DOC­TOR STRANGE

Meet Mar­vel’s riski­est hero to date. How strange is he? He has a de­gree in mad-icine from Carnegie Mess­ing With Your Melon Uni­ver­sity.

Empire (UK) - - CONTENTS - WORDS DO­RIAN LYNSKEY

AS BENE­DICT CUM­BER­BATCH dashed down Man­hat­tan’s East 32nd Street in his last scene as sur­geon-turned-sorcerer Doc­tor Strange, he couldn’t help but no­tice the JHU Comic Books shop. Once the shot was in the bag, still in his full blue-and-red re­galia, he de­cided to pop in.

“I thought, ‘You are lit­er­ally end­ing where this be­gan,’” Cum­ber­batch re­calls. “The loop of serendip­ity was too much to not go in and ac­knowl­edge it. I wanted to see the look on their faces.”

Pho­to­graphs of Cum­ber­batch in the shop went vi­ral, but an ex­pe­ri­ence the day be­fore may be even more re­veal­ing. Cum­ber­batch, again in cos­tume, took a quick cof­fee break with his wife and some friends. With typ­i­cal New York non­cha­lance, most of the cus­tomers glanced up and im­me­di­ately went back to their drinks. “It was fan­tas­tic,” he says. “I was hav­ing nor­mal con­ver­sa­tions within five min­utes. Some peo­ple recog­nised me as Doc­tor Strange, but a lot of peo­ple don’t know this char­ac­ter yet, which is ex­cit­ing. It gives you a cer­tain amount of free­dom.”

This is both the big­gest chal­lenge and the big­gest cre­ative ad­van­tage of a Doc­tor Strange movie: he’s not one of Mar­vel’s house­hold names. You don’t see Strange on many lunch boxes, and a mid­dle-aged man with a goa­tee doesn’t make a great Hal­lowe’en mask. So direc­tor Scott Der­rick­son will be ex­pos­ing most view­ers to Strange, and Mar­vel’s mul­ti­verse of par­al­lel di­men­sions, for the first time.

Doc­tor Strange has been a niche in­ter­est ever since he sprang from the pe­cu­liar brain of Spi­der-man artist Steve Ditko in 1963. While writer Stan Lee pro­vided the mys­ti­cal gob­blede­gook (“By the Crim­son Bands of Cyt­torak!”), the se­ries’ main at­trac­tion was Ditko’s ver­tig­i­nously in­ven­tive art­work. Ditko was no hip­pie, but his ahead-of-its-time blend of East­ern mys­ti­cism and trippy visu­als made the Sorcerer Supreme the coun­ter­cul­ture’s favourite su­per­hero: he was namechecked by Pink Floyd, T. Rex and Ken Ke­sey’s Merry

Pranksters, and beloved by afi­ciona­dos of hal­lu­cino­genic drugs and pro­gres­sive rock.

Still, his ad­ven­tures were never among Mar­vel’s top sell­ers and he’s al­ways been a tough nut for Hol­ly­wood to crack. A 1978 TV pi­lot bombed. Sub­se­quent adap­ta­tions at­tached to Alex Cox and Wes Craven never ma­te­ri­alised, and even a ten­ta­tive 2008 pitch from Guillermo del Toro and writer Neil Gaiman came to noth­ing. The likes of Iron Man and Cap­tain Amer­ica were safer bets for the fledg­ling Mar­vel stu­dio. But with great box of­fice comes great re­spon­si­bil­ity, and Mar­vel has re­cently gam­bled on more ob­scure char­ac­ters — Guardians Of The Gal­axy,

Ant-man — with knock­out re­sults ($773 mil­lion and $519 mil­lion world­wide re­spec­tively).

“If we had just made Iron Man 7, peo­ple might be get­ting tired,” says pres­i­dent of Mar­vel Stu­dios Kevin Feige. “That’s why we want all the movies to be dis­tinct. Doc­tor Strange is un­like any­thing we’ve done be­fore.”

By the hoary hosts of Hog­goth! The MCU is about to get psy­che­delic.

WHEN SCOTT DER­RICK­SON dis­cov­ered comic books as a kid in Den­ver, Colorado, he had a clear favourite. “Doc­tor Strange was

magic,” says Der­rick­son, an eru­dite 39-year-old with goa­tee and glasses. “I liked the in­ter­di­men­sional weird­ness of it. When I think of that char­ac­ter I also think of lone­li­ness. The idea of the lone char­ac­ter who’s dam­aged and needs heal­ing and goes on a spir­i­tual quest, that spoke to me.”

So when, in 2013, Der­rick­son’s agent told him Mar­vel was shop­ping around for a direc­tor to bring Strange to the screen, he threw him­self into the pitch. “I think Doc­tor Strange is the only comic-book movie I’m def­i­nitely suited to make,” he says. De­spite his solid track record of thought­ful hor­ror movies like Sin­is­ter and The

Ex­or­cism Of Emily Rose, Der­rick­son knew it would be tough. “I was very aware that I wasn’t an ob­vi­ous choice,” he says. “I knew I would have to bring a lot more to the ta­ble than any­one 

else if I was go­ing to stand a chance.”

Der­rick­son had no fewer than eight meet­ings with Mar­vel be­fore land­ing the gig. His take ex­panded on 1963’s clas­sic The Ori­gin

of Dr. Strange sto­ry­line, where Stephen Strange is a bril­liant but cal­lously ar­ro­gant neu­ro­sur­geon whose ca­reer is de­railed when he man­gles his hands in a car ac­ci­dent. He des­per­ately seeks a cure, fetch­ing up in Ka­mar-taj, an iso­lated Hi­malayan com­mu­nity over­seen by a sorcerer known as the An­cient One. Af­ter be­ing, frankly, a dick about it, Strange agrees to the An­cient One’s ar­du­ous train­ing regime and emerges spir­i­tu­ally re­born as a sorcerer him­self, bat­tling out­landish foes via as­tral pro­jec­tion.

What­ever changes Der­rick­son and his co-writer C Robert Cargill made, they were de­ter­mined to stick to that ba­sic Lee/ditko nar­ra­tive. “I re­ally wanted to fo­cus on the arc of his spir­i­tual growth,” says Der­rick­son, a com­mit­ted Chris­tian who mi­nored in the­ol­ogy at col­lege. “That’s what in­ter­ested me.”

The direc­tor also pitched his vi­sion for de­pict­ing magic and other realms. “I love the idea of ‘real’ magic: other-di­men­sional ex­pe­ri­ences that feel grounded and re­lat­able,” he says. “I think that’s at the heart of why I got the job.”

Start­ing in late 2014, Der­rick­son, VFX su­per­vi­sor Stephane Ceretti and pro­duc­tion de­signer Charles Wood as­sem­bled a gallery of vis­ual ref­er­ence points in­clud­ing sur­re­al­ism, Ger­man Ex­pres­sion­ism, Turner’s seascapes, sci­en­tific pho­tog­ra­phy, the op­ti­cal il­lu­sions of MC Escher and, of course, the far-out imag­in­ings of Steve Ditko dur­ing his 1963 to ’66 run on the comic book.

“His art­work is still pro­gres­sive and visionary,” Der­rick­son says. “We were de­sign­ing things and I’d go back and look and say, ‘Oh my God, we’re not be­ing as bold as the comics were in the 1960s!’ Vis­ual-ef­fects tech­nol­ogy caught up with this par­tic­u­lar story. I wanted to get away from the im­agery for magic that’s been used for a long time now. There was never a point where we thought, ‘Okay, we’re go­ing too far.’ There’s some pretty crazy stuff in there.”

Even fresh from Guardians Of The Gal­axy, Ceretti found that Doc­tor Strange was one step be­yond. “We’re push­ing vis­ual sto­ry­telling in a very ex­treme way,” says Ceretti. “Cre­at­ing a be­liev­able psy­che­delic en­vi­ron­ment is not easy, I can tell you, but it’s never been seen like that be­fore in a big block­buster. What’s cool with Mar­vel is we can show peo­ple new stuff. They trust us. We tried to push it out­side of Earth in Guardians and now we’re try­ing to push it out­side our uni­verse. So it’s an­other trip.”

Feige says Paul Rudd’s jour­ney into the quan­tum realm at the end of Ant-man was merely an amuse-bouche for the full in­ter­di­men­sional mind-ben­der: “Take that times about 50 and that’s what you’ll see in Doc­tor Strange.”

ON THE DAY Empire vis­its Bri­tain’s Longcross Stu­dios in Jan­uary 2016, Cum­ber­batch is put through the wringer. He’s prac­tis­ing mar­tial arts on the rooftop of the Ka­mar-taj com­pound, and then train­ing with the An­cient One’s chief dis­ci­ple, Karl Mordo (Chi­we­tel Ejio­for). The spe­cific move — some­where between a com­bat ma­noeu­vre, a dance and a magic trick — re­quires 15 takes to get right. Later, Cum­ber­batch crawls up a fab­ri­cated chunk of Mount Ever­est while be­ing whipped by icy gusts from giant fans. Be­ing Doc­tor Strange is no walk in the park.

When Cum­ber­batch sits down to chat, sport­ing a strag­gly fake beard, he’s pant­ing slightly from ex­er­tion. He’s done ac­tion be­fore, most re­cently in Star Trek Into Dark­ness, but not like this: the wire work, the mar­tial arts train­ing, the 14-hour days.

“Kevin Feige said to me, ‘I don’t think we’ve ever put an ac­tor through quite as much as this, phys­i­cally and men­tally,’” Cum­ber­batch says cheer­fully. “I’ll wear that as a badge of hon­our. The suf­fer­ing the char­ac­ter goes through is im­mense! He gets scraped off the floor and then thrown right down to hell again and then slowly pulls him­self back up.” He grins. “They’re lots of fun, Mar­vel movies.”

To Der­rick­son and Feige, Cum­ber­batch was al­ways the per­fect choice, an ac­tor ca­pa­ble of pro­ject­ing prickly hy­per­in­tel­li­gence and ego­tism with­out los­ing sym­pa­thy. “He is this guy,” says Der­rick­son. “He was the only ac­tor we se­ri­ously con­sid­ered.” But when they first met in Lon­don in 2014, Shake­speare got in the way. Cum­ber­batch had agreed to play Ham­let at the Bar­bican in the au­tumn of 2015, some­thing of a prob­lem for a film with a summer 2016 re­lease date. “It just wasn’t pos­si­ble,” says Der­rick­son. “To his credit he said, ‘I can’t bail out of Ham­let. I’ve given my word.’”

The direc­tor met with “a lot of good ac­tors”, in­clud­ing Joaquin Phoenix, Jared Leto and Ryan Gosling, but even­tu­ally he re­turned to Feige and said, “It’s got to be Bene­dict.” So Mar­vel made an un­usual de­ci­sion: they shunted the re­lease back to ac­com­mo­date Cum­ber­batch.

“I re­ally did think I had to kiss it good­bye,” Cum­ber­batch says. “If you can’t jump on board when the ride’s go­ing past that’s usually it, so the hugest com­pli­ment they paid me was to come back to me. It mo­ti­vated me to try to ful­fil their faith in me.”

Stephen Strange’s evo­lu­tion from egotistical sur­geon to bro­ken man to heroic sorcerer is ex­treme, even by Mar­vel stan­dards. “He’s very dif­fer­ent at the be­gin­ning of the movie than he is at the end,” says Feige. “It’s en­ter­tain­ing to watch an ac­tor of Bene­dict’s cal­i­bre go through an ut­ter trans­for­ma­tion.” To make it emo­tion­ally in­volv­ing, Cum­ber­batch had to start with a cred­i­bly flawed hu­man be­ing. “I keep re­mind­ing peo­ple I can do or­di­nary,” he laughs. “He’s less

strange than other char­ac­ters I’ve played.” Strange goes to Ka­mar-taj to fix his hands, but the An­cient One isn’t BUPA. To truly be healed, this ma­te­ri­al­is­tic con­trol freak must

sur­ren­der his ego and ac­cept that, to quote Ham­let, “There are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in your phi­los­o­phy.” Der­rick­son de­cided that the learn­ing process would re­quire pain. Lots of pain.

“To me he’s al­ways been a tragic hero,” the direc­tor says. “He ends up be­ing a man who has to stand alone between our di­men­sional ex­pe­ri­ence and other worlds, and that iso­lates him. It’s the sim­ple idea of a man find­ing a deeper en­light­ened life through a gaunt­let of pain and suf­fer­ing. He’s a guy who has ev­ery­thing, loses ev­ery­thing and, as a re­sult, finds the real ev­ery­thing.”

“All that he be­comes is tested so vi­o­lently and im­me­di­ately,” says Cum­ber­batch. “There’s a heroic amount of ef­fort that goes into mak­ing him a su­per­hero by the end of the film. He earns that cloak.” That doesn’t mean, says Cum­ber­batch, there’s no room for hu­mour amid the agony. “I wanted to take the au­di­ence on a jour­ney where that tran­si­tion is funny and awk­ward. Hope­fully, you’ll be as awed and con­verted to the pos­si­bil­i­ties as he is.”

ONCE HE HAD his Strange, Der­rick­son built out the rest of his cast. Rachel Mca­dams is Chris­tine Palmer, fel­low sur­geon and, says Feige, “his an­chor to his past life”.

Mads Mikkelsen is Kae­cil­ius, a Ka­mar-taj dis­ci­ple who has formed a rival sect, the Zealots. “I like the idea of a vil­lain who is a man of ideas and has a real phi­los­o­phy,” says Der­rick­son. “I al­ways wanted to be Bruce Lee as a kid,” says Mikkelsen. “To get to be a tenth of him at the age of 50 was just im­pos­si­ble to say no to. I’ve done mar­tial arts be­fore... but I’ve never had the chance on a big film to re­ally go for it.”

Cum­ber­batch says Strange and Kae­cil­ius have “a re­ally epic brawl” that took a week to shoot. “It’s a bat­tle that crosses ev­ery­thing: di­men­sions, the laws of physics, our physiques,” says Mikkelsen. “Kae­cil­ius is a man who be­lieves in a bet­ter world, a world with­out hu­man tragedy, but his means are quite dif­fer­ent from the ones Doc­tor Strange is us­ing, there­fore con­flict.”

Ejio­for, who worked with Cum­ber­batch be­fore on 12 Years A Slave, be­comes Mordo: in the comics, Strange’s first ever foe but a more am­bigu­ous char­ac­ter here. “He’s been in Ka­mar-taj for a while,” says Ejio­for. “Like Strange, he ar­rives in search of some­thing — pos­si­bly phys­i­cal, pos­si­bly psy­cho­log­i­cal, pos­si­bly spir­i­tual — and finds in the mag­i­cal realm a com­bi­na­tion of all those things, which he tries to im­part to Strange. It’s a com­pli­cated re­la­tion­ship. There are cer­tain ten­sions.”

As much as he loves the 1960s comics, Der­rick­son re­alised he’d have to take ma­jor lib­er­ties with the An­cient One, and Strange’s kung-fu fight­ing manser­vant Wong. “They’re

both racial stereo­types,” he says bluntly. “The western view of the sub­servient mag­i­cal Asian that ex­ists to help the white hero.” Wong has been rein­vented from the ground up, as the keeper of Ka­mar-taj’s li­brary. “We com­pletely in­verted all those stereo­types,” says Der­rick­son. “In­stead of a manser­vant he’s a mas­ter sorcerer. In­stead of a side­kick he’s Strange’s in­tel­lec­tual men­tor.” Ac­cord­ing to for­tu­itously named ac­tor Bene­dict Wong, “He’s no-non­sense. We’re a bit like The Odd Cou­ple. We’re thrown to­gether.”

The An­cient One, an in­scrutable Ori­en­tal­ist cliché in the comics, also re­quired a dras­tic makeover. Tilda Swin­ton’s an­drog­y­nous, white An­cient One prompted an­gry tweets about “white­wash­ing” an Asian role, but Der­rick­son stands by his choice. “We talked for so long about the di­ver­sity of these roles and felt that ul­ti­mately the An­cient One was best served by trad­ing racial di­ver­sity for gen­der di­ver­sity,” he says. “We strug­gled with it for a long time. We wrote the role for Tilda and I told Kevin that if she said no we’d have to re­write it. She rep­re­sents what was good about the An­cient One in the comics: the mys­ti­cal, ethe­real, pos­si­bly du­plic­i­tous qual­i­ties. And,” he adds point­edly, “I like the fact that our movie has a ma­jor fe­male char­ac­ter that’s not a 27-year-old fan­boy dream girl in tight leather.”

On set, her hair un­der a bald skull­cap, Swin­ton talks glow­ingly about en­coun­ter­ing Strange’s world. “It feels prop­erly ar­che­typal,” she says. “It’s much more about cre­ation than about de­struc­tion and that’s go­ing to be an in­ter­est­ing twist. For peo­ple who are into the Mar­vel Uni­verse I think it’s go­ing to be a great next step. That’s what’s beau­ti­ful about it.”

DOC­TOR STRANGE IS de­signed, like its hero, to stand alone, but the in­tro­duc­tion of Strange, in­ter-di­men­sion­al­ity and magic will also have se­ri­ous long-term im­pli­ca­tions for the Mar­vel Cin­e­matic Uni­verse. Alas, no­body will spec­ify what the im­pact will be (“I don’t concern my­self with that right now,” sighs Der­rick­son from his edit­ing suite). But there are clues. Cum­ber­batch men­tions the im­pend­ing lo­gis­ti­cal chal­lenge of align­ing his sched­ule with those of Robert Downey Jr, Chris Hemsworth, El­iz­a­beth Olsen and Paul Bet­tany, which sug­gests that Strange will play a part in Avengers: In­fin­ity War and its stil­lun­ti­tled se­quel.

“To get us all to­gether will be quite some­thing,” he says. “That’s why this char­ac­ter is be­ing in­tro­duced, to open up the next chap­ter. So watch this space to see how that un­folds.”

What­ever hap­pens next, Stephen Strange won’t be a cult out­lier for much longer. Fiftythree years af­ter his cre­ation, the Sorcerer Supreme is fi­nally com­ing to a lunch box near you.

DOC­TOR STRANGE IS IN CIN­E­MAS FROM 25 OC­TO­BER

Tilda Swin­ton’s An­cient One opens Cum­ber­batch’s eyes to strange new worlds.

Cum­ber­batch in full Doc­tor Strange get-up, com­plete with The Eye of Ag­amotto around his neck.

Strange searches for answers in mys­te­ri­ous Ka­mar-taj. The An­cient One with one-time ap­pren­tice Karl Mordo (Chi­we­tel Ejio­for). Be­low: Bene­dict Wong’s Wong, with new trainee Strange.

Stephane Ceretti’s vis­ual ef­fects are as mind (and build­ing)bend­ing as Steve Ditko’s orig­i­nal vi­sion.

Cum­ber­batch with Rachel Mca­dams as fel­low sur­geon Chris­tine Palmer. Be­low: On set with direc­tor Scott Der­rick­son. Mads Mikkelsen as the vil­lain­ous Kae­cil­ius, leader of the Zealots.

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