Doctor Strange - Benedict Cumberbatch

In February 2016, I traveled to London to get a glimpse at another dimension and visit the set of Marvel’s Doctor Strange. While on set we got a chance to have a long chat with Marvel Studios head Kevin Feige, who as always, provided us with a lot of hints at what to expect from the future of the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

Feige talks about Doctor Strange’s origin story, how the movie will be different from the comics, rooting crazy concepts in real science, does Steven Strange know about The Avengers, how the film is more respectful to other cultures than the original source material may have been, how this movie was inspired by The Oath, which characters might connect with the RunawaysMads Mikkelsen‘s character Kaecilius, multiple dimensions, the trouble with writing magic action, how Mordo is different in the movie, Rachel McAdams‘ character Christine Palmer, is the eye of agamotto an infinity stone, the genre of the film, how this film will defy expectations, Steven Strange’s role in the larger MCU, will we see cameos from the other Marvel characters, and much more.

If you’re a Marvel fan and have ever read a Kevin Feige interview before then, you know this is well worth your time. Hit the jump to open the portal.

Please note: Some of this interview has been edited down, and the order of the questions have been altered slightly, for your enjoyment.

Kevin Feige Doctor Strange

Kevin Feige Doctor Strange Interview

Doctor Strange is an interesting character because he’s been in the Marvel Universe for a very long time, but he’s had a lot of different iterations. He’s come and gone. He’s had different series. Some of the characters have had very specific throughlines, but there’s been a lot of different versions and different takes on Doctor Strange. Where are you guys pulling from in that long and varied history to find your Doctor Strange?

Kevin Feige: Yes, his origin has always been, like Tony Stark’s, relatively stable, relatively consistent, and we’re certainly pulling from that – the arrogant New York neurosurgeon, who’s a bit of an ass, who’s extremely arrogant, and who has a horrible accident, mangles his hands – his tools – and who loses his identity and loses himself. He has a nice downward spiral, before finding his way in a last-ditch effort in something he doesn’t really believe into Nepal, to the people who he will encounter and who will teach him and open his eyes to a whole other reality.

So we’re certainly doing that origin. I think it’s one of the coolest origins in our comics. From a cinematic point of view, it’s certainly the most interesting singular character journey maybe since Iron Man 1 that we’ve plucked from the books.

And I would say that Steve Ditko and the art of Steve Ditko is a huge inspiration for us. Not really anything in this room, but for a lot of our interpretation of the multiverse and various dimensions come right out of all of the art of those early comics that Mr. Ditko did, and challenging our amazing visual effects vendors and visual effect supervisors – saying, ‘Let’s put this on the screen.’

It’s really weird. You don’t want to turn away from that. You suddenly don’t want to make it sort of… turn it into a galactic cosmos… it needs to be strange. It needs to be weird. It needs to be absolutely inspired from those images. I’m sure Scott Derrickson will talk to you today, and I think it might even be his twitter handle picture – a particularly panel from the Ditko era that I think was turned into a blacklight poster that he remembered having. And that is been so much of the visual inspiration of the movie.

And then I think you look at his interaction with other characters in the books. You know, I think The Oath tonally was a great, not reinterpretation, but a great updating of his character. And I think we would’ve probably leaned in that direction anyway, because that sort of fits what we like to do in our films and certainly that’s what Benedict is bringing to it – a sense of humor to go along with the gravitas that this journey he goes on. I think those are many of our touch-points for the movie.

Doctor Strange blacklight poster

The idea of magic was introduced and written-off in a single line in Thor. What made you want to bring magic back into the Marvel universe in a full proper way like this now?

Kevin Feige: I don’t know if it was written off in that single line in Thor. It was given another way of looking at it. There are a couple of lines in Thor basically saying that science and magic, it gets to a point where what’s the difference. And I think we’re continuing that. The Ancient One encounters Strange – he’s a scientist, he’s learned Western Medicine; he believes very much in that. She starts using Eastern lingo in the way she’s describing the world to him. He immediately writes it off – he rolls his eyes, he doesn’t buy it, and she goes okay, and she starts talking about it in Western terms to try and make him more comfortable. She says it’s the same thing. Whether you’re looking at the ancient study of acupuncture pressure points or you’re looking an MRI – she’s trying to say we’re talking about the same things here. And if you’re not comfortable with the word spells, let’s use the word program. It’s all the same thing. And I think that’s true to a certain extent – I think for the audience and the way science is going. I’m not a scientist. I just read articles that are interesting and that capture my imagination, but I think there’s a reason why there’s so much faith placed in science.

For a long time there was a prologue in this movie that we’re not doing – maybe we’ll do in part two, so maybe I shouldn’t mention it – but it took place in CERN. If you think about CERN, it comes up a lot in SF story because it’s so mind-blowing what’s actually being done there, and we’ve looked at that a lot because of the discussions about parallel dimensions and multiple-dimensions, and all of that has gone into building the foundation for our fictional reality within the Strange universe. And then you go back and look at the comics and look at the journey the Ancient One takes Strange on in the comics, and it’s all the same thing. They didn’t know about parallel dimensions back then – they were making it up or tapping into philosophies for it, and now I think it’s more relevant and potentially, theoretically, more realistic than ever. Realistic being a relative term here.

Doctor Strange

How hard is it to set the rules of science and magic?

Kevin Feige: It’s very hard because you don’t want to rule yourself out into it being mundane, or rule yourself into not being fantastical or magical. And certainly, we’re not doing that. And you’ve heard me talk about the quantum realm in Ant-Man which was certainly designed for that movie and for that story to take the notion of somebody who has the ability to shrink to another level we’ve never seen before, but as we were doing that, and studying it and talking to the science advisors who are always more than willing to spend an afternoon with us and talk about these amazing things – the quantum realm is another dimension. It tapped into what we had been working on with this movie as well, so that really became the notion that we’re scratching the surface of the quantum realm and then we just do a deep dive in this.

A lot of it is – is it cool? Is it entertaining? Does it give us visuals we’ve never seen before? That’s been particularly hard on this film to find outside of the comic books, and the Ditko art work, comparables for the visuals we want to bring to this. Our visual effects supervisor has amazing reference and all of it is sort of close to what we want but none of it exactly what we want, which is an exciting place to be in because the visuals you will ultimately see in November we might not have seen yet because they’re still being designed and being developed.

Doctor Strange origin story

We’re at a point now in the MCU where you’ve pretty much set up everybody. Origins stories are few and far between. What have you guys learned that you’re applying here?

Kevin Feige: Well, it’s an origin story in this film in particular, because it’s always been our model – with a few exceptions – to introduce a character, introduce their world, and then have the fun of me being that character in another movie down the line. Iron Man, Cap, Thor, most recently Ant-Man, and that’s certainly what we’re doing in Strange.

If you didn’t know this movie was connected to 13 movies before it, nothing in this movie would indicate that was the case. This is very much a standalone introduction to a very complex character and a very complex world, which through this movie and until maybe some upcoming movies is relatively self-contained. There are people inhabiting the same world that are stopping buildings from falling down, robots from doing this, aliens from doing that – these people in this movie are stopping inter-dimensional forces from wiping out all of reality.

So although it doesn’t necessarily come up, we’ve always assumed that the sorcerers have bigger fish to fry when they hear there’s something in a city or there’s a bank being robbed. They’re not thinking about it. They’re thinking if we don’t keep vigilant our sense of reality will disappear, and there won’t be a bank to rob and there won’t be a city to be conquered.

How well known is he to get the shout-out in Winter Soldier?

Kevin Feige: He’s very well known as a surgeon. He’s got various awards and plaques. He attends various galas. Might be driving to one at one point in this movie. So he has name recognition, and a talent and certain Hydra computers identified him as someone who could cause trouble for their agendas.

Doctor Strange the ancient one

When Doctor Strange was first introduced, we met him in the ‘60s it was a very different world, a very different culture. A lot of the stuff that was introduced in there that would seem stereotypical today. In the 21st century, when you’re approaching some of this Eastern stuff, how do update it in a way so that you’re hitting the fun pulp stuff while still being respectful to other cultures in a way Stan Lee and Steve Ditko weren’t really worried about.

Kevin Feige: This is very much the Marvel version of this story. These sorcerers aren’t inspired by any actual sect or any actual religion. They’re from the Marvel bullpen, and we’re being respectful of that, and we’re using that fictional mythology to bring to life our fictional world.

But being authentic in the way you’ll see today on the sets that Charles Wood has designed for us, being authentic in filming, as we did for the first week on production on this in Nepal and in Kathmandu. It was important to us to make it feel like these were real locations and real things. Costumes certainly are designed to evoke the superhero comic elements, with some touches of other various cultures. But we’re really trying to be true to the fictional mythology that was created in the past.

When you get into individual characters, certainly there’s been things that have been updated – most obviously Tilda Swinton taking on the role of the Ancient One. We talked about the Ancient One being a title that has been held probably for hundreds and hundreds of years by individuals, but there’ve been various ones, and the one we meet in this movie happens to be a female of Celtic descent, who most people, even those who surround her, have forgotten exactly where she came from because she’s been around. I think we state in the movie hundreds and hundreds of years – they’re not sure exactly how long. So that was one way of doing a new interpretation of that character.

Benedict Wong is a very different incarnation of that character. He’s an amazing actor who has done an amazing job bringing this role to life. He is not the assistant manservant. He was loyal in the books, and certainly fulfilled a purpose which I think could be one of the things you’re describing – a stereotype going back to any number of white hero-Asian driver, servant. That is not his role in this movie at all. Everyone in this movie knows more in Strange. Everyone is more talented when it comes – for 90% of the movie, the magical abilities and the mastery of the mystic arts than Strange is, and Wong is a fellow warrior who has been a master in his own right. As we meet him in this movie, he’s tasked with protecting some of the most valuable relics and book Kamar-Taj has. He doesn’t have a lot of time to worry about Strange. So those are a few of the ways we’ve updated those characters.

Doctor Strange: The Oath

You mention The Oath as an inspiration. Is this an adaptation of that comic run?

Kevin Feige: When we mention the Oath, it’s more tonally. That had a very fun tone to it. Doctor Strange had a unique, fun voice. Even his voice in this movie, I don’t think you’d initially go – oh I remember that in the Oath, but actually there’s a sequence from the Oath which directly inspired a sequence in this movie, which was a sequence that Scott actually included in his very earliest pitches to us. Maybe there was a character or two whose name we took from that, but this is not an adaptation of that story.

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