Strap on the Cloak of Levitation, polish up the Eye of Agamotto, and trim your goatee: we’re blasting back into the Marvel multiverse. With Doctor Strange now released around the world, we spoke to its director, Scott Derrickson, to get under the astral skin of the MCU’s fourteenth film, and unravel a few mystical mysteries. Be sure to listen to the full Empire Podcast Doctor Strange spoiler special – and forget everything that you think you know, as somebody once said...
SPOILER WARNING: this article contains major spoilers for Doctor Strange throughout.
1. The whole movie takes place over the course of one year
In a film where time is very much relative, it’s tricky to tell how much time passes during the running time. Director Scott Derrickson confirms that it is set in “present day”, as references to Beyoncé and wi-fi would suggest, but the entire film covers a period of around one year.
Stephen Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) spends about “three to six months” in recovery from his accident. (“There is a more precise answer, but I don't remember,” says Derrickson.) The entire film runs from one autumn to the following year’s autumn – though Derrickson adds the caveat: “Don't hold me to this, because I haven't thought about this in a long time.”
2. Benedict Cumberbatch provides the voice and facial capture for Dormammu
Mads Mikkelsen is on bad guy duties as the treacherous Kaecilius, but he is merely a pawn compared to the might of the all-powerful Dormammu. The demon of the dark dimension, Derrickson reveals, is played by one Mr B. Cumberbatch, who provides the voice and facial capture for the villain he himself faces.
“The reason for that was threefold,” as Derrickson explains. “One, Benedict suggested it. [Two], the awesomeness of his voice – he was Smaug, of course. [Three,] he understood exactly who Dormammu was. He's the ultimate cosmic narcissist. There was something great about the mirrored relationship between the two of them.” Cumberbatch’s voice was blended slightly with another actor’s voice, so audiences would not be able to recognise it.
3. Nightmare was originally due to be the main villain
Strange battles Kaecilius and Dormammu in the film – but the principal baddie could very well have been Nightmare, the first foe he faces in the comics. It was Derrickson’s hope to have the ruler of the Dream Dimension as primary antagonist, but Marvel Studios head honcho Kevin Feige argued against it. “Kevin made a very cogent case,” says Derrickson. “The trouble with starting with Nightmare is getting across the idea of the Dream Dimension as another dimension. The movie was challenging enough. It's already an exposition-heavy movie... Dormammu made the most sense. And he is the most present villain in the comics.”
4. The final showdown was a direct response to Marvel's usual final showdowns
Marvel have come under some criticism for the slightly repetitive nature of their third acts. New York, London, Washington D.C., and the fictional city of Sokovia have all fallen victim to what James Mangold recently called a “city-block destroying, CGI fuckathon”. Doctor Strange’s third act climax, which sees Doctor Strange reverse time to undo the city-block destroying, CGI fuckathon of Hong Kong, was a direct response to that criticism.
“It was literally the play on that whole, 'oh, every Marvel movie ends with a city being destroyed during a fight, and then a portal that opens is closed just in time',” chuckles Derrickson. “I said, ‘well, dammit, we're going to un-destroy a city and we're gonna leave the portal open and Strange is going to go into it and we're going to see what's on the other side. That's how fresh my movie is, dammit!’”
5. Kevin Feige is the MCU’s “head writer”
Derrickson, Jon Spaihts and C. Robert Cargill are the officially listed screenwriters of Doctor Strange, but like all films in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, it has the fingerprints of Kevin Feige all over it, ensuring that it aligns up with the rest of the fictional universe. “Kevin is the 'head writer' when it comes to the integration of the different stories,” says Derrickson. “He once came up to me on set and said, 'So, in Thor: Ragnarok, this is what's going to happen... And then this is going to work into Infinity War. I remember thinking, this information I'm getting is the most coveted information in the world of entertainment. I thought, I have so much power now! If I tweeted this, I could create a global crisis!” Perhaps noticing Marvel’s snipers circling nearby rooftops, he carefully added: “Within 24 hours, I had forgotten it all.”
6. Doctor Strange is possibly killed over a thousand times
The film ends on a Groundhog Day-esque finale in which the good doctor outwits Dormammu by forcing him into a loop where Strange is murdered continously, and time is reversed. In an earlier version of the script, it’s specified how long the two adversaries are stuck in this loop. “We had a line,” recounts Derrickson, “where Strange said, ‘we've been through this a thousand times. Literally. I fancied the idea that they went through it thousands of times before Dormammu finally realised he wasn't going to get out of it.”
7. Strange becomes the Sorcerer Supreme in an early version of the script
Strange very quickly rises through the ranks of Kamar-Taj, and is a powerful sorcerer by the end of the movie. But he is not the Sorcerer Supreme, as he is famously known by in the comics. “We had script versions where he became Sorcerer Supreme,” says Derrickson. “We just had so many problems with that. It's premature. Once he's blown through to the New York sanctum, he's only accepted his role as a sorcerer in conflict for 24 hours. He's a long way from being Sorcerer Supreme. I think the comics took like ten years before he actually became the Sorcerer Supreme.” So, with the Ancient One apparently dead, the position is currently vacant. Send in your CVs.
8. Mordo is an anti-fundamentalist fundamentalist
Mordo (Chiwitel Ejiofor) is a character that fascinates Derrickson. A villain in the comics, he is a trusted ally of Strange for most of the movie, before being revealed as an antagonist in the late post-credits sting. “He's a fundamentalist,” says Derrickson. “Fundamentalism is such a pejorative word and immediately evokes images of angry extremism. In my experience, that's not usually what it looks like. I was a fundamentalist in high school. I went to a fundamentalist Christian high school and went to a fundamentalist church, and they were the greatest people, there was an amazing sense of community. The problem is when the messiness of real life enters and the inflexibility of a moral code cannot cope with the realities of moral relativism.”
Mordo’s inflexibility leads him to a darker path, Derrickson explains. “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, and that's why the big jump at the [post-credits] tag makes total sense.”
9. Two scenes were shot by guest directors
In what seems to be a fast-growing tradition of Marvel directors helping each other out, Derrickson invited a couple of guest directors to take a tiny bit of the directing strain: Taika Waititi, who recently wrapped filming on Thor: Ragnarok, filmed the first post-credits sequence with Chris Hemsworth’s Thor. And Guardians Of The Galaxy director James Gunn directed the Stan Lee cameo, in which he reads Aldous Huxley’s The Doors Of Perception on a New York bus. “We all shoot each other's movies!” laughs Derrickson. “James Gunn shot four Stan Lee cameos for four different movies in Atlanta. He was texting me pictures of the frame.”
10. The Staff Of One can be glimpsed in the Hong Kong sanctum
There are plenty of Easter Eggs for those looking closely, and undoubtedly there will be a few pause-or-you’ll-miss-it moments, come the Blu-ray release. But one little nod to the comics that Derrickson mentioned to us: the Staff Of One, the powerful magical object wielded by dark wizard Tina Minoru, can be seen in the Hong Kong sanctum. Though that’s not Tina wielding it there.
11. Jimi Hendrix or Pink Floyd were the first choice for the end credits music
The film plays out to the singularly brilliant psychedelic rock track The Master Of The Mystic End Credits by the film’s composer, Michael Giacchino. Posted online shortly before the film’s release, it has a lot of fans. But it almost never happened. “At first I wanted Jimi Hendrix's Are You Experienced?”, says Derrickson, “but the Hendrix family demanded to see the whole film ahead of time, and they're very expensive. We didn't have time to do it.” Second choice was Pink Floyd’s Interstellar Overdrive, used during the car crash scene. “They wanted like $500,000 just to play over the end credits, and we weren't going to do that. So Giacchino came up with that.”
During the recording of the track, Derrickson recalls Paul McCartney stopping by at Abbey Road Studios. “We were listening to it, and he leaned over to Giacchino and said, ‘shades of Walrus’. The next morning when I woke up, I thought I'd dreamed it."
12. Carol Danvers is lying in Stephen Strange's hospital after being struck by lightning (maybe)
Shortly before his car crash, there is one seemingly throwaway line about one of Stephen Strange’s potential patients: a 22-year-old female patient who is struck by lightning. There’s been some speculation that this could be Carol Danvers, aka Brie Larson’s Captain Marvel, which is currently in pre-production. Derrickson is coy about it, but doesn’t deny the rumour, either. “All I can is...maybe. That one, you're going to have to wait and see...”
Doctor Strange is in cinemas now.