With movies starring characters like Ant-Man and Rocket Raccoon under their belts, Marvel probably feel pretty confident that they can sell a movie with a relatively little-known character. And they’re probably right about November’s big release, Doctor Strange. Still, if you aren’t familiar with the character, the trailers may still have you wondering who the good doctor is and why you ought to care. Here, then, is your quick guide to Marvel’s Sorcerer Supreme and his film incarnation.
The history: Created in 1963 by Spider-Man co-creator Steve Ditko, Doctor Strange took his name from the comic, Strange Tales, in which his adventures appeared. Stan Lee provided the character’s trademark mystical mumbo-jumbo (“by the hoary hosts of Hoggoth!”) and Ditko provided the bonkers surrealist extradimensional landscapes. The book was initially popular among college students, who appreciated the psychedelic imagery, but Strange’s success as a solo character has waxed and waned over the years.
The trailers for Doctor Strange have focused pretty heavily on the mind-bending CGI landscapes, clearly a callback to the wild vistas of unreality Ditko created (although the Inception-inspired worlds do seem a little tame in comparison to all those vividly-coloured space veins or whatever they are).
This isn’t the first attempt at a live-action Doctor Strange: the success of The Incredible Hulk in the 70s prompted a number of attempted Marvel shows, but none of them, including 1978’s Dr. Strange, ever caught on.
The character: Doctor Stephen Strange is a wealthy, arrogant surgeon who enters a mystical reality while recovering from an accident that ends his medical career. So, yeah, it’s another story about a rich, moustachioed snob who becomes a superhero while dealing with a traumatic injury. But Strange has a way better moustache than Tony Stark.
The villain: Doctor Strange’s enemies are often demons, spirits and alien monsters with names like Dormammu or Shuma-Gorath, but his main human rival is the villainous Baron Mordo, a rival sorcerer. In the film, though, it looks like Chiwetel Ejiofor’s Karl Mordo isn’t going to be an outright villain, but a more ambiguous character. Main baddie duties are being covered by Mads Mikkelsen as Kaecilius, a minor character from the comics who isn’t much more than one of Baron Mordo’s henchmen.
The supporting cast: Welcome to Controversyville, population Doctor Strange. Like a lot of Marvel properties, Strange was created in an era where portrayals of other cultures weren’t always flattering, and even the flattering ones weren’t exactly accurate. Hence Strange’s mentor, the Ancient One, a character who is (in the comics) pretty much your corny old Eastern Mystic stock character.
In an apparent attempt to avoid this three-star-Confucius stereotype, the filmmakers replaced the comics’ Ancient One with … Tilda Swinton.
I mean, everyone likes Tilda Swinton, but unsurprisingly some people were upset that a role for an Asian actor (never superabundant in the first place) had been replaced with a white character, and the controversy has continued to dog the film. On the more positive side, Strange’s manservant, tea-making-guy and general stereotype Wong has been turned into more of a mentor figure, played by Marco Polo‘s Benedict, er, Wong.
Strange’s love interest (if indeed that’s what she is) is another interesting dive into the depths of Marvel continuity. Christine Palmer (Rachel MacAdams) was originally a supporting character from the short-lived Linda Carter, Student Nurse comic, a book that actually predates Doctor Strange but didn’t succeed in its mission of capturing a young female audience and was cancelled after only a few issues. The superheroic Night Nurse — a medic who specialises in superhuman cases — is associated with Strange, but that’s the main character from the same book, Linda Carter herself. And the Defenders shows have hinted at a role as Night Nurse for Rosario Dawson’s character, Claire Temple, who was never Night Nurse in the comics (indeed, she’s a doctor in the comics, not a nurse). Although Palmer has reappeared a few times in the Marvel Universe, she’s not a character about whom much is known, nor one fans have a lot of attachment to, so she’s effectively a blank slate for the writers and MacAdams to flesh out as they like.
So there we have it: apart from its central character, the movie seems to be playing fast and loose with the Doctor Strange mythology, which is fair enough — although the character himself is a big part of the Marvel Universe, he tends to feature in line-wide events or ensemble books and not to have as large a dedicated fan base as some others. And if they can replicate the cosmic wonder of that Ditko art in a more modern idiom, it’s going to be a sight to see.