Doctor Strange’s Screenwriter Explains the Movie’s Biggest Twists

By
Photo: Marvel

You've visited the Mirror Dimension, you've marveled at Mads Mikkelsen's eye makeup, you've fallen in love with Benedict Cumberbatch's horny cloak … and now you've got questions. Well, never fear, viewers of Marvel's latest hit Doctor Strange: We called up screenwriter Jon Spaihts to get the scoop on all of the superhero movie's biggest twists and turns and how they came about. Beware: SPOILERS follow, obviously.

Mordo's villainous post-credits scene

When Chiwetel Ejiofor was cast as the character Mordo, many assumed he would be the film's primary villain, as that's typically his role in Strange lore. Instead, Mordo spends most of the film as Strange's most valuable ally, fighting alongside our protagonist until a revelation about the Ancient One (Tilda Swinton) — she's been drawing immortal power from the Dark Dimension, a life-extending procedure that goes against all she espouses — shakes Mordo to his core. Eventually, he splits, and in the film's post-credits tag, he cripples another sorcerer whose use of magic power he's deemed too cavalier, setting up Mordo as the sequel's big baddie.

"It's really about better serving the origin story as it's written," Spaihts said, when I asked him to explain Mordo's drawn-out arc. "In the original comics, Mordo is rather transparently wicked, and as a consequence, his betrayal doesn't register — he really is an antagonist from his first appearance. To adapt that story to the more mature storytelling language of film, before we could break and betray that bond, we had to establish a brotherhood and a fellowship. Building that friendship between Strange and Mordo was deeply satisfying, and then turning that character against his former school and comrades was a fascinating turn. The more we worked at it, the longer Mordo's arc became."

The hope, too, is that the time spent on Mordo's turn will make him a more compelling Marvel villain for a cinematic universe that has sometimes lacked for memorable evildoers. "What I like now is that whatever drives him is going to be more complicated than a simple ambition for power, or a need to replace the Ancient One," said Spaihts. "He fought to save the world, and in his own rigid, stubborn way, he's an idealist. Whatever he does next will be his own attempt to make the world a better place. And you know there is a lot to learn about Mordo's own history in the cinematic universe. There are suggestions of a trial by fire that was his childhood, about his warrior past, about the things he's done. Learning a bit more fully about who he is will tell us all where he's going."

Killing off the Ancient One

Mentoring a fantasy protagonist carries with it an implicit threat to your life: Just ask Obi-Wan Kenobi and Dumbledore, both of whom had to expire so that their young charges could fully grow into their own power. So it goes for the Ancient One, who is killed by dark forces late in the movie, forcing Strange to step up. "We went back and forth on that decision over time," admitted Spaihts. "It's very much the Marvel method to test every possibility and play out the variations, so almost everything you see in the final film, we tried five different ways along the way."

To hear Spaihts tell it, the Ancient One needed to die before she became neutered by storytelling necessity. "In the comics, [the male incarnation of] the Ancient One lingers on even after Strange becomes Sorcerer Supreme, and in principle, the Ancient One is a centuries-old being who should be a rival in power to Strange himself," said Spaihts. "But in practice, he's constantly getting in trouble and being rescued, and if he truly were Strange's equal or better, he would go solve the problems Strange solves. So either you have an impotent mentor figure who constantly needs saving, or you have a too-powerful mentor figure where the question becomes, 'Why isn't that person leaping in instead of Strange?' So it's a cleaner story universe to move the mentor on once Strange has accepted the mantle."

Still, Spaihts had second thoughts on pulling the cosmic trigger after Oscar-winner Swinton was cast as the Ancient One. "We did have some reservations, honestly," he said. "I think her performance is one of the great revelations of the film, and some of the best work she's ever done. It's hard not to fall in love with that character. Happily, this is the world of Marvel Comics and she is a mystical being who's 700 years old. There are ways of seeing her again that we can all imagine, and you're certainly free to engage in rash speculation about what might happen next."

The climactic clash with Dormammu

Though many superhero movies end with two lumbering forces punching each other, Doctor Strange does things a bit differently: In order to force the powerful cosmic being Dormammu to scuttle his plan to consume Earth, Strange employs the time-bending powers of the Eye of Agamotto to trap both himself and Dormammu in a 30-second loop. Yes, Dormammu will kill off Strange at the end of every loop, but then it'll just start over … and over and over and over … until Dormammu is willing to break the cycle by withdrawing from his dark plan.

"I'm delighted by that sequence and intensely proud of it," said Spaihts. "It's an example, to me, of the central dynamic of Doctor Strange stories that endeared him to me growing up: As immensely powerful as he is as a sorcerer, he routinely ends up toe to toe with beings vastly older and more potent than he is. He's obliged to find a way to win those battles through sheer doggedness and wit, and often through a lawyerly exploitation of the rules. He'll get you on a technicality!"

That's the overall gambit Spaihts pitched to Marvel Studios president Kevin Feige, who added the Eye of Agamotto — and the Infinity Stone contained inside — to the sequence. "I was making my passionate plea for Doctor Strange as Daniel Webster, the guy who defeats a more powerful adversary through wit, and Kevin, masterminding his strategy for the entire Marvel universe, was very attuned to the idea of Strange as a manipulator of time in this film, per the power of the Eye of Agamotto. We thought, 'Can we trap him using time?' and that was the question that led to the sequence you see in the film, which originated in the first draft."

It was also incumbent on Spaihts to present the barely glimpsed Dormammu in a way that wouldn't conflict with Marvel's other cosmic conqueror, Thanos. "Certainly, it was a line we had to walk," he said. "There are powerful forces that pull the villains of Marvel films into a certain shape, and it takes a deliberate creative determination to give them different mechanisms. So yeah, to some extent, doing something the other movies weren't doing was on our radar."

The inclusion of the Time Stone

In order to set up the coming Avengers: Infinity War, the Marvel movies have introduced the Infinity Stones, a set of six powerful rocks that have typically been hidden inside other Marvel MacGuffins like Captain America's Tesseract or the Orb from Guardians of the Galaxy. For a smart Marvel fan, then, it should come as no surprise that the time-manipulating Eye of Agamotto houses the Time Stone, the fifth of the Infinity Stones to make its big-screen debut. (You're next, Soul Stone.)

"That was something that just evolved in the script-development process," director Scott Derrickson told me. "It started with the idea that the eye had some time manipulation, but then the idea of putting the Infinity Stone just came into it somewhere in the development process from Kevin. But Kevin is the master mapmaker of how all of these things fit together. No other filmmaker knows the whole of what's in Kevin's mind for the long-term."

Still, Spaihts said that Doctor Strange had to be awfully careful in how it employed the Time Stone, since its essential power to rewind time could break the stakes for every Marvel to come. "It is a very dangerous business to introduce the power at all, and we all agreed that it was essential to associate that power with a cost so dire that it is almost never worth using," said Spaihts. "In his first experiments with that power, Stephen Strange nearly fractures the space-time continuum. He nearly does incalculable damage to his life and the lives of those around him. With the massive manipulation he perpetrates at the end of the film, he puts the universe in danger, but because the entire world is already teetering on the brink of annihilation, the stakes make it make sense. Under any other circumstances, to do what he does would be insanely rash."

So don't expect, say, Ant-Man to break out the Time Stone if things don't go so well in an upcoming sequel. "The greatest bulwark against the use of that power is that it is itself a weapon of annihilation and an unpredictable power to use," said Spaihts. "It is playing with fire."