Doctor Strange was created by Stan Lee and Steve Ditko in Strange Tales #110 (July 1963). It was Ditko’s idea, so he could indulge in the Salvador Dali-like surrealism he enjoyed drawing. Strange is Earth’s Sorcerer Supreme, his powers including magic, martial arts, teleportation, and chrono-kinesis. He relies on a triumvirate of powers called the Vishanti, the Eye of Agamotto amulet, the Cloak of Levitation (who is a minor character in the movie), the Axe of Angarruumus, and the Book of the Vishanti, written in Atlantis in 18,500 BC. His enemies include Baron Mordo, Dormammu of the Dark Dimension, the sorcerer Yandroth, the demons Nightmare and Shuma-Gorath, Umar the Unrelenting, Doctor Doom, and Dracula. He was a member of the Defenders with Hulk and Sub-Mariner, a long-time friend of Spider-Man, and a member of the Avengers. Marvel was supposed to print a retraction, pointing out that the character’s foes were gods, not God. Instead they printed a fake letter from a minister praising the comic.
The film, written and directed by Scott Derrickson, who brought us Sinister, Hellraiser Inferno, Deliver Us from Evil, The Exorcism of Emily Rose, and the unnecessary 2008 re-make of The Day the Earth Stood Still, begins in Kathmandu, when a sorcerer named Kaecillus (the always scary Mads Mikkelson) and his zealot followers assault the secret compound of Kamar-Taj and behead its librarian to carry off pages written by the Ancient One (Tilda Swinton) who pursues them through the dimensions, but loses them.
In New York, brilliant and arrogant neurosurgeon Stephen Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) injures his hands when he crashes his Lamborghini, ending his career. Doctor Christine Palmer (Rachel McAdams) tries to help, but he drives her away and spends all his money on experimental procedures. A paraplegic named Jonathan Pangborn (Benjamin Bratt) who had been as badly injured but regained the use of his legs, comes to his attention. He sends Strange to Kamar-Taj, where he is seen by the sorcerer Mordo (Chiwetel Ejiofor) and then the Ancient One. She demonstrates her power, revealing the astral plane, the mirror dimension, and other worlds. Despite his arrogance and scientific thinking, she agrees to train him.
He pores over texts guarded by Master Wong (Benedict Wong) in the library and learns that Earth is protected from threats from other dimensions by a psychic shield anchored in three Sanctums, in New York, London, and Hong Kong. He learns from the damaged text how to use the Eye of Agamotto to bend time. Kaecilius contacts Dormammu in the Dark Dimension, outside of time. He destroys the London Sanctum and attacks the New York Sanctum, killing the Guardian, but Strange battles him and his followers using the cloak of invisibility, which seems to have adopted him, though he is critically injured. He teleports to the hospital, where Doctor Palmer re-starts his heart and saves him as Strange’s astral body battles Kaecillus all about her. Kaecillus reveals that the Ancient One has been drawing power from the Dark Dimension.
They are attacked again in the Mirror Dimension and there is an awesome chase through the turning, rolling, fracturing, dividing cityscape like Inception on acid, or Harry Potter meets M.C. Escher. The Ancient One is injured and dies, after basically passing on the mantle to Doctor Strange. He and his fellow sorcerers teleport to Hong Kong to find the Sanctus there already under attack and the Dark Dimension swallowing Earth. Strange turns back time and confronts Dormammu himself.
Benedict Cumberbatch, who is interested in Eastern mysticism and perfectly cast for this role, compared Doctor Strange to one of his other great characters—Sherlock Holmes. He also voiced Dormammu. In an apparent bid to avoid Asian stereotypes, the Ancient One was played by Tilda Swinton as a Celtic wizard and Wong was changed from the tea-making servant in the comic books to the wise librarian of Kamar-Taj, but the movie was criticized anyway. The Ancient One in the comics was Tibetan, and that would probably have offended China, which you need on your side to make movies like this.
177A Bleecker Street, in Greenwich Village, the location of the Sanctum in New York and residence of Earth’s Sorcerer Supreme, built on the site of pagan sacrifices and Native American rituals, does not exist as an address. There is, however, a 177 Bleecker, between MacDougall and Sullivan, where the artists who created Doctor Strange lived. When I discovered Marvel Comics in the mid-Sixties, Doctor Strange quickly became one of my favourites. Since I had lived on East Tenth Street and on Second Avenue at Houston (the location, incidentally, of the invisible mansion in Universal Picture’s 1994 version of the Shadow), I considered him a neighbour. And I was an occasional visitor to the Astral Plane myself.