This article contains MCU spoilers
Nobody would call Doctor Strange the worst MCU movie. But not too many people would say it’s the best either. The fifteen films released since Doctor Strange hit theaters in 2016 have occasionally been universally loved (Black Panther) or largely panned (Eternals), but the cinematic debut of surgeon-turned-sorcerer Stephen Strange remains in the lower middle of most MCU rankings (including ours!).
The movie’s detractors point out the similarities between Doctor Strange and the first MCU entry Iron Man, as both stories feature arrogant successful men with facial hair who have a heroic turn after being laid low. “There is not a moment plot-wise in Doctor Strange that comes off as surprising or unpredictable,” Den of Geek movie critic Don Kaye wrote in his review; “and even a late second-act reveal isn’t the game-changing moment it’s perhaps meant to be.” Furthermore, the movie commits the unforgivable sin of wasting the great Mads Mikkelsen as nothing villain Kaecilius and action movie mainstay Scott Adkins as an unnamed acolyte who gets beat up by a cape.
But the movie’s defenders argue for the film’s striking visuals, using Inception-style imagery to replicate the psychedelia Steve Ditko brought to the character’s first appearances in the 1960s. “As similar as Stephen and Tony first appear, Strange is on another level entirely,” argued our own Kirsten Howard. “For all the weapons and fists and God-like powers in the MCU, the crafty magic of mystical Marvel may ultimately prove to be crucial in the endgame.”
Time has proven Howard correct. From this mixed reception, Doctor Strange has cast a surprisingly long shadow over the MCU, in ways that only grow in importance as the years pass. As we move toward the end of Phase Four and into the beginning of Phase Five, Doctor Strange is proving to be one of the most influential movies in the MCU.
The Introduction of Doctor Strange
Doctor Strange has been a mainstay in Marvel Comics since he first appeared in 1963’s Tales of Suspense #110, immediately becoming the series co-headliner, along with the Human Torch of the Fantastic Four and later Nick Fury. But despite the fact that he often shared billing with other superheroes, Strange was hardly what you call a team player, often serving as more of an advisor to his fellow good guys than actually joining them in the fight. In fact, his longest tenure is in the Defenders, a “non-team” with Hulk, Namor, and Silver Surfer. In other words, he’s an odd pick to join the Avengers.
And yet, although Doctor Strange was a standalone film without any cameos from other MCU stars, its hero went on to become a central piece in the universe. Not only is Strange the first-person Bruce Banner warns about the coming of Thanos, but his banter with Tony Stark and Peter Parker is a highlight of Avengers: Infinity War. Without Strange’s advice, Stark would not make his powerful sacrifice in Avengers: Endgame, and Strange serves as an important mentor to Peter in Spider-Man: No Way Home.
In short, Doctor Strange has become the center of the MCU, taking the place once held by Stark, his most obvious model. That may change as Nick Fury returns to Earth and to the center of the MCU with Secret Invasion, and unlike Thor, She-Hulk, Captain Marvel, and other still-living members of the Universe, Strange doesn’t have a consistent comic book history in the Avengers. But in this phase of post-Endgame disarray, Doctor Strange is the one holding things together in the MCU.
Magic in the Marvel Universe
As any grump on the internet will surely tell you, even the most tech-based MCU superhero owes his powers to magic more than science. But despite some handwaving about Loki’s trickster abilities coming from godhood or early signs of the Infinity Stone’s primordial powers, proper magic had not been part of the MCU until Doctor Strange arrived. Since then, it’s been a mainstay in the MCU.
Less than two years after Doctor Strange’s release, magic becomes a key plot point in Avengers: Infinity War, not only allowing Strange to launch one of the more successful attacks on Thanos, but also allowing him to see the 14,000,605 possibilities of the heroes’ battle against the Mad Titan, leading to their eventual victory. The big payoff moment in Avengers: Endgame, in which all of Marvel’s heroes return to take on the hordes of Thanos, would be impossible without the teleporting magic established in Doctor Strange.
The titular rings in Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings have a magic base, as do the abilities wielded by the Eternals. Thanks to the meddling of Agatha Harkness, Wanda Maximoff has become the Scarlet Witch, leaving her Tesseract-derived powers behind for magical abilities. Through Wanda, the Darkhold made its way into the MCU, and Ms. Marvel only started to scratch the surface of the mystical properties of Kamala Khan’s bangle. More recently, the magical Bloodstone introduced monsters to the universe in Werewolf by Night.
As magic continues to take center stage in the MCU, Strange’s role grows only more important.
The Multiverse Saga
And of course, there would be no Multiverse without Doctor Strange. GIVE ME A SECOND BEFORE GOING TO THE COMMENTS! Yes, the Marvel Multiverse arrived when Loki and Sylvie destroyed the TVA at the end of Loki season one, allowing branches from the main timeline to grow unpruned. But where did we learn about the branching timeline? Well, Endgame. But from whom? The Ancient One! And where did we first meet the Ancient One? In Doctor Strange!
Okay, even if you don’t give me that sweaty bit of argumentation, there’s no denying that Strange has been at the center of Marvel’s multiversal turn. It’s the flubbed spell from Strange that brings Tobey Maguire and Andrew Garfield back as Spider-Men, along with their various baddies in tow. That same spell gives us a glimpse of multiple other worlds, suggesting that we’ve only scratched the surface of the alternate realities that still remain.
One of the more interesting ways of accessing those realities is through “Dreamwalking,” using the Darkhold to possess another version of one’s self. The Darkhold may have been introduced in the MCU through WandaVision, and first appeared in Werewolf by Night comics, but its full power was shown in Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness. Even as the Darkhold seems to have been destroyed in the Prime MCU universe (I refuse to call it 616), Strange will be the first line of defense should another Dreamwalker appear.
Yes, Stephen Strange and his magical abilities are important to the MCU. But we must also remember that Strange is not the most notable magician in the universe. That distinction belongs to Wong, Sorcerer Supreme. More importantly, Wong has overtaken Strange as the Tony Stark replacement in the public eye, easily becoming the most beloved character in the current MCU.
For comic book readers, Wong has long been an embarrassing vestige of Doctor Strange’s mighty whitey roots, a non-white literal man servant who waits upon his master. Although writers such as Greg Pak worked to make Wong into a fully developed person, the biggest contributor to the character’s success is Benedict Wong himself. From the very beginning, Wong struck the perfect balance between a serious student who understands the stakes of his craft and a source of levity, a character willing to play with the absurdities of the MCU. As both a serious actor and a comedic talent, Benedict Wong excels in giving fans the light-hearted action they crave.
As pointed out most recently in She-Hulk: Attorney at Law, a Wong appearance makes for an instant hit. One would hope it’s only a matter of time before Kevin Feige gives Wong his own series, if not an outright movie. But when that happens, don’t forget the Sorcerer Supreme’s cinematic roots in 2016’s Doctor Strange.