NEW YORK — It takes a true Sorcerer Supreme to turn the streets of Manhattan into a grand magic show.
It’s a frigid early April Sunday morning, and six blocks of Madison Avenue have been cordoned off for the last day of filming Doctor Strange (in theaters Nov. 4), Marvel Studios’ latest superhero flick that introduces British star Benedict Cumberbatch as the title neurosurgeon-turned-wizard. Cars are parked at the red light, city folks stroll by, but things are not what they seem.
Doctor Strange and fellow spellcaster Karl Mordo (Chiwetel Ejiofor) are being chased through the streets by the villainous Kaecilius (Mads Mikkelsen) and his evil zealots, who’ve just torn apart the good guys’ Sanctum Sanctorum in Greenwich Village. But no passers-by notice this magical battle because the primary players are in what’s called the Mirror Universe.
“They can’t alter the real world,” Mordo explains to Strange, bloodied and still new to this whole magic thing, in regard to their pursuers. “But they can kill us.”
It’s a crazy landscape that Stephen Strange learns about and audiences will behold. While the Avengers hold down the job of protecting their Earth from the more conventional menaces of the Marvel Cinematic Universe — invading aliens, killer robots, etc. — Strange and his fellow masters of the mystic arts such as Mordo and their guru, the Ancient One (Tilda Swinton), take on threats coming from various parts of the larger multiverse.
“What’s exciting about this movie in the MCU is what was exciting about Doctor Strange in the 1960s: It introduced other dimensions that no other comics had done,” says director Scott Derrickson. “The ambition of those comics had an impact on all the Marvel characters of the future and what they were able to do.”
Doctor Strange shows audiences a different sort of movie magic through visually stunning sequences — in the aforementioned scene, Kaecilius is able to bend reality around them, so Strange and Mordo are forced to run on the sides of buildings and jump between skyscrapers to escape certain doom.
Yet this big-screen tale, the 14th in Marvel’s continually growing tapestry, is also Strange’s redemptive origin story. He goes from an arrogant doctor whose hands and spirit are broken after a car accident to a desperate man who puts his trust in the supernaturally powered hands of an enigmatic bald woman (Swinton's Ancient One) in the secret Nepalese city of Kamar-Taj.
“This is a superhero movie about ‘It’s not about you,’ ” Swinton explains. “It’s actually saying that the most powerful thing that you can do with your life is live beyond ego and fear. And that’s a rad thing to say in any circumstance, particularly these days.”
When Cumberbatch, known for his work on TV’s Sherlock and being one of the Internet’s most beloved actors, is on the streets of New York, the paparazzi are never far away. Strange’s crimson Cloak of Levitation and warm Eastern-style boots (“I could almost get away with wearing these in parts of East London”) keep him cozy in chilly temperatures, and just being in town for a movie production is kind of a dream come true.
“I’d imagined the idea was to be in a Woody Allen film; that’s how a New York film works,” Cumberbatch says. “But I never could have guessed running in a red cape toward the Empire State Building.”
During filming, kids would come up to him and say, “You’re playing Doctor Strange! No way, that’s cool!” and Cumberbatch would be amazed they were familiar with the comic at all. “I mean, I can get (their) parents’ generation or maybe grandparents would know it.”
Created by artist Steve Ditko, Doctor Strange burst out of the pages of Marvel’s Strange Tales in 1963 and since then has become known for having trippy adventures in extraordinary new worlds drenched in inspired weirdness.
“He doesn’t have super strength or invulnerability. You can still poke him with a knife or shoot him with a gun,” says screenwriter Jon Spaihts (Prometheus), who penned the script with Derrickson and C. Robert Cargill. “Despite all his magical gifts, he was frequently overmatched and playing a desperate game of 'stay alive,' fighting enemies far vaster than he. That drama, and the psychedelic backdrops it often played out on, riveted me as a kid. It still does.”
Back in the MCU’s earliest days after launching Iron Man in 2008, Marvel knew it had a strong character but wasn’t ready to debut him yet, says executive producer Stephen Broussard. Still, the studio would often get calls from both actors and directors wondering when a Doctor Strange movie was happening. “That helped tell us there was an inherent interest.”
When the quirky Guardians of the Galaxy hit huge two years ago, Marvel realized there was definite interest from the mainstream to explore uncharted corners of the comic-book realm.
“If Iron Man is set in this Tom Clancy tech-thriller world and Guardians is space and Thor has a fantasy element to it, the reason for Strange being is the magical side to things,” says Broussard.
The filmmaker behind horror films such as Sinister and Deliver Us From Evil, Derrickson wanted to push beyond the visual-effects innovations of The Matrix and Inception to build new possibilities as he added his “genuine metaphysical passion” to the Marvel landscape. He found himself influenced by Salvador Dali, geometries and structures of German expressionism, contemporary surrealist photography and, most important, the old comics.
“That Ditko art is still progressive and it hasn’t been ripped off for other movies because other movies couldn’t do it,” says Derrickson.
The director wanted Strange’s “magical mystery tour” — a sequence where the Ancient One flings the fledgling hero through the deadly Dark Dimension as well as an odd place where he’s enveloped by countless tiny hands and other crazy locales in the multiverse — to be as visceral for the audience as it is for the magic man.
“You’ve got to feel like you’re with him as somebody who’s desperate and skeptical and has a justifiably fixed point of view, and here comes this expansive experience that’s just so outside of anything he ever thought was part of the real world,” Derrickson says. “That’s what makes him finally humble himself and learn something for a change.”
Cumberbatch’s spirit was never broken, though, as he powered through a lot of stunt-wire work and fight scenes. One battle finds Doctor Strange in his ghostly astral form facing one of the zealots in the same hospital room where trauma surgeon Christine Palmer (Rachel McAdams), Strange’s ex, is trying to patch him up.
To create Strange’s multidimensional journey, Cumberbatch recalls being hooked up to a gravity rig similar to the one Sandra Bullock got whipped around in making Gravity. “Hat’s off to her, Jesus. And in a spacesuit as well. I really know what that feels like now.”
While Cumberbatch and Strange don’t share similar traits, there was complete parity when it came to physical predicaments.
“I could learn with my character, so that struggle is probably more real than it should be,” the actor says with a laugh. “He’s fleeing for a lot of the movie or fighting to defend his life. The victories are really sweet because they’re all through sheer (chutzpah) and will, which is him. That’s the strength the Ancient One sees in him and that’s the promise he fulfills.”
While there were retro artistic inspirations, Doctor Strange brings a lot of the character’s lore into modern times. One example is Wong, a character who’s often been portrayed in the comics as Strange’s manservant and gets upgraded to a mentor of sorts portrayed by British actor Benedict Wong.
“What we now have is a drill sergeant, a librarian — and not your everyday librarian. Overdue books will cost you broken fingers,” Wong says. “This is a master who stands alongside Strange.”
And the Ancient One, an old Asian man in the comics, was retooled to be a female mystic played by Swinton as Strange’s opposite number.
“I figured if he’s going to be all pumped up on pain and agony and bitterness — he’s so connected to the material world and it all crashes and he takes it all so badly and he’s all strung out and raw — she had to be incredibly light and flexible and relaxed and easy and full of breath,” Swinton says.
“She’s got this long, long view of hundreds and hundreds, of thousands and thousands of years, and she doesn’t sweat the small stuff (or) the medium stuff. I don’t think she sweats at all.”
The Ancient One has had eons to reach her place in the sorcery pantheon but even when the credits roll on Doctor Strange, Cumberbatch feels Stephen is still learning: "With any superhero, it’s a couple of movies in before you think, ‘Yep, he knows what to do with that shield. Yep, that hammer is going to do that. That suit is going to fly there.’ ”
Now that he’s part of the Marvel family, though, Cumberbatch is getting invited to the group gatherings. He will have a role to play in Avengers: Infinity War, which begins filming in Atlanta early next year. “I’m really looking forward to hanging out with the people I’m crowding in with. It’s a hell of a crowd,” says the actor.
Is Cumberbatch gonna freak out a little bit sharing a soundstage that first time with the likes of Robert Downey Jr.’s Iron Man and Chris Evans’ Captain America? For sure. He may be a Sorcerer Supreme, but he’s only human.
“Every time I meet someone who I’ve watched and admired their work, there’s always an element of me feeling a bit goofy and silly. And when it comes to superheroes, there will be a moment on set, I’m sure, where I’ll catch myself really trying to stop asking for selfies,” Cumberbatch says, laughing.
“It’s like, ‘Oh my God, you’re going to meet Spider-Man?!’ Well, yeah, but I’m also going to meet Iron Man and Thor and whoever else. Once I get over that fanboy moment of seeing them all in their garb, then it’s a day at the office.”