9 Things You Absolutely Must Know Before Seeing 'Doctor Strange'

Doctor Strange
Marvel Studios
Marvel Studios

Doctor Strange is a pretty weird, complicated character to adapt, even in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, which has everything from billionaire tech-genius playboys and super-soldiers. The comic-book movie drapes your average superhero origin story in richly colored visuals and draws from a deep well of mystic mythology. We get to see alternate dimensions where the laws of physics are bent. Buildings fold into one another with indifference to gravity. Doctor Stephen Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch), his mentor the Ancient One (Tilda Swinton), and the other mystical characters conjure flaring sigils to enact spells. Doctor Strange is weird, and if you aren't secure in your comic-book knowledge, possibly alienating.

To prep you for this multi-dimensional journey, here's a lowdown on the magical objects, places, and names that figure into Doctor Strange’s rich comic history.

Ditko doctor strange
Marvel Comics

How Marvel wound up with a "Doctor Strange"

Doctor Strange has spent a good amount of time acting as a supporting character since his 1963 debut in Strange Tales #110, though writers have fed him enough material for Marvel to remix into a movie. Anyone interested in the comics should start at the beginning with Doctor Strange: Marvel Masterworks Vol.1, a collection of comics from Strange creator Steve Ditko and editor Stan Lee that inspires most of the movie's oddities.

Writer Roger Stern was one of the first to dig into the character of Strange. Coupled with artist Mike Mignola (of Hellboy fame), Stern's Doctor Strange and Doctor Doom: Triumph and Torment weave a fascinating tale pairing up two diametrically opposed characters. But somehow Doctor Strange helping Doctor Doom save his mother from hell is one of the more fascinating magic-oriented tales in the entire Marvel Universe. Readers looking for modern takes on the character should check out Doctor Strange: The Way of the Weird, which has beautiful art by Chris Bachalo and writing by Jason Aaron that completely reinvigorates the character. One of the most interesting aspects of the comic is that we learn that using magic changes a mortal body over time. After years of magical ass-kicking, the only food he can eat would kill a normal man (think a gross soup that has eyeballs and tentacles thrown in for good measure) and will eventually kill him. 

Where Strange falls on the superhero scale

They don't call him the "Sorcerer Supreme" for nothing. Strange can manipulate time, astral-project, use telekinesis and telepathy, travel through dimensions -- and that's before his spell upgrades and equipped magical objects. At moments in his comics career, he's lost the title and a chunk of his powers. In Mark Waid's Doctor Strange: The Doctor Is Out, he lost the ability to go by the name the Sorcerer Supreme, along with most of his powers and magical gear. The very short run (which may be confusing for new readers) sees him still trying to fight magical menaces as he picks up a teenage girl sidekick who proves to be a little too natural with magic.

Strange also failed big time during the House of M story line, which saw Scarlet Witch depower about 90% of the Earth's mutants. But overall, Strange is considered one of the most powerful humans and mystical characters in the Marvel Universe. He’s battled an Infinity-gauntlet-wearing Thanos, banished the Hulk into space, defeated Death herself, which stopped him from aging, and his longest-running love interest is an extra-dimensional sorceress, so you know he's legit.

doctor strange
Marvel Studios

Strange's cape has… personality

One of the best magical items in the movie is the Cloak of Levitation. It’s slightly updated from the comics, since it seems to have a personality all its own even before Doctor Strange puts it on. The cloak even helps take down some of Kaecilius' (Mads Mikkelsen) interchangeable lackeys. Its main power is right in the title. But the cloak helps with more than just flying. It can mimic other garments, act upon the will of whoever is wearing it, and is resistant to both physical and mystical attacks. The cloak seems to almost care for Doctor Strange in the film and is the source of some of the more humorous moments. Hell, I'd go so far as to say it's a better role than Rachel McAdams got to play as his love interest, Dr. Christine Palmer.

While the cloak is almost a character in and of itself in the film, that doesn't mean it isn’t interesting in the comics. The cloak is a major part of Strange's skill set and was passed to him from the Ancient One. The cloak responds to the commands of its owner even when they're not around wearing it. It can ensnare opponents, offers protection from various attacks, and can alter its shape. But its main draw, of course, is that it lets the wearer fly up to speeds of 25mph.

Strange's amulet isn't just for show

The Doctor's go-to neckpiece, the Eye of Agamotto, has been in comics since 1965. While the amulet helps Strange toy around with time in the movie, its power has been far more diverse in the past, known to transport multiple beings through space-time to any given point in the universe, and also work as an all-revealing light that allows Strange to see through disguises and illusions. In some comics, the Eye of Agamotto's energy has been strong enough to levitate someone as heavy as the Hulk with minimal effort from Strange. The light the eye gives off can also weaken evil beings from demons to the undead.  And yes, it can play back recent events.

doctor strange
Marvel Studios

Neither are his brass knuckles

The first lesson Strange learns under the Ancient One is how to open up portals to travel to different places on Earth or other dimensions using a device called the "sling ring." You might have to be a psychedelic 1960s cartoonist to come up with a shiny hand ornament that focuses brain energy, but surprise: It's not from the comics. Director/co-writer Scott Derrickson said, "The gateways, the forming of the gateways that are used for that, that's straight out of the comics. I just needed an object for them to carry it on." There's never been anything exactly like the sling ring in comics. The closest thing (which is still a stretch) is the Wand of Watoomb, which opens portals to other dimensions, among many, many other things.

Because you can never have enough universes…

There have been so many dimensions introduced in the pages of Marvel Comics that they can be hard to catalogue and remember. One is the "Dark Dimension," which makes a brief but pivotal appearance in the movie. Introduced alongside our sorcerer hero in the 1964 issue of Strange Tales, the Dark Dimension is home to Dormammu, who usually inhabits the throne when not battling his sister, Umar, for it. Dormammu is hell-bent on seizing other dimensions to add to his realm… which is actually pretty similar to what we see in the film. Dormammu isn't a demon, exactly, but a Faltine, an extra-dimensional being born from pure magic. One of the oddest Dormammu appearances comes in the bad mini-crossover Ultimatum, in which he squeezes Strange so hard his head pops off. Which is kind of similar to how I used to play with my Barbie dolls as a kid. It's as gruesome as you think. Thankfully, this was in an alternate universe.

doctor strange
Marvel Studios

The sacred texts of such and such

Forbidden texts full of magical spells that can disrupt the laws of physics play an integral role in the movie. In the comics, one book in particularly tied to Doctor Strange’s story: the Book of the Vishanti. Written in Babylon several millennia ago, Vishanti is the most powerful text of white magic on Earth and a great source of Strange's power. Its seemingly endless pages hold not only spells but important mystical history. It's such a coveted possession that the evil sorcerer Kaluu stole it, memorized it, and then sent it to the distant past. Which leads the Ancient One and Doctor Strange on a time-traveling adventure in Strange Tales #150. Strange even uses the book to deflect magic in this issue, which leads Kaluu to hilariously scream, "Aaaarh! My own spell is being hurled back at me." Silver Age comics weren't exactly known for their subtlety.

Strange's hip NYC apartment is also magical

In the movie, three "Sanctums," stationed in New York City, London, and Hong Kong, connect to the Anicent One's main hub and act as major points of magical power, protecting the Earth from the Dark Dimension and any other threat. In the comics, there's only one, dubbed the "Sanctum Santorum," which is in Greenwich Village because New York City is the only place that really matters in the Marvel Universe. In the comics, the Sanctum has operated as the home base for the New Avengers and Defenders, both superhero groups Doctor Strange has been a part of in the past. Considering just how powerful he is and how the Eye of Agamotto is an Infinity Stone in the film, you can definitely count on him becoming an important ally for the Avengers in the future.

doctor strange
Marvel Studios

The Strange movie doesn't stick to Strange history

The Doctor Strange movie plays fast and loose with canon. Christine Palmer, played by Rachel McAdams in the movie, was never the sorcerer's love interest, instead one of the women associated with Night Nurse, the comic run that inspired the creation of Claire Temple (Rosario Dawson), familiar to anyone up on Marvel's Netflix series. Wong, a badass mystic librarian in the movie, is Strange's valet and friend in the comics, while the original illustrations of Swinton's the Ancient One depict a Tibetan man, riffing on kung fu movie tropes and Asian stereotypes all too common in 1960s and 1970s comics. The best modern writers imbued these characters with life beyond aiding Strange in his journeys. The recent Doctor Strange: The Way of the Weird gives Wong a sense of humor and powerhouse authority. The movie version of Doctor Strange does the same. It's not just the visuals breaking from convention.

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Angelica Jade Bastién is a freelance critic and essayist based in Chicago. She's written for Vulture, The New York Times, The Atlantic, Bright Wall/Dark Room, and RogerEbert.com. You can find her on Twitter @angelicabastien.