A warning for the curious: Only read this if you’ve already seen Doctor Strange.
With the latest installment in the Marvel Cinematic Universe hitting screens this weekend, Entertainment Weekly can finally publish a deep dive into some of the secrets, inspirations, revelations and Easter eggs within the film.
We sat down with director Scott Derrickson for a post-screening Q&A at EW’s PopFest last weekend, and here’s what he had to say to those who had just experienced his superhero mindtrip.
Steve Ditko literally lives. The elusive comic book artist who co-created Spider-Man and came up with the idea for Doctor Strange is 89 and still staying out of the public eye. But his work now has new life on the big screen, since his imagery from the 1960s Strange Tales series was a prime inspiration for the film.
“Ditko’s artwork was very psychedelic, very ‘60s, and that was the counter-culture making its way into the Marvel Universe,” Derrickson says. “I felt very strongly that art was still progressive and had not been imitated. I don’t think visual effects were ready to try and imitate him, but VFX finally caught up with Steve Ditko.”
The filmmaker said the movie’s Dark Dimension is straight out of his favorite Ditko panels, like this one, which echoes the background of the image at the top.
Additional artists who inspired the movie: M.C. Escher, known for his reality-twisting etchings, and surrealist painter Salvador Dali. “We just tried to push the boundaries as far as we could,” Derrickson says.
One of the ideas that earned Derrickson the directing job was the fight involving the spirit of Benedict Cumberbatch’s Doctor Strange, which he pitched in a first meeting with Marvel Studios president Kevin Feige.
In a sequence now known as the Astral Plane Fight, the ghost of one of the minions of villain Kaecilius (Mads Mikkelsen) has a knock-down drag-out with Strange’s soul, while fellow surgeon Christine Palmer (Rachel McAdams) tries to save Strange’s body from a mortal stab wound. This was directly inspired by the 2006 comic The Oath, by Bryan K. Vaughn, with Strange aided by the character known as the Night Nurse (an identity Palmer later adopts in Marvel lore.)
In the film, while she works on stitching up Strange after placing him under anesthesia, the two spirits grapple in an ethereal dimension, causing poltergeist-like activity in the operating room. “I remember meeting with Kevin Feige and I actually wrote and storyboarded that. I used that as a demonstration for the kind of thing I thought should be in a Doctor Strange movie,” Derrickson said.
Among other ideas that made Feige hire him: “A trip through multiple dimensions that was as psychedelic and weird as you can get. I said I wanted to have a scene where we were fighting forward in time while [the background] time is running backward,” Derrickson said. “The cliché is every Marvel movie ends with a fight scene where you’re destroying a city and you’ve got to close a portal. I thought, let’s un-destroy a city and go through the portal because I want to find what’s on the other side.”
There’s not a single gun in the movie – which may be a first for a superhero film.
“There’s nothing less magical than a gun,” Derrickson says. “Getting [rid] of any kind of traditional hardware was necessary to make it about more than destructiveness.”
The villains fight with mystical blades that they conjure from thin air, and Strange uses martial arts or cosmic energy to battle his foes.
“I remember telling [Feige] I felt visual effects movies in general are always using the technology for the same sort of thing,” Derrickson said, meaning chaos. “I really wanted to have set-pieces that were not about mass destruction and gunfights.”
WAR MACHINE AND CAPTAIN MARVEL
Just before Doctor Strange suffers the car accident that will destroy his hands and send the skeptical surgeon seeking a spiritual healing, he takes a call from a colleague offering him an array of possible new patients.
One of them is described as a Marine Colonel who has a spinal injury from using “experimental armor.” This sounds a lot like a reference to Col. James “Rhodey” Rhodes (Don Cheadle), whose character was partially paralyzed while wearing the War Machine armor in Captain America: Civil War. Derrickson has previously said War Machine wasn’t the one being referenced, but didn’t insist that at EW’s Q&A.
UPDATE: One clue he did offer — the chronology doesn’t add up. If this movie ends at roughly the present day in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, after the events of Civil War, when Rhodes was wounded, the early parts of the movie have to take place a long time in the past. Since this is the call Strange gets right before his accident, it makes sense that his recovery, subsequent surgeries on his hands, and spiral into hopelessness takes some time — a few years? Then he has to discover the Ancient One and spend years of study under her to develope his mystical powers. So…
Some fans have speculated that the “Marine colonel” being referred to is one of the men Tony Stark’s rival weapon’s manufacturer, Justin Hammer (Sam Rockwell), uses as a guinea pig for his own Iron Man-esque armor. We see footage in Iron Man 2 of one subject getting seriously hurt while using the experimental gear.
Another patient mention in Strange’s call is much more likely to be an important Marvel character in the future. Strange was far more interested in working on her: a woman in her 20s who was struck by lightning – a serious injury complicated by an electronic implant in her brain to help quell her schizophrenia.
When asked if this was a reference to Captain Marvel, who will be played by Oscar-winner Brie Larson in an upcoming film, Derrickson said he could neither confirm nor deny. But he was smiling (so infer from that what you like).
“Remember that Brittany Murphy movie where she goes ‘I’ll never tell…’” he said in a whispered singsong, referencing the 2001 thriller Don’t Say a Word.
CLOAK OF LEVITATION
While directors typically get most of the credit (or blame) for a movie, Derrickson said the sentient crimson cloak that binds itself to Doctor Strange emerged from the suggestions of others.
“It’s not even as sentient as Aladdin’s magic carpet,” he said, referencing the 1992 animated Disney film. “But it does act on its own in the comics. We played with that and one of the stunt guys, Jeff Habberstad, our second unit director, came up with the idea of having the cloak slide him back toward the wall to find what’s called the Crimson Bands of Cyttorak.”
This is a mystical binding device that temporarily traps Kaecilius long enough to have a conversation with Strange about his reason for wanting to summon ancient ethereal gods to cleanse the earth of humanity.
But Strange would never have seen the bands if the cloak didn’t tug him toward them.
“I thought, ‘This is great! Why don’t we put this all through the fight scene?’” Derrickson said. “Then we realized we put so much in this fight scene we have to put it in the rest of the movie, because now [the cloak] is a character.”
In another more pensive moment, Strange drapes himself in the cloak and raises its distinctive high collar while contemplating the death of a major character.
“The moment with the wiping of the tears – that was Benedict Cumberbatch’s idea,” Derrickson said. “It was not in the script, and it was his idea on the day we were shooting it. ‘He said what if the cloak wipes my tears?’ I thought that was hilarious. So I said pull your collar up and we’ll make it a big superhero movie moment, then we’ll deflate it.”
During the audience portion of EW’s Q&A with the director, a moviegoer mentioned he was Haitian and asked if Brother Voodoo, a Marvel hero who hails from his homeland, might make it into a future Doctor Strange movie.
The answer: yes. “I think there’s a good chance you’ll be seeing him down the line. He’s one of my favorite characters in the Doctor Strange comics,” Derrickson said.
In fact, Brother Voodoo is already in this one, played by actor Mark Anthony Brighton. He was one of The Ancient One’s guardians, a character named Daniel Drumm, which was the real name of Brother Voodoo before he died and was resurrected.
“That was Daniel Drumm, who got killed [by Kaecilius], so there’s reason to bring him back into the narrative,” Derrickson said. “When you go to make a movie like this you have this huge buffet of characters. Who do we save for later movies and who do we try to bring in now? That was one we always discussed. I don’t see a Doctor Strange franchise without him.”
You always have to sit at least part-way through the credits for a tease of a future Marvel movie, and in this one we see Doctor Strange encountering another character from the magical dimension of the comic book universe – Chris Hemsworth’s Thor.
Thor comes to Strange for help tracking down his missing father, Odin, who has been deposed by Loki and is now apparently somewhere in New York City.
Derrickson said he didn’t shoot that mid-credits sting; it was actually part of the upcoming Thor: Ragnarok film that director Taika Waititi (What We Do In the Shadows) is currently making.
“[Doctor Strange] is very much a stand-alone movie. It doesn’t lay too much specific track, because Strange is not yet integrated into that world until the Thor tag at the end,” Derrickson said. “I’d wrapped and Kevin Feige said we need [Thor and Strange] to meet before we tear that set down. When they shot it, it wasn’t intended to be the tag. It just worked really well.”
And now we know Doctor Strange will be a key character in Thor’s third solo film, which opens a year from now on Nov. 3, 2017.
INFINITY STONES AND BEYOND
As every Marvel movie fan knows, the infinity stones are powerful cosmic gems that will eventually be combined in a gauntlet controlled by Thanos, the villain first teased at the end of The Avengers movie. Joe and Anthony Russo, who directed Winter Soldier and Civil War, will begin filming the two-part Avengers: Infinity War movie at the end of the year – and we now know another element of it.
The Eye of Agamotto, the amulet Doctor Strange wears around his neck to help channel his energy and bend time, is one of the prized infinity stones.
Derrickson said this was one of the elements Feige insisted be in the movie to set up a connection for Infinity War. “It’s not so much to inform the different movies, but support for what each other is doing,” he said. “Kevin Feige is the sorcerer supreme when it comes to the integration of that information and how it’s going to piece together. I never felt burdened by it.”
Other infinity gems include:
Space Stone – This is the Tesseract introduced in Captain America, which was later used in The Avengers to open a wormhole over New York.
Reality Stone – A red gem from Thor: The Dark World, which can collapse the universe into darkness.
Power Stone – The orb from Guardians of the Galaxy, which can wipe out planets.
Mind Stone – Part of Loki’s scepter, which can command obedience. It was later extracted and used as a key component of the synthezoid Vision. Currently, it can be found embedded in his forehead.
There’s still one remaining unknown gem, but by supplying the Time Stone in his movie Derrickson also got inside information out of it. “Joe Russo explained the plot for both Infinity War movies to me standing in front of the men’s room. I asked, ‘How’s it going,’ and he said, ‘I think we cracked our story…’”
As Russo laid it out for him, Derrickson listened intently. “I was like, ‘Wow, now I know the future of the Marvel Universe. This is awesome!’” the director said.
The rest of us will have to wait.
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