Doctor Strange is a 2016 American superhero film based on the Marvel Comics character of the same name. Produced by Marvel Studios and distributed by Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures, it is the 14th film in the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU). The film was directed by Scott Derrickson from a screenplay he wrote with Jon Spaihts and C. Robert Cargill, and stars Benedict Cumberbatch as neurosurgeon Stephen Strange along with Chiwetel Ejiofor, Rachel McAdams, Benedict Wong, Michael Stuhlbarg, Benjamin Bratt, Scott Adkins, Mads Mikkelsen, and Tilda Swinton. In the film, Strange learns the mystic arts after a career-ending car crash.
Various incarnations of a Doctor Strange film adaptation had been in development since the mid-1980s, until Paramount Pictures acquired the film rights in April 2005 on behalf of Marvel Studios. Thomas Dean Donnelly and Joshua Oppenheimer were brought on board in June 2010 to write a screenplay. In June 2014, Derrickson was hired to direct, with Spaihts re-writing the script. Cumberbatch was chosen for the eponymous role in December 2014, necessitating a schedule change to work around his other commitments. This gave Derrickson time to work on the script himself, for which he brought Cargill on to help. Principal photography on the film began in November 2015 in Nepal, before moving to England and Hong Kong, and wrapping up in New York City in April 2016.
Doctor Strange had its world premiere in Hong Kong on October 13, 2016, and was released in the United States on November 4, as part of Phase Three of the MCU. The film grossed over $677 million worldwide and was met with praise for its cast, visual effects, and musical score. The film received an Academy Award nomination for Best Visual Effects. A sequel, Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness, was released in May 2022.
A film based on the Marvel Comics character Doctor Strange was initially listed as being in development at New World Pictures, with a script dated January 21, 1986, by Bob Gale, which never went further into production. By 1989, Alex Cox had co-written a script with Doctor Strange co-creator Stan Lee. The script had the character traveling to the Fourth Dimension before facing the villain Dormammu on Easter Island, Chile. A film using this script was almost made by Regency, but the company’s films were distributed by Warner Bros. at the time, which was in a dispute with Marvel over merchandising. Around this time, producer Charles Band optioned the property from Marvel and began developing a film at his studio Full Moon Entertainment. However, the option expired before production could begin and the project was reworked into the 1992 film Doctor Mordrid, whose titular character bore similarities to Doctor Strange. By December 1992, Wes Craven had signed to write and direct Doctor Strange for release in either 1994 or 1995, with Savoy Pictures distributing. In 1995, David S. Goyer had completed a script for the film. By April 1997, Columbia Pictures had purchased the film rights and Jeff Welch was working on a new screenplay, with Bernie Brillstein and Brad Grey producing.
By April 2000, Columbia dropped Doctor Strange, which then had Michael France attached to write a script and interest from Chuck Russell and Stephen Norrington to direct. By June 2001, Dimension Films acquired the film rights, with Goyer back on board as writer and director. Goyer hinted scheduling conflicts might ensue with a film adaptation of Murder Mysteries, and promised not to be highly dependent on computer-generated imagery. However, by August 2001, Miramax acquired the film rights from Dimension, and by March 2002, Goyer had dropped out of the project. A 2005 release date was announced the next March, while in June 2004, a script still had yet to be written. Marvel Studios CEO Avi Arad stated, “We are nowhere with that. That’s a tough one to write, but we are working on it. We are trying to find the real Jerry Garcia of the writing community.” In April 2005, Paramount Pictures acquired Doctor Strange from Miramax, as part of Marvel Studios’ attempt to independently produce their own films. At the time, the film was projected to have a budget of no more than $165 million. In 2007, Guillermo del Toro and Neil Gaiman pitched a version of the film to Marvel, with Gaiman writing and del Toro directing. Their version would have seen the character be alcoholic and a disbarred physician in the late 1920s or early 1930s, and he would have been living in Greenwich Village for 90 years without aging. It would have also been heavily inspired by the art of Steve Ditko. Gaiman was especially interested in including the character Clea, but the studio was not interested.
In March 2009, Marvel hired writers to help come up with creative ways to launch its lesser-known properties, including Doctor Strange. In June 2010, Marvel Studios hired Thomas Dean Donnelly and Joshua Oppenheimer to write Doctor Strange. While promoting Transformers: Dark of the Moon in April 2011, actor Patrick Dempsey indicated he was lobbying to play the title character. In January 2013, Marvel Studios president Kevin Feige confirmed that Doctor Strange would appear in some capacity as part of Phase Three of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Feige then reiterated that a Doctor Strange feature film was in development at Marvel Studios that May, and again in November. In February 2014, The Hollywood Reporter wrote that Marvel was considering Mark Andrews, Jonathan Levine, Nikolaj Arcel and Dean Israelite to direct the film, and was considering Jonathan Aibel and Glenn Berger to rewrite the film’s script. Feige denied this report, but confirmed that Marvel was considering prospective candidates. By March, Marvel was considering Andrews, Levine, and Scott Derrickson to direct the film.
- Benedict Cumberbatch as Dr. Stephen Strange:
A neurosurgeon who, after a car crash that led to a journey of healing, discovers the hidden world of magic and alternate dimensions. Cumberbatch described Strange as arrogant, with the film “about him going from a place where he thinks he knows it all to realizing he knows nothing.” He compared the character to the version of Sherlock Holmes that he portrays in Sherlock, calling both characters “intelligent” and having “smatterings of the same colors”. The film’s mysticism resonated with Cumberbatch, for whom spirituality has been important since he spent his gap year teaching English at a Tibetan Buddhist monastery in Darjeeling, India. Strange’s abilities in the film include casting spells with “tongue-twisty fun names”, creating mandalas of light for shields and weapons, and creating portals for quick travel around the world. Strange is also aided by a Cloak of Levitation for flight, and the Eye of Agamotto, a relic containing an Infinity Stone that can manipulate time. Cumberbatch took great care in defining the physical movements and gestures for the spells, knowing that they would be noted and studied by fans. He described these gestures as “balletic” and “very dynamic”, and received help with finger-tutting movements from dancer JayFunk.
- Chiwetel Ejiofor as Karl Mordo:
A Master of the Mystic Arts, close to the Ancient One and a mentor to Strange. This version of Mordo is a combination of different characters from the Doctor Strange mythos, and unlike in the comics is not introduced as villainous. Ejiofor noted this, calling Mordo “a very complex character that, really, I don’t think can be nailed down either way”. Director Scott Derrickson added that the change in character stemmed from casting Ejiofor and conversations the director had with him. Ejiofor described Mordo’s relationship with the Ancient One as “long and intense”, while noting a “growing respect” between the character and Strange, until “things get complicated”. Derrickson felt Mordo was a fundamentalist, saying “When someone gives themselves over to an extraordinarily strict moral code, the process of breaking out of that is a violent one. He becomes disillusioned with the Ancient One’s [moral contradictions]. The difference is Strange can accept that contradiction. Mordo cannot cope with it,” which leads to the “antagonism between Mordo and Strange” to explore in future films. Discussing the diversity of the film’s cast when addressing the controversial casting of the characters the Ancient One and Wong, Derrickson was confident that the decision to cast Ejiofor as Mordo, and thus changing the character “from white to black”, was the right one to make.
- Rachel McAdams as Christine Palmer:
An emergency surgeon initially written as a love interest for Strange, but shortly before filming, Derrickson suggested that this trope be subverted by making the two characters lovers as part of their backstory and coming “out the other side of it as friends”. McAdams described this dynamic by saying, “The love is between them no matter what stage they’re at in the actual relationship.” With this change in characterization, producer Kevin Feige described Palmer as a “lynchpin to [Strange’s] old life, once he steps into the role of a sorcerer. She is someone he connects with at the beginning, and reconnects with, and helps anchor his humanity.” He explained that having this character be a “connection to Strange’s life in New York City, in the normal world” after his journey was important to the studio, which is why Palmer was chosen for the character over the more prominent, but more fantastical character Clea. Palmer is also known as the hero Night Nurse in the comics, a storyline that does not play into the film, but that Feige hinted could be explored in future films. Rosario Dawson portrays another Night Nurse character, Claire Temple, in Marvel’s Netflix television series.
- Benedict Wong as Wong:
A Master of the Mystic Arts, tasked with protecting some of Kamar-Taj’s most valuable relics and books. The character is depicted in the comics as Strange’s Asian, “tea-making manservant”, a racial stereotype that Derrickson did not want in the film, and so the character was not included in the film’s script. After the non-Asian actress Tilda Swinton was cast as the other significant Asian character from the Doctor Strange comics, the Ancient One—which was also done to avoid the comics’ racial stereotypes—Derrickson felt obligated to find a way to include Wong in the film. The character as he ultimately appears is “completely subverted as a character and reworked into something that didn’t fall into any of the stereotypes of the comics”, which Derrickson was pleased gave an Asian character “a strong presence in the movie”. Actor Wong was also pleased with the changes made to the character, and described him as “a drill sergeant to Kamar-Taj” rather than a manservant. He does not practice martial arts in the film, avoiding another racial stereotype. Derrickson added that Wong will have “a strong presence in the Marvel Cinematic Universe” moving forward.
- Michael Stuhlbarg as Nicodemus West: A rival surgeon to Strange.
- Benjamin Bratt as Jonathan Pangborn: A paraplegic who learned from the Ancient One how to heal himself through the mystic arts.
- Scott Adkins as Lucian: One of Kaecilius’ followers.
- Mads Mikkelsen as Kaecilius:
A Master of the Mystic Arts who broke away from the Ancient One. A combination of several antagonists from the comics, Kaecilius was used in the film to drive the introduction and development of bigger villains for the future, including “certain individuals who live in other dimensions”. Derrickson compared this dynamic to that of Saruman and Sauron in The Lord of the Rings, giving the film a “huge and fantastical” villain like Sauron, but also having “human relateability” with Kaecilius, like Saruman, for Strange to face throughout the film. Derrickson admitted that Marvel’s villains are often criticized, and noted that MCU films dedicate little time to developing antagonists. For Doctor Strange, he just hoped to show “Kaecilius’s point of view and what makes him tick” in the time that he could, feeling that the character is a “man of ideas” with “watertight logic” like John Doe from Seven and the Joker from The Dark Knight. On these motivations, Feige explained that Kaecilius believes the Ancient One is a hypocrite, protecting her own power base, and that the world may be better off “if we were to allow some of these other things through.” Mikkelsen’s makeup took between 2–3 hours to apply.
- Tilda Swinton as the Ancient One:
A Celtic mystic who becomes Strange’s mentor. The character is a Tibetan man in the comics, and co-writer C. Robert Cargill said adapting the character as the comics portrayed him would be realizing the major Asian Fu Manchu stereotype while involving the film with the Tibetan sovereignty debate. However, not giving one of few significant Asian roles to an Asian actor would also be received negatively; Cargill compared this situation to the Kobayashi Maru, an unwinnable training exercise from Star Trek. Derrickson wanted to change the character to an Asian woman, but felt an older Asian woman would invoke the Dragon Lady stereotype, while a younger Asian woman would be perceived as exploiting Asian fetish and be a “fanboy’s dream girl”. He also wanted to avoid the stereotype of a “Western character coming to Asia to learn about being Asian”, and decided to cast a non-Asian actor in the role. Derrickson still wanted to take the opportunity to cast an actress in the previously male role, and wrote the character with Swinton in mind as he felt she was the obvious choice to play “domineering, secretive, ethereal, enigmatic, [and] mystical”. Additionally, though the film uses the terms “her” and “she”, Swinton chose to portray the character as androgynous, while Feige explained that the Ancient One and Sorcerer Supreme are mantles in the film held by multiple characters through time, so a more comic-accurate Ancient One could still exist within the MCU. Despite this, Swinton’s casting was widely criticized as whitewashing. Derrickson said he was pleased with the diversity of the film’s cast, in terms of both gender and ethnicity, but acknowledged that “Asians have been whitewashed and stereotyped in American cinema for over a century and people should be mad or nothing will change. What I did was the lesser of two evils, but it is still an evil.” Looking back at the casting in May 2021, Feige said the studio thought they were being “so smart and so cutting-edge” when they avoided the wise old Asian man stereotype, but the criticism of the casting was a wake-up call that made them realize they could have cast an Asian actor in the role without falling into stereotypes.
October 13, 2016
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