It is a long-standing Marvel tradition to bring little-known heroes to the screen. The first theatrical adaptation based on a Marvel property was Howard the Duck, a very obscure title, and a live-action take on the X-Men hit theaters before even Spider-Man (arguably Marvel’s best-known property, pre-MCU) ever did.
Since then, Thor has starred in two standalone films (with a third slated for released in November, 2017), Black Panther was the breakout star of Captain America: Civil War and Big Hero 6 and those Guardians of the Galaxy proved that Marvel’s cinematic midas touch extends to even more recent comic creations.
Doctor Strange is by no means a new addition to the Marvelverse, first appearing in the early 1960s. But he is definitely not a household name even among comic fans, despite the fact that he is spectacularly overpowered, destroyed all of the vampires on Earth with a single spell this one time, and was once an Avenger. (Well… New Avenger. In the 90s, when pretty much everyone was an Avenger.)
So, who is Doctor Strange, and what can we expect from his new self-titled movie?
Debuting in Strange Tales #110 in 1963, and created by comic book artist Steve Ditko (who also co-created Spider-Man with Stan Lee), Dr. Stephen Vincent Strange is a neurosurgeon who takes on the mantle of Sorcerer Supreme, basically the Dumbledore of Marvel’s version of Earth, his mission to ward off mystical threats to the planet with fanciful incantations even more ludicrous than anything ever sputtered in vague rhyme by those sisters from Charmed. (And they once enacted a spell that concluded: “If this is not a prank/help us to fill in the blanks.”) His first outing was merely a five-page story to fill in some pages not taken up by the Human Torch, and his inclusion in Strange Tales, the anthology comic that also introduced Nick Fury to the world, was almost a whim of then-managing editor, Stan Lee.
In a world populated by powered individuals whose extraordinary abilities came from accidents of science, evolution, advanced technology or simply being aliens, Doctor Strange was a truly surreal, almost out-of-left field creation, fitting in well with the surreality of the 60s. Scarlet Witch would come a year later (though her magic is totally different) and there are other magic-users within the Marvel sphere: Merlin, to name but one, who pre-dates Strange by almost twenty years. But Doctor Strange is truly an anomaly among his superhero brethren, which makes him a fascinating character, and certainly an intriguing choice for his very own movie.
Strange’s publication history is a, well, strange one. After Strange Tales folded in 1968, Doctor Strange launched as a solo title, lasting fifteen issues. After that he languished for a bit, showing up occasionally and kicking ass both magically and martially (Strange is a Master of the Martial Arts as well, doncha know) throughout the comic realm, before relaunching in his own title again, Doctor Strange: Master of the Mystic Arts, for 81 issues from 1974 to 1987. 1988 saw Doctor Strange: Sorcerer Supreme, which ran 90 issues, ending in 1996, and ever since, Strange has been a solid supporting player throughout almost every comic house-wide event — he sat out Civil War but was critical to Secret Invasion, as a charter member of the Illuminati, which included Charles Xavier, Tony Stark and Reed Richards.
He got a new origin story from Babylon 5 creator J. Michael Straczynski in the mid-2000s. Best not to speak of it.
Doctor Strange’s best buddies in Marvel Land include Fantastic Four‘s The Thing and Spider-Man, the latter of whom kind of took him under his wing (which, imagine Tom Holland mentoring Benedict Cumberbatch. Just… imagine.). Strange worked with Thor to take on Loki, and, of course, Blade helped out when Strange magicked away all the vampires–for a little while, anyway. (They got better.)
Doctor Strange’s first team-up occurred when he became a founding member of the Defenders — yes, the Netflix Defenders, but that is a later incarnation — with, somewhat bizarrely, Hulk and the Submariner. Then Silver Surfer joined them, and it just got crazier. It was a curse! A trick! And they almost took over the planet!
Heads up: Doctor Strange is kind of a dick. A well-spoken, incredibly intelligent, charismatic and somehow charming dick. What better actor to play him, then, than Benedict Cumberbatch, who has made something of a habit of that particular type?
But it is not just that they found the perfect earthly avatar that made Marvel Studios, in their infinite wisdom, bring Doctor Strange to our screens. It is because comic book Strange was a big part of the Infinity Gauntlet story line, and that is where we are headed in the increasingly convoluted MCU. Doctor Strange is simply another part of the puzzle, and this movie is him slotting into place. (With, yay, an origin story. Great.)
So there you have it. Doctor Strange: An arrogant warlock with combat skills who protects the world from dark magic. Hey, he’s not the wackiest hero the MCU has brought to life. (‘Cause, y’know. Ant-Man.)
But he’s close.
Doctor Strange hits US theaters on Friday, November 4. And pretty much everywhere else before then.