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.
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.