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Doctor Strange: A Primer Guide * 13 April 2016

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There are enduring characters in popular culture that have undergone many retellings and interpretations. The most obvious for us is of course Sherlock Holmes, but you can also count James Bond and Dracula among them. More recently, it's the world of comic book characters where you can see this happening more frequently. Most obviously, it's among the characters published by DC Comics such as Superman and particularly Batman - someone who you can incidentally draw some obvious parallels with a certain consulting detective.  

On screen though, it's been DC's rival Marvel who have been taking the cinematic version of the genre by storm, weaving together a series of characters who were initially relatively unfamiliar to audiences into a branching narrative spread across numerous films. The casting has been savvy, the films superbly made and thus the Marvel Cinematic Universe (or MCU) needs relatively little introduction these days. But when a new character is about to debut onscreen, and in particular when he is being played by an actor with which we're all familiar (we hope, if you've found yourself reading this) then maybe a few pointers will show just why Benedict Cumberbatch is the perfect choice to play Doctor Strange.

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Created by artist Steve Dikto and written by comics legend Stan Lee, Doctor Stephen Strange first appeared in Strange Tales issue 110 in July 1963. He went on to appear in his own comic series, but more recently has been an ensemble player and supporting character in the comics of others - with a new solo series having hit shelves in 2015 to help build awareness ahead of the launch of the film. Like many of Marvel's characters, the origin of Strange is one of transformation and personal betterment through unexpected adversity. A gifted surgeon, but hindered by his ego and desire for capital return thanks to his career, Strange's life is forever altered when a car accident shatters the bones in his hands, rendering him unable to perform surgery. Travelling the world and exhausting his personal wealth, he desperately searches for a means to repair his damaged hands. His final option is unexpected - a hermit named the Ancient One (traditionally an elderly Chinese man; in the film, Tilda Swinton) tutors Strange in the mystic arts, eventually leading him to become the primary protector of the Earth against magical threats. The comic (and we are assured, the film) are notable thanks to Steve Dikto's florid renderings of Strange's spell casting and the magical effects themselves, something that should visually set this apart from the other films in the MCU. In the film, Strange will be aided by a pair of magical artefacts - the Cloak of Levitation (which allows him to fly) and an amulet named the Eye of Agametto. More on the latter later, as it appears to be highly important to the future of the wider MCU itself.

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The visuals wonders of artist Steve Dikto's Doctor Strange.

Ok, a breather from this info dump of what is different. It's from here that things start to get interesting if you're a Sherlock fan, as you can spot some fun similarities between the two. In terms of characteristics, Stephen Strange is imperious, hugely intelligent, sarcastic, and often willing to do things that others are not - at one point in his storied history, he even cast a spell that made the entire planet believe him to be dead. (Which is probably far more efficient than working out how to survive jumping off a building.) He is also rather fond of titles - aside from Sorcerer Supreme and Master of the Mystic Arts, he is also known to simply call himself 'The Doctor'. We can imagine a certain person with a blue box would have something to say about that.

More importantly though, Strange may be a wielder of magical powers, an Avenger, and a member of secretive society The Illuminati, but he is also more often or not called upon as an investigator. Deadpool, Spider-man and many others have called upon his services in this regard, but one of the best recent examples of standalone Strange is The Oath, a 2006 limited series by writer Brian K. Vaughn that sees him investigating his own attempted murder. The story is a soft reboot and  reintroduction to the character, ideal for new readers thanks to flashbacks to his origin interspersed throughout the story. Because it's a crime solving story though, there are some irresistible asides to Sherlock Holmes spread throughout the narrative as well. If you wanted an ideal jumping on point to learn about Strange, this is our recommendation for a place to start - and it's probably no coincidence Benedict was photographed with a copy on his visit to JHU Comic Books on the final day of shooting on the film.   

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Benedict Cumberbatch visits JHU Comicbooks in New York City, via Twitter.

Stephen Strange is also a Marvel hero that is relatively unique in that he is based in an iconic real world location - the heart of Greenwich Village in New York City. His home, the Sanctum Sanctorum, is located at 177A Bleecker Street, and is traditionally shown as well appointed but slightly cluttered with numerous dangerous artefacts and relics. That sounds familiar in a way, don't you think? The property is maintained by Wong, originally the aide to the Ancient One and now dedicated to The Sorcerer Supreme. Wong is perhaps unfairly best summed up as Strange's servant, but he is also his friend and confidant, as well as an expert martial artist. In the MCU, Wong will be played by another Benedict - Benedict Wong. (Which makes it sounds like a James Bond introduction, we know.) All comic book characters need an archenemy as well of course, and here this role is fulfilled by Baron Mordo, a rival pupil during Strange's studies under the guidance of the Ancient One. Things seem slightly different in this screen incarnation though, as Mordo (played by Chiwetel Ejiofor) appears to be an ally against a mysterious opponent (Mads Mikkelsen) - one of those things that only the full film can reveal.     

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There is another small Holmes touch to the film, but it's one of the most fun - also starring is Rachel McAdams, who made for a very memorable Irene Adler in the Warner Brothers Sherlock Holmes movies. Which, of course, starred Robert Downey Jr as Holmes and he is, of course, the most recognisable face of the MCU as Tony Stark. As always with the Marvel movies you sense that actors are here for the long haul, and so there's a fun possibility of two Holmes actors in Stark and Strange coming face to face further down the road. The pair respect each other but also somewhat annoy each other, with Strange frequently the sarcastic straight man to Stark's more jovial nature. If it's anything like the below, we'll be very happy.

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Invincible Iron Man #3 (2015) by Brian Michael Bendis, art by David Marquez.

It's not really idle speculation on our part though, as it's inevitable that Doctor Strange will be hugely important to the Marvel movies in the future. Ties to the larger MCU are part and parcel of the ongoing films from the studio. While Ant-Man - the last introductory film for a new superhero in this universe - was relatively free from the larger narrative that the films are moving towards in the two part Avengers: Infinity War in 2018 and 2019, it seems that Doctor Strange will play a similar role in the MCU as Guardians of the Galaxy. That film was free and separate from all others, apart from the presence of its narrative macguffin - a hugely powerful artefact named the Power Stone, one of the Infinity Stones that have also popped up in Captain America: The First Avenger, The Avengers, Thor: The Dark World and Avengers: Age of Ultron. There are six stones, and four have been revealed - with only the Soul stone and the Time stone missing. It seems extremely possible that one of these two missing stones will play into the narrative of Doctor Strange, not least thanks to comments made by Marvel Studios head Kevin Feige to Entertainment Weekly about Strange's amulet, the Eye of Agametto, in December 2015: "In this film, the Eye is a very important relic that can be quite dangerous if used in the wrong hands, because it has the ability to do any number of things, the most dangerous of which is, it can sort of manipulate probabilities. Which is also another way of saying, 'screw around with time' - which is part of our story."

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A quick aside before wrapping up. This article may be dedicated to Doctor Strange, but the growth of the Marvel Cinematic Universe is pretty much unstoppable now, and actors galore continue to be attracted into it. So it's rather fitting that Martin Freeman will hit the screen before Benedict, albeit in a small role as government agent Everett Ross, in Captain America: Civil War. Ross is a supporting character in the Black Panther comic book (a character also debuting in Civil War) so we're likely to also see him further down the MCU road too when that solo film arrives in 2018 - with the tantalising hint of a mini-Hobbit reunion between Martin and Andy Serkis.

Will we find it surreal to see Benedict Cumberbatch arrayed alongside a cast of incredible characters taking on an inevitable intergalactic onslaught in the star studded Avengers two-parter in a few years time? Undoubtedly. But we're also hugely excited about what the future will bring now the character is being added to the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and the possibilities of Benedict interacting with a wider cast of hugely recognisable names in what will doubtless be some of the biggest films in box office history. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle pioneered many things while writing Sherlock Holmes, not least the idea of a continuing series of stories featuring favourite characters. Comic books have over the past century graduated into the same space, and today films like those that form the MCU are just another way of continuing those stories beyond a simple sequel system. It's rather fitting in our eyes that the cast of one of the best interpretations of Conan Doyle's work are now also working in this distinctive and hugely popular form of storytelling.  

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Further Reading

There's a wide range of books coming soon to tie into the film, as well as some excellent existing Doctor Strange stories. The five titles below are our picks.

Doctor Strange: The Oath

Doctor Strange (2015) Volume 1: The Way of the Weird

Doctor Strange Omnibus Vol 1

Marvel's Doctor Strange Prelude

Marvel's Doctor Strange: The Art of the Movie

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