On The Set Of DOCTOR STRANGE, Marvel’s Martial Arts Magic Movie

Benedict Cumberbatch and Kevin Feige discuss reinventing the Sorcerer Supreme.

Benedict Cumberbatch stood on a frozen mountainside, ice clinging to his beard, shivering in a thin martial arts training outfit. At least that was what was on the playback monitor on the set of Doctor Strange; the reality is that Cumberbatch was standing in the parking of lot of what was once a tank factory and is now a movie factory, and the weather was pretty nice. Also, the beard was fake. The ice, too, but that should go without saying.

“I bring greetings from Everest,” Cumberbatch told the assembled press as he joined us in our tent. He was speaking in his American accent, which he was trying to keep going between takes.

The scene being shot that day featured a valuable piece of Stephen Strange’s training in the mystic arts at the hidden city of Kamar-Taj - how to travel great distances using magical portals. The Ancient One teleported Strange high on Everest and left him there, requiring him to use his ‘sling ring’ - a focusing device the sorcerers employ - to open a portal and get back to Kamar-Taj before he freezes to death. The footage we saw on the screen was playback from earlier; today director Scott Derrickson was shooting the next scene, where Strange opens the portal and tumbles, shivering, onto a courtyard in Kamar-Taj. They were looking at the previous shoot to recall how Cumberbatch had mimed jumping through a non-existent portal that FX artists would paint in later so that he could match the moves here on set.

If you’re a big nerd like I am there’s something in that paragraph that caught your attention - the sling ring. It’s a new invention for the movie.

“The gateways, that's straight out of the comics,” Derrickson said when asked about those new elements.  “I just needed an object for them to (focus) it on. I think the Harry Potter movies are proof that audiences love that stuff.  They love the idea of magical objects and they like learning the rules of those objects and what they do.”

You may have also noticed that Stephen Strange, a world class neurosurgeon until a car wreck cost him his hands, is now a martial arts initiate. While the original comics had Strange’s training with the Ancient One more about meditation and study, the Marvel Cinematic Universe version has a particularly wuxia vibe.

“There's definitely a martial arts influence on the movie,” Derrickson told us. “That’s the action that I like, for starters.  Also martial arts is the kind of action that does tie in well to the supernatural. There's a whole subgenre within martial arts cinema, the supernatural martial arts movie, particularly within Asian cinema. I felt like when it came to fighting in the movie it just made sense to go in that direction and stay away from, you know, gunfire and things like that.  And to avoid having fighting be the casting of bolts of light.  We've been drawing on the Emperor in Star Wars for over 30 years, you know, and so we gotta start doing this some other way.”

“We’ve seen light blast versus light blast before,” Marvel Studios president Kevin Feige said. “We wanted to do something different, and we wanted to tap into this notion of the multiverse, of dimensions right next to our own. And if you were able to tap into those dimensions, and those other powers, and what could you do if you pulled aspects of those other dimensions into our realm. All in the interest of creating a visual tapestry that is totally different in terms of an action scene we’ve seen in any other movies. The sort of four main action scenes have been structured around which power from which dimensions are they going to be use to screw with our world now. And in doing so, it gives us a canvas for an action scene totally different than anything we’ve ever done before. So something that starts as a foot chase becomes totally unrecognizable. Something that starts as ‘we’ve got to stop the clicking clock before it goes off’ is completely turned on its head.”

Something else getting turned on its head in this film: the character of Wong. In the comics Wong is often best known as “Manservant Wong,” Doctor Strange’s butler and valet and assistant. In the movies Wong is very, very different.

“I kind of think things like ‘manservant’ and ‘sidekick’ we’re just gonna leave back in the past now,” said Benedict Wong, who is playing Wong. Yes, they have the same name. “I’m very much into looking forward to our modern take; you know, let’s turn a whole new page.”

That new page finds Wong more of a teacher to Strange.

“Wong is in our world now a master at Kamar-Taj training the fellow disciples and sorcerers, and the protector of the Sanctum relics and these ancient ritual books,” Wong said. “We’ll see Wong and Doctor Strange come together and become, really, allies to fight against these extra-dimensional forces.”

While many aspects of the world of Doctor Strange are being changed or tweaked as they make their way from the comic page to the movie screen, one major thing is remaining untouched - the character of Stephen Strange himself.

“He’s difficult, he’s arrogant,” says Cumberbatch of the Sorcerer Supreme. “But he’s kind of brilliant and charming and you’d think, ‘Yeah, I’d want him in my head if I needed brain surgery.' He’s good enough to warrant his arrogance and he respects other people - but not when he thinks he’s right, and he’ll just do what he deems needs to be done when he knows or feels that he’s right. The problem from humility’s point of view is that he is right, he’s really really good at his job. So, his brilliance feeds his kind of ego, his defensive, unimpeachable perfected-ness. So you get a guy, whose hard arc is someone who goes from New York, where he is a top neurosurgeon, top pay, to having nothing. Nothing at all. No spiritual center, no hands, no money, nobody in his life he will let near him, to care for him anymore. He has to build himself up again from the very bottom and he’s a desperate man by the time he reaches Kathmandu. As he goes into this thing which is a million miles away from any worldview or belief system he’s ever entertained, so it’s desperation that leads him to the path of the Ancient One and the spiritual…and then all hell breaks loose.”

If some of that sounds familiar it’s because it has echoes of Iron Man’s story. Feige isn’t unaware of that. “We’ve talked about (his arc) in comparison to Tony Stark, who is an arrogant, witty fellow at the beginning of the movie who sells weapons and then as an arrogant, witty fellow at the end of the movie who doesn’t sell weapons, who channels his wit and his intelligence into something else but is kind of the same guy. Strange’s transformation is much complete than that. He really does begin to recognise the way he was acting earlier and the reasons he was acting like that earlier are things that he identifies and attempts to correct over the course of the movie. He is very much a different guy at the end of the film then at the beginning, not just because he wears a cool outfit instead of scrubs.”

And in general Feige doesn’t want Marvel to get into a rut, no matter what the critics say. “We do not want to repeat ourselves or do what’s been done before,” he said. “When you have a track record now you can either do that and say, ‘This seems to work and let’s keep doing this’ – which some people accuse us of no matter what, because I don’t think they pay attention, but really what we do is say, ‘Okay, we have a studio that trusts us and lets us do what we want for the most part with the creative. We have audiences that seem to be embracing our movies whether they’ve heard of the characters or not. Let’s use that to make as interesting and different and unique a story as possible and not just stay with the same thing.’ And this movie is certainly the embodiment of that.”