Dr Stephen Strange is freezing. You’d be cold, too, if you’d just been transported to the side of Mount Everest by two powerful sorcerers. But on 1 February 2016, day 54 of the 87-day shoot of Marvel’s Doctor Strange, the would-be sorcerer figures out a spell to bring him back to Kamar-Taj, the home of the Ancient One. And he’s bringing a whole new side of the Marvel Universe with him.
Benedict Cumberbatch on the set of Doctor Strange. All Images: Disney
Created by Steve Ditko in 1963, Doctor Strange is a character that president Kevin Feige has wanted to bring on screen since the launch of Marvel Studios, but had to wait on because general audiences (or maybe even the Marvel Cinematic Universe itself) weren’t ready for him. “The more movies we make the deeper we go into the comic books,” Feige said, “I don’t know that a movie like Doctor Strange could have been the second or third film we made.”
Instead, Marvel’s 14th film will introduce audiences to Dr Stephen Strange, a cocky, ultra-successful New York neurosurgeon (Benedict Cumberbatch) who gets into a terrible car accident and loses the use of his hands. He then travels across the globe, hoping to find some method of restoring then, but instead meets the Ancient One (Tilda Swinton). From her, Strange begins to learn about a whole new world of sorcery, mysticism and multiple dimensions.
Cumberbatch and director Scott Derrickson.
“I think it’s one of the coolest origins in our comics,” said Feige. “It’s certainly, from a cinematic point of view, the most sort of interesting singular character journey maybe since [the first] Iron Man that we’ve plucked from the books. “
Don’t just think of Doctor Strange as simply the magic Marvel movie, though — and it’s definitely nothing like Harry Potter. “For me, the starting point was what kind of things have we not seen in cinema,” director Scott Derrickson said. “[We were] almost working backward. What kind of action could be created in cinema that we haven’t seen? I started from that place and looked for a way to tie that into magic.”
Strange can cross dimensions and change planes of existence, which literally opens up a whole new side of the Marvel Cinematic Universe — a side this film will only begin to scratch the surface of. “One would imagine that anyone living in New York was aware of what had occurred in various instances,” Feige said, referencing the events of The Avengers and other Marvel movies. “But like in our real life, people go about their daily business, their job, and his job is to be the best neurosurgeon. So he doesn’t spend a lot of time talking or thinking about the Avengers.”
Cumberbatch and Baron Mordo (Chiwetel Ejiofor) work with the sling ring, kind of a sorcerer’s magic wand.
Before he can start thinking about the Avengers, Strange must learn the ways of this world and that brings us to the scene in question. Filming took place at the Longcross Studios, in Surrey, about 50km outside London. On Stage One is the courtyard of Kamar-Taj , the home of the Ancient One. She and Baron Mordo (Chiwetel Ejiofor) have been training Strange, and for one test, they send him to Mount Everest with nothing to aid him except a Sling Ring. (That’s a prop invented for the film that sorcerers use to help them perform sorcery. It’s kind of their magic wand.)
The scene begins with the Ancient One standing in the middle of the set, which is fully formed on three sides, about 45m wide and probably 15m high all around. Every inch is detailed, weathered and constantly sprayed with water by crew members to keep it looking as old and musty as one would imagine.
The Ancient One and Mordo look on as Strange returns from his journey. This is the scene we were on set witnessing.
Mordo walks up to her and says, “Perhaps I was wrong about him.”
“We shall see, any second now,” the Ancient One replies.
“Maybe I should…” and just as Mordo finishes that, a portal begins to open, and they both smile.
It’s Stephen Strange, in thin grey wraps, his beard covered in snow and ice, conjuring a portal by making a circle with his hand. He then stumbles through, falls to the ground in Kamar-Taj and looks up in shock. Though it sounds like a seemingly simple scene, Derrickson shot it for about five hours. Different falls, angles from behind and around every character. Over shoulders, from the ground. The left, the right. Having an immersive set like that allows for this. And while there isn’t an actual portal there, there is an LED light circle, about 2m tall, that blinks for Strange to walk though and will later be enhanced with digital effects.
Why is Strange cold and icy? Well, here’s why.
If you’re already a fan of Doctor Strange, you’re probably thinking, “Wait, isn’t Baron Mordo a villain?” He’s one of Strange’s biggest foes in the comics, but in this movie universe that hasn’t happened… yet. (No one was shy at hinting that it could be the plan in sequels.) Instead, the villain is Kaecilius, played by Mads Mikkelsen.
Kassilus is a fellow sorcerer who “has a philosophical break” from the others, according to Feige. And though he’s not a well-known Marvel character, Derrickson hints he may not be working alone. “From the beginning, I was pitching an antagonist who was rooted in the real world,” Derrickson said. “So that there could be an intimate relatability between Strange and his adversary, but who was empowered by something else. Something otherworldly. And I’ll say this — another character straight from the comics.” Derrickson likened this mysterious relationship to Sauron and Saruman in Lord of the Rings, sort of a master-apprentice thing.
Another comic character joining the film is Wong, who serves as Strange’s manservant in the comics. Played by Benedict Wong (talk about confusing) in the movie, this Wong is definitely not a manservant. “Wong is a racial stereotype. I mean, let’s be blunt about it,” says Derrickson. “As is the Ancient One, but Wong even more than the Ancient One, I think, was a character that there just wasn’t a lot that was fundamental about his character that was usable. So instead of being a sidekick, he’s [now] a master of the mystic arts. Instead of being a manservant, he oversees the library at Kamar-Taj and is an intellectual mentor to Strange. So we kind of flipped everything that he was.”
Benedict Wong as Wong, in a sliver of a new character poster from the film.
Wong, the actor, agrees with Derrickson’s assessment of Wong, the character. “I’m very much into looking forward into our modern take and back in on the beginnings of this origin story now,” he said. “So, you know, let’s turn a whole new page.”
Otherwise, Strange’s origin will be pretty faithful to the comics, which is one of the elements about the character that attracted actor Benedict Cumberbatch to a role fans have been clamouring for him to play for years. “One of the things that attracted me to the role is the fact that it’s a really wide origin story,” he said. “It’s fantastic. It gives me an excuse as an actor to be learning with my character, which is something you can do authentically — I’m not a martial arts expert, I’m certainly no sorcerer, so all these things, the movement of the body, the physicality, the changes he goes through mentally and physically, obviously we’re not shooting in sequence, but it’s a great part.”
Hopefully, it will bring in fans not just of Marvel movies, but others too. Thought Strange is the 14th film in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, it exists almost entirely in its own world. “If you didn’t know this movie was connected to 13 movies before it, nothing in this movie would indicate that was the case,” Feige explained. “This is very much a standalone introduction to a very complex character and a very complex world. Everyone in this movie knows more than Strange. Everyone is more talented [than him] for 90 per cent of the movie.”
Strange and Christine Palmer (Rachel McAdams) share a moment in the hospital. She was not on set the day we were there.
Tonally, they compare the film to Bryan K. Vaughan’s popular Doctor Strange storyline, The Oath, which featured a joking Strange and some crazy visuals. Visually, the original Steve Ditko artwork is something that’s referenced often, which has a very otherworldly, bright look. “It’s really weird. You don’t want to turn away from that,” said Feige. “[The movie] needs to be strange. It needs to be weird. It needs to be absolutely inspired by those images.”
But the elements that will truly distinguish Doctor Strange from the rest of the Marvel Cinematic Universe are the magical action scenes. “We wanted to do something different,” Feige said, “We wanted to tap into this notion of the multiverse, of dimensions right next to our own. And if you were able to tap into those dimensions, and those other powers, what could you do if you pulled aspects of those other dimensions into our realm? All in the interest of creating a visual tapestry that is totally different in terms of an action scene we’ve seen in any other movies.”
So while there will be some of the expected lightning versus lightning throwing, Derrickson really wanted to get away from action beats people had already seen.
“I really feel like magic has been drawing on the Emperor in Star Wars for over 30 years,” said Derrickson. “[Our] fighting is always within a context of something more fantastical, more surreal and more mind-trippy than just the supernatural action of combat.”
Cumberbatch and Derrickson share a moment in the Sanctum Sanctorum.
With location shooting in Nepal and Kathmandu, and on multiple stages in London and even New York, Doctor Strange promises to do what Marvel does best. Prove that a good character will drive a good story and, in the case of D Strange, hopefully even drive a whole new dimension.
“We have a studio that trusts us and lets us do what we want for the most part with the creative. We have audiences that seem to be embracing whether they have heard of the characters or not,” Feige said. “Let’s use that to make as interesting and different and unique a story as possible and not just stay with the same thing. And [Doctor Strange] is certainly the embodiment of that.”
Doctor Strange opens October 27.
Note: Disney paid for Gizmodo’s travel to London to visit the Doctor Strange set.