The secrets of Strange’s awesome amulet
That’s some seriously reality-bending bling Benedict Cumberbatch is rocking. Described by Strange himself as “one of the most powerful mystic conduits on the physical plane”, the amulet holds the All-Seeing Eye of Agamotto, a relic with the power to emit an “all-revealing light”, open a portal to the Dark Dimension and repel demonic entities. It’s the creation of Agamotto the All-Seeing, one of the powerful extra-dimensional beings known as the Vishanti. Steve Ditko’s original comic book design was inspired by the All Seeing Eye of the Buddha aka the Amulet of Snail Martyrs, a Nepalese totem that protects its wearer against evil. There’s speculation that the Eye is one of the MCU’s fabled Infinity Stones but studio supremo Kevin Feige will only say, “it has the ability to manipulate probabilities – which is another way of saying ‘screw around with time.’”
He’s a fully qualified doctor, though. His origin tale – told a full five issues after his debut in July 1963’s Strange Tales #110 – revealed that he was formerly a gifted but bastardly neurosurgeon who lost his physical skills after smashing up his hands in a car crash. Spiralling into self-loathing, Strange became a drifter, his hunt for a cure leading him to the secret reaches of Tibet, in search of the fabled Ancient One, a seemingly immortal magus. Tilda Swinton plays the Ancient One in the movie, switching both the gender and the ethnicity of the comic book original. The hidden, mystical Tibetan realm is a well-worn trope in adventure fiction, reaching all the way back to James Hilton’s 1933 novel Lost Horizon, the bestseller that gave the world the concept of Shangri-La. It played into the origin of pulp adventurer the Shadow and was revisited on the big screen in 2005’s Batman Begins. The Ancient One already had a disciple – the nefarious Baron Karl Amadeus Mordo, who’ll be brought to the big screen by Chiwetel Ejiofor (12
Years A Slave, The Martian). Foiling Mordo’s plot to kill his master and discovering his own capacity for good, Strange became the Ancient One’s favoured heir to the title of Earth’s Sorcerer Supreme. Studio head Kevin Feige calls it “a classic Marvel origin story… one of the best origins ever.” Director Scott Derrickson tells USA Today, “Strange is spiritually evolving through his pain and torment, and doing it through the experience of incredibly weird realities.” Strange’s sorcerous skill-set includes the power to astrally project, releasing a wraith-like version of himself onto higher planes of existence (we see Benedict Cumberbatch experience this phenomenon in the trailer after a spot of spook-fu from Swinton’s Ancient One). His scarlet Cloak of Levitation lets him soar without the need for a flying spell. It’s not all fey spell-casting, mind. Benedict Cumberbatch tells
Entertainment Weekly that there’s more rough and tumble in the film than you might imagine: “There’s a huge amount of physicality. He’s physically a very strong presence in the world.” While Ditko plotted the stories Lee took care of the majestically purple dialogue. “Writing Dr Strange was a hoot because it gave me the opportunity to make up weird expressions for him to say,” he recalled. “I liked to make up my own nutty-sounding expressions such as ‘By the Hoary Hosts of Hoggoth, let the darkness shroud the light!’ or ‘By the Mystic Moons of Munnipor, may your weapons turns to sand!’” Many assumed Stan the (sha)Man was invoking arcane magical forces. “I hated having to admit that I just dreamed the stuff up simply because I liked to use phrases that sounded dramatic to me.” Ditko delivered the most astonishing art of his career, loosing Strange among extradimensional dreamscapes whose sheer psychedelic trippiness anticipated the ’60s counter-culture. Lee praised his collaborator’s “incredibly dramatic and magical style”, saying, “When we’d have the good doctor entering another dimension, Steve drew that
dimension in such a way that you could believe it really existed. If any strip ever owed its flavour and individuality to an artist, this was the one.” Will Ditko’s retina-popping realms translate to the big screen? The trailer gives us glimpses of kaleidoscoping rooms and Inception-style folding cityscapes but director Scott Derrickson promises even more to feed your head. “I was always interested in the extreme mind-bending visuals of the comics,” he tells Entertainment Weekly. “I had very ambitious ideas for the visuals that were rooted in the comics, that movies haven’t done yet. And a lot of that goes back to the Ditko artwork and all that ’60s craziness you see in the comics.” Kevin Feige tells Screenrant: “We like the idea of playing with alternate dimensions. The crazy Ditko acid trip way of travelling through dimensions is something that we think is very, very cool… playing with the perceptions of reality.” After Lee and Ditko departed the strip, Doctor Strange was given a brief and bizarre makeover, kitted out with a blue face mask to look more like a traditional superhero and boost sales. He later became leader of the Defenders, an anarchic superteam that included the Hulk, the Sub-Mariner and the Silver Surfer in its freewheeling roster. The next generation of creators took Ditko’s high weirdness even further, fuelled by acid-soaked brainstorming sessions. A classic run of ’70s stories by Steve Englehart and Frank Brunner witnessed the creation of the universe and Strange’s encounter with a time-travelling sorcerer named Sise-Neg – read it backwards – intended to be God himself. When Stan Lee demanded they print a retraction, Englehart and Brunner faked an effusive fan letter from a Texan minister – and Marvel promptly ran it in the letters column… Doctor Strange’s classic adversaries include Nightmare, ruler of the Nightmare World within the Dream Dimension, the deeply demonic Mephisto and the flaming-headed Dread Dormammu, tyrant of the Dark Dimension. He’s also tussled with Dracula. No word on which – if any – four-colour foe we’ll see in the movie but Mads Mikkelsen’s character remains intriguingly unnamed… Benedict Cumberbatch beat out Jared Leto, Ethan Hawke and Joaquin Phoenix to bring Strange to the big screen but he’s not the first live action incarnation: Peter Hooten played the Master of the Mystic Arts in a 1978 TV pilot. Tom Selleck was reportedly up for the role in the the early ’80s – it’s the ’tache, right? – while in 1989 Nicolas Cage was director Alex Cox’s pick. Now that would have melted reality… This is a crucial movie for Marvel. Just as Guardians Of The Galaxy carved out the cosmic frontier of the studio’s universe and Daredevil, on television, established its street-level battlefront, Doctor Strange will hurl audiences even further away from their shiny, superheroic comfort zone. “It’s going to open up a whole other side of storytelling for our movies,” promises Kevin Feige. If Marvel nail this, it’s where the magic truly begins…
Doctor Strange opens on 28 October.
It’s not all magic tricks and that – Doctor Strange and Baron Mordo run too!