After kicking off the summer with Captain America: Civil War, a film that featured almost every major MCU player to-date, save for our off-world adventurers, Marvel Studios is ready to bring in some new blood this fall with Doctor Strange. Long a cult-favorite, but never long-running comic series, many Marvel fans, including Stan Lee himself, have been waiting decades for the Sorcerer Supreme to make his big-screen appearance. With his complex source material, heavy mythology, and vast array of powers, Doctor Strange is one of the more involved heroes to set the stage for, particularly in lieu of an overall lack of well-known and collected storylines. So by the hoary hosts of Hoggoth, here’s everything you need to know about Doctor Strange before the movie!
The Comic: Doctor Stephen Strange, the creation of Steve Ditko, first appeared in Strange Tales #110 in 1963. Despite “Strange” being a key word in the book’s title, Doctor Strange was a back-up character whose five page stories followed the prominently featured and more popular adventures of The Human Torch, and Nick Fury and his Agents of SHIELD. Strange would not receive a cover to himself (well 3/4s of a cover) until Strange Tales #130, which showed the hero suffering the pains of defeat. Under the tenure of Lee and Ditko, Strange’s five page stories eventually became 8 pagers, and finally 10-pagers before their run was completed in 1966 with Strange Tales #146. Despite his popularity with the older teenage crowd of the freewheeling ’60s (that’s right, Doctor Strange was a stoner comic) the character never reached the heights of Spider-Man, or the Fantastic Four. There has always been something very keyed into adulthood with Strange, making him a difficult draw for children, despite the fantastic nature of his books. In his introduction to Marvel Masterworks: Doctor Strange, editor, publisher, and comic book historian Dean Mullaney notes that “amongst the heroes of the early Marvel Universe Dr. Strange was an anomaly…a loner who seemed apart from other heroes.” From his first appearance, it’s clear that Doctor Strange is a different breed of Marvel hero, despite being co-developed and plotted by Marvel mainstay and co-architect Stan Lee. In his first appearance Doctor Strange comes to the aid of a man plagued by terrible nightmares. Entering the dream world, Strange finds that the man’s nightmares are a result of his corporate wrongdoings. The man’s only solace could be found by turning himself in, and with that the Doctor’s job was done. There is no splashy action sequence, no colorful costumed super-villain, only a strange kind of moral horror and a surreal multi-tiered reality through which Strange could perform his magic with the assistance of the relic and deus ex machina, the Eye of Agamotto. A large part of Doctor Strange’s difference from his contemporaries was a result of Ditko, whose psychedelic artwork and experimentation with both panel and character design resulted in him emerging as one of the true great comic book artists of the 20th century. If you go back and look at these issues of Strange Tales and compare them to what other artists were putting out at the same time you’ll find that there is nothing quite like Ditko’s work and fearless blend of high-concept science fiction and gothic horror/fantasy.
Another key element of Strange’s otherness was that his first few appearances avoided his origin story. In those initial stories, Strange was simply an experienced practitioner of black magic who acted in service of the elderly Ancient One, the Sorcerer Supreme, who he would eventually replace. In his early stories, Doctor Strange is clearly drawn with Asian features, features drawn the same way as his clearly stated Asian master, The Ancient One. Long-time comic writer and industry mainstay, Kurt Busiek, lent credence to Strange’s original Asian identity (Culture War Reporters collected Busiek’s tweets on the subject). When Doctor Strange received his origin story in Strange Tales #115, Ditko draws him with more European features and wider eyes. Though he and other artists occasionally reverted back to aspects of his original features over the years, Doctor Strange became accepted as a white man until his original Asian-ness was forgotten or ignored by most. While neither Ditko or Lee commented on the change in Strange’s identity, at least to my knowledge, that origin issue does seemingly go out of its way to refer to Strange as a “man from the Western world” a noticeable amount of times in that story. Perhaps the initial origin story was avoided because Strange’s creators wanted to shake up their product line, maybe they just hadn’t thought of it yet, or they knew the growing appeal of Eastern mysticism to young white men and women, and the “Western man goes to a foreign country to become its champion” story trope that was cropping up throughout pop culture and decided to capitalize on that to try to sell more copies of a bottom-tier character. Whatever the case, something changed within those first five issues, and the behind the scenes origins of Doctor Strange remain a strange case indeed.
Lee and Ditko fleshed out Doctor Strange’s world early on with his powers, relics, catch-phrases, allies and nemesis all being clearly defined within the first few issues. After over 60 years, little about Doctor Strange has changed. While his counterparts have undergone significant transformations over the years, Doctor Strange has remained a near constant fixture, ironic given the constant state of flux his world of magic undergoes. In 1968, Strange Tales was renamed Doctor Strange and Marvel’s magician finally had a solo series…one that lasted only fifteen issues, saw a brief costume change, and was canceled in 1969. During the ’70s, Doctor Strange was featured in issues of Marvel Premiere, and the character continued largely as he had before, traversing different dimensions and encountering strange beings and demons. These stories were entertaining but rarely, if ever, left a significant mark on the wider Marvel Universe. Doctor Strange’s second series, Doctor Strange: Master of the Mystic Arts, ran 81 issues from 1974 to 1987, and while artist Frank Brunner tapped more so into the sword and sorcery stylings than his predecessors, he was a worthy successor to Ditko. But as the ’80s pushed forward pot, acid, and shrooms were out and harder drugs were in, as were harder heroes. Eastern Medicine had long been abandoned for cults and New Age beliefs, and the adult comic readers of the world were asking for more grounded stories and characters that had something to say about the here and now, not the 4th dimension.
Despite the character’s lack of significant popularity, the ’90s saw Strange carry his longest series, a 90 issue series that ran from 1988 to 1996 with little fanfare. The latter half of the ’90s and 2000s saw Strange crop up in various miniseries, but it wasn’t until Brian Michael Bendis made him a recurring character in New Avengers and placed him within the Illuminati, a secret group of Marvel’s smartest and most-powerful characters who were tasked with the moral quagmires of dealing with threats before they became noticeable to the rest of the superhero community, that the character’s popularity grew again. If you’ve read enough of these Comic-to-Film Primers, you’ll likely begin to notice a trend emerging with Bendis being at the forefront of restoring the popularity of formally neglected or sidelined characters. Bendis also provided Strange with one of his few, and therefore most significant shifts, his renouncement of the title Sorcerer Supreme when he succumbed to dark magic and felt he was no longer worthy to hold the title. Strange eventually reclaims the title and becomes a full member of the Avengers during Jonathan Hickman’s celebrated run on New Avengers. The character now stars in his first solo-series in 20 years. Scripted by Jason Aaron and drawn by Chris Bachalo, the current run of Doctor Strange lives up to the name by examining the physical and mental costs of magic on Strange while he combats a new enemy that seeks to rid each and every dimension of magic. Doctor Strange can claim something very few comic characters can any more: he still feels fresh, perhaps because there’s still so much unexplored potential yet to be tapped into. It may have taken decades, but there’s no better time to be a Strange fan.
Recommended Reading Material:
Doctor Strange Omnibus vol. 1 (collects the original Lee and Ditko run)
Doctor Strange & Doctor Doom: Triumph & Torment by Roger Stern, Gerry Conway, Mike Mignola, Kevin Nowlan, and Gene Colan
Doctor Strange: The Oath by Brian K. Vaughn and Marcos Martin
New Avengers: Illuminati by Brian Michael Bendis and Jim Cheung
New Avengers vol 11: Search for the Sorcerer Supreme by Brian Michael Bendis, Billy Tan, and Chris Bachalo (Doctor Strange loses his title as Sorcerer Supreme)
Secret Wars by Jonathan Hickman and Esad Ribic (Doctor Strange and Doctor Doom remake the entire Marvel Universe which led to its current depiction)
Doctor Strange vol. 1: The Way of the Weird by Jason Aaron and Chris Bachalo (the first volume of the most recent run of the series).
The Film: Following a 1978 CBS TV movie that was supposed to act as a pilot for a never ordered series, Doctor Strange first began to generate Hollywood interest in 1986 and moved from Regency, Warner Bros., Columbia, Dimension, Miramax, Paramount, and finally Marvel Studios through the years. In 1992 Wes Craven signed on to write and direct the film but it never got off the ground. The project stalled until Stephen Norrington, fresh off Blade, expressed interest, followed by Blade screenwriter David Goyer. The project languished in development hell with producers citing difficulty in finding a good script. In 2010 Marvel began to move forward with Doctor Strange, but finding the right story to introduce magic within the Marvel Cinematic Universe still proved to be an issue as it wasn’t until 3 years later in 2013 that Kevin Feige officially confirmed that Strange would appear as part of Marvel’s Phase 3. After considering a short list of directors including Mark Andrews (Brave), Jonathan Levine (50/50, Warm Bodies), Nikolaj Arcel (The Dark Tower), and Dean Israelite (Project Almanac, Power Rangers) Marvel Studios finally landed on horror maestro Scott Derrikson (The Exorcism of Emily Rose, Sinister, Deliver Us From Evil). Prometheus co-writer Jon Spaihts was hired to re-write the script which is said to merge the ideas of science and magic as discussed in Thor, and stay true to Ditko’s dimension-hopping vision. When it came to casting Strange, Marvel and Derrikson had conversations with Tom Hardy, Jared Leto, Edgar Ramirez, Ethan Hawke, Oscar Isaac, Ewan McGregor, Matthew McConaughey, Jake Gyllenhaal, Colin Farrell, and Ryan Gosling, before settling on Benedict Cumberbatch in December 2014. The film will once again return Marvel Studios to the origin story as they attempt to bring a fresh perspective to the notions of power and responsibility through the lens of alternate dimensions and magic with the intent to broaden and eventually re-shape the MCU through this film.
The Tone: While the film will surely benefit from Derrikson’s horror background, Doctor Strange is said to take a very psychedelic approach to its exploration of magic, differing from other contemporary fantasy movies and shows. Screen Daily pulled quotes from Doctor Strange cinematographer Ben Davis’s (Guardians of the Galaxy, Age of Ultron) BAFTA Masterclass discussion where he described the film as “Marvel’s Fantasia…different from everything else they’ve done…[and] a very dark movie.” While Marvel does seem to be suffering from a bit of sameness in their most recent releases, Doctor Strange’s teaser trailer seems to live up to Davis’ promise. From first glimpse, Doctor Strange doesn’t look much like a superhero movie at all, and appears closer to Inception by way of magic. While it didn’t look Ditko-influenced, it did look very influenced by the work of artist M.C. Escher who Davis noted had an impact on the look of the film. The comics have always blended in fantasy, sci-fi, horror, and religion relatively seamlessly. While Marvel has recently developed a habit of boxing their films in other genres outside of the superhero film (the political thriller, the heist movie, the war thriller) hopefully Doctor Strange will successfully blend these genres and truly live up to the weird worlds and dimensional beings and demons originally crafted by Ditko’s vision. If the film can truly manage to be dark and deliver a different style of humor that surprises audiences, then Doctor Strange has the potential to be the MCU’s most original film since Guardians of the Galaxy. Doctor Strange may not have a stoner audience anymore, but it should still send us on a trip.
Doctor Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch): In terms of origin stories, Doctor Strange’s isn’t all that peculiar. In fact, it’s a story we’ve heard before: the arrogant man left stripped bare by his own hubris and offered to find humility and redemption through tales of power and responsibility. Before becoming the Sorcerer Supreme, Dr. Stephen Strange was an arrogant surgeon who cared more about getting paid than helping his fellow man. But Strange’s ego and cold-hearted nature resided in an earlier tragedy that saw Strange fail to save his sister from drowning. Strange’s life takes a turn when a car accident shatters the bones in his hands and leaves their nerves severed. When offered the chance to teach or act as a medical assistant, Strange scoffed at the idea of taking a position so below his talents. Thus the brilliant surgeon became a disillusioned derelict, traveling the world in search of a means to fix his hands. Strange is seemingly left without hope until he hears about a man with the power to heal people. Traveling to a monastery tucked away in the Himalayas, Strange encounters the Ancient One. The Ancient One senses Strange’s selfishness and refuses to heal him but does offer him the chance to become a student of magic. A man of science, Strange rejects the idea of magic and rejects the old wizard’s offer. But before he can leave the monastery and return to his life of homeless wandering, Strange stumbles upon the Ancient One’s apprentice, Baron Mordo, and his plot to kill his master. Mordo performs a binding spell that prevents Strange from attacking him or warning the Ancient One. Realizing the only way he could help the old man is to accept the Ancient One’s offer and become his new apprentice. When Strange finally frees himself of Mordo’s spell he warns the Ancient One, but the wizard already knew of Mordo treachery and decided that keeping him close was better than setting him loose upon the world. Strange spends years under the tutelage of the Ancient One, his skill in magic and rivalry with Mordo growing. Once his training was complete, Strange set up shop within his Sanctum Santorum in Greenwich Village and offered his aide to anyone with a problem who fell outside the realm of normal, free of charge. With a library of tomes, an array of mystical objects, and the ability to travel outside of his body through astral projection, Strange’s service took him across the world and the known and unknown universe, leading to meetings with the physical manifestations of the universe such as Eternity. As Strange’s adventures progressed, it was revealed that the magic he used was drawn from other dimensional energies, some benevolent and others who would become his enemies through the years. After the death of the Ancient One, Doctor Strange became Earth’s Sorcerer Supreme, tasked with defending the world from extra-dimensional and mystical forces—a title that many, including Doctor Doom, have tried to take from him. Calm, assured, and generally private, Strange has become a kind of weird uncle to many of Marvel’s heroes. His guarded nature deflects from the fact that he is one of the most powerful beings in the Marvel Universe, a position held with respect and humility. Benedict Cumberbatch will surely be able to deliver both Strange’s arrogance pre-accident, and his humility as a magician. Expect to see a more serious hero than those we’ve seen come out of Marvel Studios recently. And don’t be surprised to see Strange’s iconic relic of choice, the Eye of Agamotto be revealed as either the Time or Soul stone, further setting the stage for the Infinity War.
Where We’ve Seen Him Before: Doctor Strange was portrayed by Peter Hooten in the 1978 TV-movie. He also led a really solid animated film, Doctor Strange: The Sorcerer Supreme in 2007. He has appeared in numerous Marvel animated series and video games.
The Ancient One (Tilda Swinton): Yao, the Ancient One, first appeared in Strange Tales #110 in 1963. Born in the 1430s in the mystic city of Kamar-Taj, Yao was a farmer who was introduced to the mystic arts by his friend Kaluu. While the Yao wanted to use magic to help the people of their village, Kaluu wanted to rule it. Their struggle resulted in a battle that sent Kaluu to an alternate dimension but destroyed Kamar-Taj (This would make a hell of a series, folks!). Homeless, Yao traveled the world righting wrongs and battling demons before settling in the Himalayas and establishing an order of magic practitioners known as the Ancient Ones. As his legend grew, Yao was named Sorcerer Supreme by the living embodiment of the universe known as Eternity. Yao outlived his fellow order, becoming the last and only Ancient One. Sensing his time on Earth was coming to an end, the Ancient One began his search for a replacement. While Dr. Druid and Karl Mordo both learned from the Ancient One and sought to succeed him, it wasn’t until he met Stephen Strange that he found his true successor. When kidnapped and made to serve as a gateway to unleash demons upon Earth, the Ancient One has Doctor Strange destroy the part of his mind that contained his sense of self and destroy his body, allowing for him to become a cosmic entity that was one with the universe itself. His spiritual presence has appeared in times of great need over the years since his death. In terms of the movie, Tilda Swinton’s Ancient One will be vastly different from the comics’ version. She will be a Celtic mystic overseeing a handful of students who have the potential to become the next Dr. Strange. Her Celtic background does give the character ties to Dr. Anthony Druid, a magician, ally, and occasional antagonist of Strange. It’s unknown if the film will explore this connection or if Swinton’s Ancient One will be a successor of Yao’s.
Where We’ve Seen Him Before: The Character appeared only as a voice (provided by Michael Ansara) in the 1978 TV movie, and has had small roles in various Marvel animated series and video games.
Wong (Benedict Wong): Wong, Doctor Strange’s manservant, first appeared in Strange Tales #110 but wasn’t named until #119. A monk from the reconstructed Kamar-Taj, Wong was born into serving the Ancient One. For his family, serving the Sorcerer Supreme was a great honor and heritage. A master of martial arts and an expert (though not practitioner) of magical texts, Wong has long served Strange and become the Alfred to Strange’s Batman. Wong’s early appearances featured many cringe-worthy moments that expressly give into the submissive Asian cliche, but over the years writers have fleshed out the character by giving him romantic interests and adventures of his own. No longer known as simply a manservant, Wong recently described himself as “Chef. Housekeeper. Martial arts instructor, Occult curator, Mystical adventurer. Insatiable adventurer.” Whatever his role, Wong will perform any duty necessary to protect Stephen Strange, not as an employee but as a friend and confidant who knows the mystic master better than anyone. Benedict Wong spoke to Den of Geek about his role as Wong and said “there isn’t any martial arts for Wong in Doctor Strange actually, he’s more of a drill sergeant to Kamar-Taj. He’s one of the masters of sorcery.” Here’s to hoping he gets a few scenes to steal.
Where We’ve Seen Him Before: Wong was portrayed by Clyde Kusatsu in the 1978 TV-movie and has played a minor role in various animated shows and video games.
Christine Palmer (Rachel McAdams): Nurse Christine Palmer first appeared in Night Nurse #1 in 1972. Night Nurse was a hospital melodrama starring three nurse roommates. The title was meant to appeal to female readers in the ’70s and had little to do with Marvel’s superhero books, though the characters did eventually crossover after the book’s cancellation. Palmer, the daughter of a wealthy suburban man, set off to make a life for herself as a nurse in New York City where medical mishaps and relationship drama ensued. Palmer has had nothing to do with Doctor Strange, but another character from the Night Nurse series, Linda Carter, eventually comes to run a clinic for injured superheroes and briefly dates Doctor Strange. Rachel McAdams’ Christine Palmer will likely be closer to Carter and we can assume the name was changed so as not to be seen as a reference to former Wonder Woman actress Lynda Carter.
Where We’ve Seen Her Before: Doctor Strange will be the character’s first appearance, though another Night Nurse has appeared in Marvel’s Netflix shows in the form of Rosario Dawson’s Claire Temple.
Nicodemus West (Michael Stuhlbarg): Surgeon Nicodemus West first appeared in Doctor Strange: The Oath #1 in 2006. An admirer of Doctor Strange, West performed the surgery that saved his life but left the nerves in his hands severed. Guilty over what he had done, West kept tabs on Strange and followed him to the Himalayas, becoming a secret, backup apprentice of the Ancient One in case Strange should fail. West left the Ancient One before completing his training and used what limited magic skills he had learned to continue to practice medicine, a decision that led to the death of patient. West avoided using magic because of his guilt, but when the opportunity arose to steal an elixir that erased the troubles of a man’s mind, he sought to steal it from Doctor Strange’s Sanctum Santorum which resulted in his death. Little has been revealed about Stuhlberg’s role in the film, only that he will be a rival of Strange, but there’s no telling if that means simply in the medical profession or in the realm of the mystic arts as well.
Where We’ve Seen Him Before: Doctor Strange will be the character’s first on-screen appearance.
Karl Mordo (Chiwetel Ejiofor): Doctor Strange’s nemesis, Baron Karl Amadeus Mordo, first appeared in Strange Tales #111 in 1963. A classic example of the Eastern European villain that Marvel has become so known for, Mordo first discovered magic as a young man in Transylvania. Early in the 1930s Mordo traveled to the Himalayas to begin his tutelage under the Ancient One. Decades before Strange became a sorcerer and a surgeon, Mordo became aware of a boy from Nebraska whose power would one day rival his. Jealous, Mordo sent demons after a young Stephen Strange, a curse removed by the Ancient One. Years later, Mordo met Stephen Strange in the flesh and with his attempts to kill the Ancient One foiled, Mordo left the Himalayas and furthered his study of the black arts. While Mordo tried various methods to ensnare and kill Strange, it wasn’t until Mordo entered the service of the dimensional demon Dormammu (the big bad of Doctor Strange mythology) that he gained some leverage over Strange. In a battle within the Dark Dimension, Mordo and Strange had their greatest battle, which Mordo loses, angering Dormammu and ending his service. Mordo has been a near constant thorn in Strange’s side over the many years, and through multiple deaths and resurrections has never been far from Strange’s exploits. Chiwetel Ejiofor (also known as one of the greatest actors of our time) will give a sense of complexity to Mordo within the film. A student of the Ancient One, it seems that Mordo will be an ally to Strange in this film but don’t be surprised if his relationship to Dormammu is featured as a post-credit scene to point towards a sequel.
Where We’ve Seen Him Before: Baron Mordo was voiced by Kevin Micahel Richardson in the animated Doctor Strange: The Sorcerer Supreme and has appeared in various animated shows and video games.
Kaecilius (Mads Mikkelsen): The magician Kaecilius first appeared in Strange Tales #130 as a disciple of Baron Mordo. A little known villain who hasn’t been utilized since the early ’80s, Kaecilius was mostly used to perform services for Mordo such as kidnapping the Ancient One. It was through Mordo’s possession of Kaecilius’ body and mind that Strange learned of Mordo’s alliance with Dormammu. While it seems strange (no pun intended) that Doctor Strange would utilize such a lesser known villain and a lackey as the primary antagonist, Kaecilius’ lack of background allows for Marvel Studios to carefully lay the seeds for bigger threats while providing what will hopefully be a surprising narrative. Mads Mikkelsen told Yahoo! Movies that Kaecilius will have fundamental differences with the Ancient One about the use of magic, with his desire being to make the world a better place by opening the doorways to other dimensions and letting those outside forces in. Mikkelsen has promised us a complex villain who truly sees himself as the hero, and that kind of villain is certainly one that the MCU could use. Regardless of Kaecilius’ lack of comic book history, we should all be looking forward to someone of Mikkelsen’s caliber making the role his own.
Where We’ve Seen Him Before: Doctor Strange will be the character’s first on-screen appearance.
Doctor Strange will enter our dimension on November 4, 2016.
Featured Image: Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures