his astral form. In shock, Strange looks on at the scene from an aerial perspective, completely dumbfounded by this unbelievable power.
In both mediums, the comics and films, the Ancient One strives to teach Doctor Strange about patience, surrender, and other ways of perception. When he arrives at Kamar-Taj, Strange is overridden with doubt about anything to do with the mystic arts. In the beginning of his training, he remains stubbornly steadfast to his Westernized perspective.
In the film, when the Ancient One presents him with a map of chakras and an acupuncture chart, Strange sneers with skepticism, and dismissively says that he’s spotted them before, in a gift shop, no less. Strange tells her, “We are just another tiny, momentary speck within in an indifferent universe”, a line that Kaecilius later repeats to back to him at the New York Sanctum Sanctorum.
In the animated film, the Ancient One tries to get Strange to see beyond his narrow-minded point of view. Eager to cut to the chase, Doctor Strange becomes frustrated with his training and tells the Ancient One that he just wants to fix his hands. Giving him a gentle reminder about the bigger picture, the Ancient One remarks, "You can only heal wounds of the flesh once you heal wounds of the soul."
Agamotto was a powerful sorcerer, known as one of the first sorcerers of their order. In the comics, the artifact known as the Eye of Agamotto is referred to and used by the Ancient One and Doctor Strange. In Stranger Tales #110, the Ancient One ominously tells Doctor Strange that he will one day replace him and have to fight against the dark forces of evil. Later, he ends up saving Doctor Strange's life by telepathically controlling a magical amulet called the Eye of Agamotto.
In the recent film, the Eye of Agamotto is an artifact stored within the library of Kamar-Taj. After Strange gets a hold of one of the texts of the Ancient One, he attempts to control the artifact. Strange discovers that the artifact possesses the power to bend time. Strange tries it out, moving forward and backward through time, using his bitten and unbitten apple as an experiment. He’s quickly stopped by Wong and Mordo, who strictly believe that messing with time disobeys the natural law.
“Just how old is she?” Strange asked, to which Mordo replied, “No one knows the age of the Sorcerer Supreme. Only that she’s Celtic and she never talks about her past.”
In Doctor Strange's original comic, Doctor Strange #169, Strange travels to the Ancient One in an attempt to fix his mangled hands. He arrives in a headstrong manner, demanding to see the Ancient One, yet completely unaware that he is already speaking with him. The Ancient One reveals himself, surprised that Strange would demand to see him, the one who has "trod the unnumbered centuries" and his exact age is unknown.
Also in the comics, Marvel cites his birth as over five hundred years ago. After Yao had destroyed his village while trying to protect it from Kaluu, he discovered that he was no longer immortal. Instead, Yao aged at a very slow pace and lived on for centuries. It was these events which spurred him into devoting his life to sorcery and protecting the world from black magic. He left his former village and studied ways to fight dark magic with a group of sorcerers known as the Ancient Ones. In the film, it is later revealed that the Ancient One taps into magic from the Dark Dimension in order to extend her life and continue to protect the realm.
In Doctor Strange #171, Strange has a heavy burden on his conscience, and fears for the life of the Ancient One. He later discovers that his mentor has been attacked by the villainous Nightmare. In a twist of events, Strange uses the power of the ancient artifact, the Eye of Agamotto, to unleash a powerful blast of light and defeat Nightmare. At the end of the comic, the Ancient One reveals that he actually put Strange through that ordeal as a way to give him a test. The Ancient One knew that Doctor Strange was feeling overwhelmed with doubt, so he told him that the whole event was his way of helping to make him more confident. In the process, he risked both of their lives, but he ended up being saved by Doctor Strange.
In Strange Tales #156, Doctor Strange fights Umar, the twin sister of Dormammu, at Stonehenge. The Ancient One and Doctor Strange summon a powerful monster called Zom to fight Umar, sending her back to the Dark Dimension. However, Zom ended up turning against them, and the Ancient One decided to sacrifice his power in order to help Strange survive. The Ancient One tells Strange to cut off Zom's topknot, which drew forth the Living Tribunal, one of the most powerful entities in the Marvel universe. The Living Tribunal banished Zom from Earth, and the Ancient One returned, telling Strange that he had surrendered his power to give Strange a way to defeat Zom.
“We harness energy, drawn from other dimensions of the multiverse to cast spells, to conjure shields, and weapons, to make magic.” The Ancient One instructs Strange, teaching about him the arcane ways of the sorcerers.
In addition to astral projection, the Ancient One boasts powers such as levitation, teleportation, and the ability to create weapons out of magic. In the recent film, sorcerers are shown casting spells and creating portals to other dimensions, quite literally out of thin air. In the comics, the Ancient One uses the magical energy of the universe for teleportation and creating illusions. In other scenes, the Ancient One relies on utilizing energy from other dimensions, such as invoking spells through mystical books or using powerful objects to tap into the extradimensional energy. The Ancient One also was known for having the power to mesmerize people and communicate telepathically. The power of the Ancient One was vast, and he could reach anyone in the entire Earth, as long as he knew where to contact them. He could even mentally speak to up to a dozen minds at once.
In the Shuma-Gorath Saga from Marvel Premiere #8-10 (1973), Doctor Strange came to the aid of his mystical mentor, saving the Ancient One from utter destruction. In the comic, the Ancient One became taken over by Shuma-Gorath, and Doctor Strange came to rescue his mentor. In a titillating turn of events, Strange had to destroy the ego of the Ancient One in order to free him of the spell.
Described as a “Class Three” demon from an extradimensional realm, Shuma-Gorath is one of the "Old Ones" who came to Earth millions of years ago and feasted on humankind. Shuma-Gorath was banished by the sorcerer Sise-Neg, but was unleashed upon Earth again by dark magic in later years. Conan, the barbarian, banished the demon from Earth until Shuma-Gorath tried to return by entering the mind of the Ancient One. Left with few options, Strange had to destroy the physical form of the Ancient One in order to defeat the demon. The Ancient One told Strange that Shuma-Gorath intended to use part of his mind as a passageway to Earth, and urged Strange to destroy his ego, otherwise known as his sense of self. Shuma-Gorath was banished back to his realm, and the Ancient One was able to become one with the universe and Eternity. Although his physical form was destroyed, the Ancient One reappeared in his astral form to counsel Doctor Strange in later events.
In the comics and film, the Ancient One left the physical realm as we understand it, and became one with the universe. In the film, the Ancient One was killed by Kaecilius, and came to terms with her physical destruction after speaking with Doctor Strange. However, in the comics, the Ancient One makes several reappearances in his astral form to speak with Doctor Strange. If Marvel decides to bring this to the silver screen, it could suggest a possible appearance by Tilda Swinton as the Ancient One in Doctor Strange 2, or even future MCU installments.
We already know that Swinton is game for an Ancient One Spinoff, having dropped several not-so-subtle hints to Marvel President Kevin Feige. Director Scott Derrickson has highlighted that he spent time creating a very thorough backstory for the Sorcerer's Supreme between Agamotto and the Ancient One. Let’s hope we will we get a deeper look at some of these mystical sorcerers on screen in the future.
In the comics, the Ancient One has several students, but one of his most prominent is Baron Mordo. After Doctor Strange arrives at Kamar-Taj and begins studying the mystic arts, he soon discovers Mordo’s devious plot to kill the Ancient One. Strange immediately warns his mentor, but the Ancient One already knows about Mordo’s plans. Instead, he chooses to keep Mordo close by in order to keep an eye on him. The Ancient One continues to teach Doctor Strange, and eventually passes on the title of Sorcerer Supreme to him.
In the film, things unravel a little differently. Played by Chiwetel Ejiofor, Mordo isn’t portrayed as being one hundred percent evil. In fact, Mordo is one of the characters who sees a “sense of strength” in Doctor Strange, and stands by his decision for the Ancient One to teach him. He tells her that they need more people like him to help them fight the darkness. In the film, the Ancient One is betrayed by another former student, Kaecilius, who steals the pages from the Book of Cagliostro and summons Dormmamu from the Dark Dimension. In Strange Tales #130 through #136, Kaecilius is actually the student of Mordo, and works with his teacher to use the power of Dormmamu to overthrow the Ancient One.
In the comics, Hamir is depicted as the loyal servant of the Ancient One. In Doctor Strange #171, the evil Nightmare disguises himself as Hamir, and tricks Doctor Strange into believing that he is simply the Ancient One’s servant.
In the film, we first become introduced to Hamir when Doctor Strange arrives at Kamar Taj, who unwittingly mistakes him as being the Ancient One. Later, when Strange is struggling to perform a basic spell, the Ancient One speaks to him about his frustrations. Strange tells her that he’s overwhelmed, and he can’t even think about anything but fixing his hands. The Ancient One calls upon Hamir, who pulls back his sleeves to reveal one of his arms is missing a hand, proving that you don’t need a physically perfect body to perform magic. Later, she creates a portal and teleports Doctor Strange to the utmost peak of Mount Everest. The Ancient One tells him to surrender and accept the mystical arts, or die of shock.
In introducing you to Wong, we touched on the fact that Hamir is Wong’s father, and their family has served the Ancient One for generations. In the film, their relationship as father and son is not confirmed. It is possible that we may see more of Hamir, played by Topo Wresniwiro, in future work. Seeing how Wong is the appointed protector of the Hong Kong Sanctum Sanctorum, we'll undoubtedly see Benedict Wong in the next Doctor Strange installment.
As Wong revealed in the film, the Ancient One is the most recent in a long line of those who held the title of Sorcerer Supreme, dating back to the father of the mystic arts, Agamotto. In the comics, it’s explicitly stated that the Ancient One passes down the responsibility and title of Sorcerer Supreme to Doctor Strange, but in the film, it gets a little hazy. In the final scene with the Ancient One, she grasps Strange's hand before completely disappearing, and we could assume that this is where she passes down the torch to Strange. Swinton told Marvel, “The Ancient One is the Sorcerer Supreme. It’s important to the Ancient One that Doctor Strange does cut it, because the Ancient One needs a successor or certainly needs, you could say, a son.”
The dichotomy between Eastern and Western philosophy features heavily in the exchanges between Doctor Strange and the Ancient One in the film. In the beginning, Strange flat-out rejects the idea of “fairy tales” like chakra or the power of belief, and struggles to further his training in the mystic arts. Eventually, the Ancient One teaches him about acceptance and surrender, reminding him that not everything in life needs to have a concrete, logical explanation. In her final lesson, she blatantly tells him that, “It’s not about you”, essentially telling him to silence his monstrous ego. It is only when he surrenders that his dormant inner powers begin to manifest.
In the older comics and animated film, there is one Sanctum Sanctorum which is under the protection of the Ancient One and those who study the mystic arts. The Sanctum Sanctorum first appeared in Strange Tales #110 from July 1963. The address of the New York location is at 177A Bleecker Street, a reference to the apartment which was shared by writers Roy Thomas and Gary Friedrich in Greenwich Village. In Doctor Strange #2 from 2015, Doctor Strange purchased the Sanctum Sanctorum after studying with the Ancient One in the Himalayas. In the comic, it was described as a building that was supposedly haunted, and no one can quite agree on who originally built it.
In the film, there are three known locations of the Sanctum Sanctorums, including Hong Kong, New York, and London. Wong tells Strange that the first Sorcerer Supreme, Agamotto, created sanctums in places of power around the globe. The three Sanctum Sanctorum locations generate a protective shield around Earth, and the sorcerers work to protect the Sanctums. However, Kaelcilius and his followers destroy the Sanctum Sanctorum in London, leaving only two locations remaining to shield the world from outside forces. At the end of the film, Wong leaves to defend the Hong Kong Sanctum, while Doctor Strange is entrusted with protecting the New York Sanctum Sanctorum.
Whitewashing roles has been a controversial issue in Hollywood as of late, ranging from the abysmal trainwreck with Emma Stone in Aloha and the hotly debated casting of Scarlett Johansson as "The Major" for the live-action adaptation of Ghost In The Shell. In an attempt to stray away from negative Asian stereotypes, director Scott Derrickson wanted to create a modernized version of the role. Eager to include more female representation in the MCU, Derrickson envisioned Tilda Swinton for the role.
“I think diversity is the responsibility of directors and producers,” Derrickson told Variety. “In this case, the stereotype of [the Ancient One] had to be undone. I wanted it to be a woman, a middle-aged woman. Every iteration of that script played by an Asian woman felt like a ‘Dragon Lady’. I’m very sensitive to the history of ‘Dragon Lady’ representation and Anna May Wong films. I moved away from that. Who’s the magical, mystical, woman with secrets that could work in this role? I thought Tilda Swinton.”
We covered the Ancient One’s change earlier, and in the film, Kamar-Taj is located in Kathmandu, Nepal instead of Tibet, a shift that has been notable departure from the comics. Since the film’s release, Swinton has been praised for her stellar performance in the role. Given that Doctor Strange has grossed more than $325 million worldwide, it’s clear that a sequel will be looming on the horizon. Let’s hope that execs take heed and opt for more diverse casting in future work.
Doctor Strange is in theaters now. Avengers: Infinity War Part 1 opens in theaters May 4, 2018.