Doctor Strange has arrived, and there were so many comic references – and so many questions! When does this film take place? Where do the relics come from? Who was that guy at the end?! The answers await, dear reader, if you dare…
So that film was a blast, though your mileage may vary. Most of the reviews I’ve seen seem to say, “it was a really good movie, but not the greatest Marvel movie ever.” So, if this were any other cinematic universe, it’d be damn good, right?
Oh, look! Marvel has a new, more involved logo! Neat.
Before we continue…
Note: Although this entire article is filled with spoilers, the intention was, originally, to describe events more-or-less as they happened chronologically in the movie, but there is one big spoiler that kind of needs said at the beginning, even though it is literally the last thing revealed in the film.
Here it is:
Mordo is a bad guy. Not of this film, but in general. Got that? Good. Moving on.
Comic Connections in Doctor Strange
So, in the very first scene we are introduced to Kaecilius, the main antagonist of this story. He breaks into the Ancient One’s mystical library, beheads the current librarian with his followers, then rips two pages out of an arcane book before the Ancient One herself chases the evil zealots away. In the comics, Kaecilius is one of several inconsequential sorcerers who work for Baron Mordo – in fact, his biggest role was to literally be Mordo’s mouthpiece when the Baron himself couldn’t be bothered to go somewhere. He wasn’t even named until 1992! While that may seem like an odd choice for a franchise’s first villain, it does allow for Mordo’s character to receive a lot more development than he did in the original comics.
The Ancient One fights Kaecilius using the fan technique – not something unique to Marvel, but definitely a staple of wire-fu films. And… this is as good a place as any to address the elephant in the room. In this film, they explicitly refer to the Ancient One as female and Celtic. Obviously, the Ancient One was male and Tibetan in the comics, but a couple things here: first, the classic Ancient One was born over 500 years ago, long before the current political climate, and second, there have been several “Ancient Ones” over the years, and in Marvel stories set 1,000 years from now, Strange becomes the Ancient One.
Flashing back to Stephen Strange’s life before things got … we’ll say “weird” … we meet the people in his life, including Dr. Christine Palmer. The two dated in the past, but Strange’s ego clashed too often with Palmer’s compassion. We learn later on Strange’s favorite watch (for he has several), was a gift from Christine in happier times, though they have remained (somewhat flirtatious) friends. Christine is actually an amalgamation of a few characters in the comic. Unlike Tony and Pepper or Thor and Jane, Doctor Strange did not have an on-going mundane love interest in the beginning (though he did marry an extradimensional princess, they are currently estranged – no pun intended). He did date an unidentified Night Nurse in the excellent mini-series Doctor Strange: The Oath, however. There seem to have been several “Night Nurses” who treat superhero wounds without asking questions or compromising identities (as Claire does for Daredevil, Jessica Jones, and Luke Cage), and at least one was Christine Palmer, who first appeared in a series called Night Nurse, although she wasn’t the title character and it didn’t involve superheroics.
At any rate, Strange is an egotistical lout whose manual dexterity and mental acuity make him one of the best neurosurgeons in the world – or did, before he distractedly caused his own car crash. Just before everything hits the fan, Strange goes over possible future cases, and one that doesn’t interest him involves an air force colonel with a crushed spine in experimental armor. This is our best hint at when this film takes place.
The most obvious candidate is Lt. Col. James Rhodes, but his spine wasn’t “crushed” so much as impacted by the fall, and his War Machine armor has already gone through several upgrades, so it’s hardly “experimental.” Our second candidate is the test pilot for Hammer Industries’ experimental battle armor, whose spine was severed by malfunctioning equipment before the events of Iron Man 2. Although the incident seemed fatal, Hammer assured witnesses that the pilot survived. If that is the case, then the start of this movie takes place between the first two Iron Man films, and since Wong later describes the Avengers as protecting the world the end of this movie would take place at least after the first Avengers film, which would make Sitwell’s comment about Hydra monitoring Stephen Strange make sense (even though producers suggested it might have just been a coincidence), and allow for the mid-credits scene, which features a slightly more experienced Doctor Strange, to take place at any point after Avengers: The Age of Ultron. That would mean it’s been six or seven years since Strange’s car accident.
UPDATE: And…. maybe not. As pointed out in the comments by Marcus Douglas, the director has confirmed the whole movie takes place over the course of a year. Coincidence it is.
Strange barely survives the accident and might have lost his hands if not for the efforts of a doctor named Nick, who Strange had previously berated. Strange initially blames Nick for his trembling hands (which would mean the end of his surgical practice), but Christine assures him they did all they could. The credits reveal Nick is indeed Nicodemus West, the doctor who operated on Strange’s hands in the comics. In that version, West was so distraught over his failure to completely save Strange’s hands that he fell into despair, eventually finding his way to the Ancient One and dedicating himself to making Strange suffer emotionally for causing him to doubt himself.
Desperate for hope, Strange learns of Jonathan Pangborn, a man who should be paralyzed but isn’t. Pangborn says he actually sought out Strange for help but was turned away, so he eventually found Tamar-Taj, and learned to heal himself. This sends Strange on his worldwide quest. In the comics, Strange overheard sailors talking about the Ancient One’s miracles before seeking him out. Also, while Pangborn doesn’t seem to be in the comics, he serves a similar role to Reginald Pavlish, a patient who was rejected by Strange for having an uninteresting medical need, then set West on his journey to the East.
In Kathmandu, Nepal, (which is not Tibet), Strange is recruited by Mordo, who saves him from a mugging before leading him to Kamar-Taj. In the comics, Mordo was the first disciple of the Ancient One that Strange met, and it was that encounter that encouraged Strange to go through with his mystic training.
After some initial misunderstanding, Strange becomes acquainted with the one-armed sorcerer Master Hamir. In the comics, Hamir is Wong’s father, and was the Ancient One’s attendant for many years.
After separating Strange from his body, Ancient One sends him on a Contact-style journey into mysterious dimensions, including most significantly, the Dark Dimension. This is the dimension most often visited by Strange in the comics, and where many of his supporting cast hail from. In the Marvel Graphic Novel Into Shamballa, Hamir sent Strange on a similar trip through the multiverse to find enlightenment.
The Ancient One explains that sorcerers get energy from other dimensions in the multiverse to power their magic, and the word “multiverse” is dropped repeatedly throughout the flick. The word “multiverse” has very specific connotations in the Marvel Universe. In a nutshell, there are several dimensions that exist within the Marvel reality, including the main universe of Earth, the Negative Zone (sort of glimpsed in the 2015 Fantastic Four movie), the Dark Dimension, and others. That reality exists within a multiverse, with several versions of each universe, though some dimensions, such as Limbo (which Wong mentions in the film). It gets more complicated from there.
Here’s what’s important about the Ancient One’s claim: it completely matches Marvel’s rules of magic. There are certain things a sorcerer can train themselves to do using their own power: create astral projections, read minds, protect against simple spells, that kind of thing. More intense spells, like attacks, shields, and what not, sorcerers actually “borrow” power from other entities and dimensions in exchange for something. Very often, a piece of the sorcerer’s soul.
Once allowed to train, Mordo gives Strange the temple’s wifi password: Shamballa. In several faiths, Shamballa is the quintessential paradise that the truly enlightened strive to reach. It’s also the name of a mature-reader graphic novel, in which Hamir helped Doctor Strange find balance and enlightenment in his own life.
Strange meets Wong in the library. A quick gag in the film involves Wong having only one name, and it’s been that way in the comics since he appeared. Like the political realities surrounding the Ancient One, Wong is something of a controversial figure as he is, and has always been, Strange’s manservant. And that’s… awkward. Of course, in the comics, he is also Strange’s most trusted friend and ally, and recent comics revealed that if not for Wong and his followers, Strange would have died a dozen times over. In the movie, Wong is a master sorcerer, and the new head librarian of Kamar-Taj.
In the library, several books are mentioned (which ones did you hear?) but we also learn more about the book Kaecilius ripped off. Its pages on time and space manipulation from the Book of Cagliostro, written by one of the most influential wizards in Marvel history. The book clues Strange in to the Eye of Agamotto, which he then uses to reverse time and read the missing pages, cluing him into the existence of Dormmamu. All of this is pretty impressive, but the Eye of Agamotto – named after the first sorcerer supreme – is much more powerful in the comics. It also has a very distinctive look. It’s possible this is the Lesser Eye of Agamotto.
Considering we learn later it houses an Infinity Stone (the Time Gem, obviously) and we know Thanos will steal it at some point, it’s possible Strange will get the Greater Eye of Agamotto later on.
Mordo and the Ancient One instruct Strange in the use of a Slingring, needed to open portals to other places. In the comics, Strange uses the (Greater) Eye of Agamotto to open most portals, but did once need the Ring of Full Power to help him use magic in difficult situations.
As his skills steadily increase, Strange devours books from Wong’s library, as no book is forbidden (just some of the spells inside). Books are a major part of the Strange mythos, most significantly the Darkhold (now appearing in Agents of SHIELD!) and the Book of Vishanti, strangely absent from this film (more on that later). Recently Strange found the world in a magical crisis as most books of magic were wiped clean from history, so he’s having to rebuild the collections from memory.
Strange learns that, aside from mental techniques and spells, sorcerers use relics to access great power. This follows the comics, as many of Strange’s regular moves are completed with the aid of magical items.
Specifically, Mordo mentions the Staff of the Living Tribunal, which … wow. Seriously. The Living Tribunal is the most powerful active being in the multiverse (leaving aside whoever you believe God is that LT works for), so the idea of him enchanting a staff is pretty extreme. He doesn’t usually get involved with mortal affairs, so this must be some weapon.
The Wand of Watoomb is name-dropped, but later in the film we see Wong using it. This is interesting as the film Wand looks almost identical to its comic book counterpart, but most other items are very different. Watoomb is one of the Octessence – eight powerful mystic beings that empower sorcerers on Earth, and compete with each other for bragging rights. The incomplete Wand of Watoomb is a powerful item that enhances a sorcerer’s abilities. The complete Wand of Watoomb is one of the most powerful and formidable weapons on Earth.
Mordo uses the Vaulting Boots of Valtorr, which seem to let me walk on air. In the comics, Valtorr is another member of the Octessence who used the Verdant Vial of Valtorr to empower his avatar Decay. As with many other powerful deities, Strange often invokes his name by saying things like “By the Vapors of Valtorr!”
The Ancient One introduces Strange to the Mirror Dimension, a place where sorcerers can practice powerful magic without being seen. UPDATE: Stab my eyes! This is basically what Doctor Strange has been doing regularly in his current comic series, although it isn’t exactly the same. In this case, whenever he uses the Eye to look into the magical realm, he can see the magic that lurks on the edges of the mundane world, while everyone else just sees a weirdo in a mustache acting odd.
Strange is then told about the Sanctums in New York, Hong Kong, and London. Obviously the New York Sanctum is (and will be) Doctor Strange’s Sanctum Sanctorum, his long-time home in the comics. In the film, it’s said each Sanctum was founded by Agamotto; in the comics, the Sanctum Sanctorum was built on the ruins of several previous buildings, each of which came to a mysterious and horrible end. Sanctums are bigger on the inside thanks to a liberal use of magical portals and enchantments, and house numerous magical artifacts.
The London Sanctum is destroyed by Kaecilius and his followers, killing the Master of Mystic arts that was stationed there. In the comics, the British Isles have one of the strongest concentrations of magic anywhere on the planet, thanks in large part to the land’s connection to Merlin and the extradimensional Otherworld.
The New York Sanctum was protected by Daniel Drumm, another master, but he is defeated (and possibly killed) by Kaecilius. This is super significant as Daniel was a Voodoo houngan, and when he died in the comics, his brother Dr. Jericho Drumm became the mystical superhero Brother Voodoo, aided by Daniel’s spirit. Together, they took over the role of Sorcerer Supreme when Strange briefly had to abdicate the title.
Kaecilius constantly manipulates the physical reality of the world, including the Sanctum, to frustrate Strange. In the comics, Strange can do this to his own house to make intruders feel unwelcome.
After Drumm falls, Strange battles Kaecilius and his followers. Seeking the aid of relics, he first grabs what appears to be a cup or font of glowing energy, but he doesn’t know how to use it. This might be the Evil Eye, used most often by the immortal Christian zealot Prester John.
Of course, the real winner is the Cloak of Levitation that seems somewhat enamored with Strange, and actively helps him out. In the comics Strange has had two cloaks, the Lesser Cloak of Levitation that he gave to one of his disciples, and the Greater Cloak of Levitation, given to him by the Ancient One.
Strange originally believed that the cloak was just a tool, with no life of its own, but over the years it has shown some initiative at times. In the film it is clearly alive, and has a lot in common with the current depiction of Silver Surfer’s surfboard, nicknamed “Toomie.” Although Toomie is technically just an extension of the Surfer, it has a mind of its own, acting as something like a very smart pet or a very simple friend.
During the fight, Strange reaches for what may be an enchanted axe, but the Cloak has other plans. In the current comics, Strange has taken to using the Axe of Angarruumus on a regular basis, as it helps him finish fights much faster than spellcasting, which can tax his spirit.
At the Cloak’s insistence, Strange instead grabs some kind of magical binding. Naturally, magical binding is a common technique used in the comics, though usually the binds are completely mystical in nature, and have no physical form.
Injured during the fight, Strange portals to Christine at the hospital and uses astral projection to aid in his own operation (much to her shock). Strange did this when he first met the Night Nurse in the comics, and in both cases, Strange felt a sense of loss, as he was unable to perform surgery, and was formed to watch someone else do it. This was in the astounding Doctor Strange: The Oath mini-series. You should read it! Many scenes from the film are directly from this storyline.
During the operation, Strange fights one of Kaecilius’ followers (named Lucien, maybe?) while both are in astral form. Astral fighting is a staple of Doctor Strange comics, and has been since the beginning.
After the fight, the Ancient One declares Strange the Master of the New York Sanctum, and while he accepts the role, he questions her judgement as he suspects she is channeling energy from the Dark Dimension to extend her life, a charge she neither confirms nor denies, causing the nearby Mordo to doubt. During the final fight with Kaecilius, a symbol of the Dark Dimension seems to appear on the Ancient One’s forehead, further implicating her. In the comics, the Ancient One was aided by the Vishanti, a trimulative of deities (including Agamotto) who fight against the forces of darkness. It is extremely odd that the name Vishanti did not appear in this film, perhaps that is something Strange will have to discover for himself.
In our required Stan Lee cameo, we see an old man laughing at a copy of Doors of Perception by Aldous Huxley. This is part of the drug culture movement of the mid-20th century, with adherents considering psychedelic drugs as gateways to higher planes of consciousness, and a great nod to Doctor Strange’s biggest fans: the counter-culture movement of the 1960s.
While the Ancient One dies, Wong and his disciples try in vain to stop Kaecilius from taking over the Hong Kong Sanctum, but with the fall of the Sanctum, the Dark Dimension begins merging with Earth’s dimension. Kaecilius seems to believe that when everything merges into one being as part of Dormammu, all existence will be at peace. That isn’t exactly Dormammu’s goal in the comics, as there are plenty of inhabitants in the Dark Dimension, but the vast majority are under Dormammu’s direct command. He did succeed in conquering Earth at one point, but as in the movie, Doctor Strange reversed the situation.
Coincidentally, Marvel recently revealed Hong Kong’s magical protector to be police officer Alice Gulliver – maybe she’ll get her own Sanctum at some point?
Coincidentally, Dormammu’s sister (she’s also bad news) once destroyed the New York Sanctum in the comics, and Doctor Strange fixed it just as easily because, as he put it, she neglected to put a Psychic Seal of Permanence on her destruction spell. Lazy supervillains, I tell ya!
By the way, Strange’s time spell also fixes a Yakult sign. Yakult! Every body. Every day. (Product placement!)
When Strange finally enters the Dark Dimension, he confronts Dormmamu himself. The D man is probably Strange’s most powerful and persistent foe, though his power levels fluctuate wildly between god-like and merely threatening. His trademark flaming head isn’t actually fire, but a sign of dominion over the Dark Dimension. Whoever wrests power from him will have a similarly burning aura around them.
Strange traps Dormmamu in a time loop, offering a bargain: let him out of the loop if he leaves Earth and takes his followers with him. Interestingly, Strange admits he could never win, but he could lose forever, echoing one of Cap’s most memorable lines and cementing his place as a hero.
When Kaecilius and the others are taken by Dormammu, their bodies blacken, as if burnt, and their eyes glow red, and then… nothing. They sure seemed to be turning into Mindless Ones, the unstoppable and (usually) brainless killing machines of the Dark Dimension. Maybe next movie.
When all is said and done, Mordo quits Kamar-Taj, the world is left without a Sorcerer Supreme, and Strange accepts that his scarred hands will never truly heal, but that he will remain protector of Earth’s dimension.
Officially, Strange can’t just claim the mantle of Sorcerer Supreme, it has to be earned and granted to him.
In the mid-credits scene, we have a very different Doctor Strange. This Strange is more confident (but not arrogant) and ready to confront even a known quantity like Thor. When he learns Thor and Loki are on Earth looking for Odin, he offers to help Thor to get their dangerous Asgardian behinds out of his dimension. See you in Thor: Ragnorok!
Just before the after-credits scene, there’s a quick warning to avoid driving while distracted, a reference to the cause of Strange’s car accident. Good advice, Marvel! UPDATE: A friend pointed out that the warning comes after the movie, much as the warnings in the Book of Cagliostro come too late. He wasn’t the only one to notice this funny parallel.
In the final scene, Mordo finally shows his true colors by stealing Pangborn’s magic, but this version of Mordo is not as blatantly, mustache-twirlingly evil as the Baron Mordo of the comics. In the Marvel Univese, Mordo is evil for evil’s sake, and it was he who was a secret follower of Dormammu when Strange learned from the Ancient One. The Marvel Cinematic Universe version is much more nuanced, as he, like Magneto or Loki, actually makes a good point. Sorcerers are dangerous, and maybe there are too many of them. That said, you don’t want him to kill all magic.
So, what did you see?