Making the impossible, possible is something Marvel has been doing since, well, forever. Marvel Studios continues to expand the boundaries of the Marvel Cinematic Universe with its latest feature Doctor Strange – adding a supernatural element to an interconnected series of films that already contains wonders like a god with a hammer (in Thor) and a cute talking raccoon with an affinity for guns (Guardians Of The Galaxy).
Doctor Strange made his Marvel comics debut in 1963, and is also known as the Master Of The Mystic Arts and Earth’s Sorcerer Supreme. These titles allude to his unique set of powers – magical abilities to pull off some really awesome feats that defy scientific explanation and logic.
It was that very notion of freeing the mind and letting the rest follow that director Scott Derrickson adopted when making Doctor Strange. In an interview in Hong Kong, the 39-year-old filmmaker said he wanted each set piece in the film to be something that has never been seen before.
“So it would feel like a new experience for the audience,” he shared. “We got more and more imaginative, and then we had a breakthrough and went insane. We went from ‘Can we do that?’ to ‘Why not? Let’s try!’.”
Given the sort of visual wonders each Marvel film presents, that comment seems almost foolhardy. Yet that is exactly what Derrickson delivers; spectacular special effects at every turn, especially the film’s climax set in Hong Kong, which – according to Derrickson – is technically the most difficult sequence he has ever directed.
Wait, scratch that. “It has to be the most techically complex sequence seen on film,” Derrickson stated. “It all comes down to freedom, imagination and stretching the boundaries.”
Actress Tilda Swinton, who stars in the movie, added, “We couldn’t have made this film five years ago. Or even three years ago. You are talking about such cutting-edge technology; people were literally inventing programs for the movie as it was being made.”
When we first meet the good doctor in the film, he is Dr Stephen Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch), an arrogant neurosurgeon with a taste for fast cars, expensive things and complicated medical cases.
One night, at the height of his success, a terrible accident damages the nerves in his hands and puts an end to his career as a surgeon. Strange sets out to restore his abilities, but science fails him utterly. In desperation, the sceptic seeks out less … grounded methods and winds up at a centre for healing, where he meets the Ancient One (Swinton), who introduces him to a whole new world outside of science, where magic and mysticism exist.
He learns that he might have a place in this realm, but first, he must decide whether he wants his old life of surgery, fame and wealth back – or if he would rather become the world’s most powerful sorcerer, defending it from dark forces bent on destroying our reality.
If all this is hard to wrap your mind around, then think of magic as an unsolved mystery. Kevin Feige, the president of Marvel Studios, explained: “It’s something we don’t quite understand. What this film is doing is unlocking some of that for Dr Strange. If you can start to understand magic, then you can start to utilise it – and utilise it for good.”
That sums up Strange’s journey in this film, where his whole world view expands. It is what drew Cumberbatch to the role. That, and the fact that a visiting journalist during the production of Star Trek Into Darkness told him he’d be perfect for the role … after all, the resemblance is really uncanny.
If you ask Feige, he would say Cumberbatch was born to play the character. “In the comic book and the movie, he starts out as a very successful, arrogant man. Over the course of the movie, he learns humility and to calm down. We wanted somebody the audience would stay with even when he is being arrogant, being somewhat unlikeable at the beginning of the film.
“Benedict in real life is the nicest, sweetest guy around. But look at some of the roles he’s played – Sherlock Holmes is kind of unlikeable because he doesn’t care about other people’s feelings but you are totally with that guy. So that was a bit of what we were looking for.”
Feige wanted Cumberbatch so badly as Dr Strange that he was willing to move the filming schedule and release date to accommodate the actor’s “very, very busy schedule”.
Now that conversation with the journalist on the rooftop of Bad Robot (JJ Abrams’ production company, which made Star Trek) piqued Cumberbatch’s interest enough for him to buy the Marvel comic book the next day. “I thought, ‘Oh I see what he is saying. He is an arrogant guy who is intelligent.’ I am not interested,” Cumberbatch recalled in that rich, deep voice that has given life to many memorable characters – intelligent and, yes, some of them arrogant – including Holmes in Sherlock, Smaug in The Hobbit films, Alan Turing in The Imitation Game and, ahem, Classified the grey wolf in Penguins Of Madagascar.
“And then Kevin approached me. So I went back and had a little more of an in-depth look. I was still a little wary because this was very much a comic of its time – East meets West, psychedelia in the 1970s – and I wasn’t wild about the character, he is very arrogant, it’s kind of off-putting in a way.”
Luckily, a meeting with Derrickson set the actor’s mind more at ease. “He started tickling the idea more for me by saying, ‘And of course we are in the 21st century,’ and as far as the magic of the piece goes, it’s going to be spectacular. I think we are in for a ride with this film.”
Another aspect the film has, and something Cumberbatch insisted on, was to use as much humour as possible and for it to be reflected in Stephen Strange especially. “So, although he is strong headed, he is very charming and funny and you learn to like him. I think the amount he goes through … he earns his stripes by the things he is put through.”
One of the film’s locations was Kathmandu, Nepal and, as it turns out, Cumberbatch had spent time in a Nepali village when he was 19, having volunteered as an English teacher at a Tibetan Buddhist monastery in Darjeeling, India.
“It was just a great multicultural experience for a white western boy,” said a reflective Cumberbatch of his first East-West crossover.
“If anything, it led me to a profound respect for and understanding of something other than what I have experienced, which is what’s important for this character – he needs to go somewhere that he’s never been and just let go. Personally, I practise meditation, so it was also helpful to sort of authenticate some of the ideas behind this film which is based on the premise of power of the mind to change reality.”
He added, “No matter what’s your reality, mindfulness of meditation can help – it doesn’t change everything around you but it helps you to understand it and stay sane in the vortex of what you can be surrounded by as a human being. It’s a wonderful thing to practise – it’s an eastern thing that has become part of western culture. I find it helpful; film sets have very busy schedules and it can be tiring if you haven’t got enough sleep and you’ve got a lot of people demanding your attention. It can be quite hard, so meditation really helps to switch on the concentration.”
The thing that struck him and the rest of the crew when filming in Nepal was the feeling of being surrounded by the deep culture and traditions that are practised here.
He said: “It was just great fuel for the crew and for us to realise that we were making a very different kind of Marvel film … It was magic.”