Spoilers for Doctor Strange below.
A few days ago, superhero geeks received an October Surprise: The latest Marvel product, Doctor Strange, would feature two villains for the price of one! We’d long known that sensual Dane Mads Mikkelsen would be playing a rogue mage named Kaecilius, but director Scott Derrickson let slip that we could also look forward to an appearance from a cosmic gent named Dormammu, played, in a feat of dual casting, by Benedict Cumberbatch. But who is Dormammu? What do we know? Do we know things? Let’s find out!
What’s his basic deal?
He’s a millennia-old, megalomaniacal, magic-adept tyrant from a realm called the Dark Dimension. He regularly tries to take over our own plane of existence and/or defeat Earth’s heroes. His head is constantly on fire, for some reason.
What can he do?
Miscellaneous magic stuff. There aren’t a whole lot of narrative restrictions — like a lot of comic-book villains he can kinda do whatever a writer or artist needs him to do for a given story. I mean, sheesh, look at the Marvel Wikia section on his powers and abilities! Energy blasts, super-healing, super-strength, teleportation, time travel, astral projection, etc. Honestly, that kind of nigh-unlimited power set makes him somewhat dull. After all, it means it’s improbable that he’d ever get defeated in a fight. (To be fair, that’s a pretty common metatextual problem among supervillains.) His head is usually depicted as being flame-engulfed, but a source told me that the character’s creator, Steve Ditko, actually intended his visuals to suggest that Dormammu’s head was covered in gas.
What does he want?
Whatever a given story requires. As is true of most otherworldly types, he’s often depicted as attempting to conquer humanity, but he’s just generically evil, so you can toss him into most any sinister plot you want, just as long as it’s mostly magic-related. So, no efforts to become president of the United States. Dormammu lacks the kind of fascinatingly specific goal of, say, Thanos, who wants to woo the Marvel universe’s anthropomorphic manifestation of Death by killing people off. Hey, speaking of which …
Is he related to Thanos? In the movie, he looks a lot like Thanos.
No, but viewers of Doctor Strange could be forgiven for thinking that’s the case! When we finally meet the movie’s Final Boss, he’s got a big ol’ purple face with creepy eyes, and he hangs out in an outer-space-ish crib where pastel objects float around him. Y’know, like Thanos, the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s current mega–Big Bad. However, the two villains are unrelated: Any similarities between the two are just a coincidence (or visual laziness, but who are we to judge?).
Is he a big deal in the Doctor Strange mythos?
Absolutely! Dormammu was the third major Doctor Strange villain to be introduced, way back in the 1960s (the first two being Nightmare and Baron Mordo). He’s stuck around ever since.
What were his real-life origins?
In 1963, writer-artist Steve Ditko had the idea for Doctor Strange and, in partnership with writer-editor Stan Lee, crafted the good doctor’s initial batch of stories. Dormammu was introduced in an early chapter, during which Strange finds himself in the Dark Dimension and learns of Dormammu’s dictatorial ways. Ditko eventually took over the plotting of Strange’s stories and opted to have Dormammu be his arc’s most powerful villain. Ditko left Marvel in a huff in 1966, putting the character in the hands of other masters.
How is his movie incarnation different from his comics one?
The main difference is one of omission: The movie doesn't get into Dormammu's tyrannical rule of the Dark Dimension, which was one of his early defining traits in the comics. However, it’s entirely possible that that’s still what he does when he’s not trying to take over Earth, the same way that Steve Rogers apparently spends his time offscreen trying Thai food. We shall see. Movie Dormammu's gassy head is also much bigger than usual.
What do the comics tell us about how he might be portrayed in future movies?
In that very first Ditko-Lee run, Dormammu executed his endgame by enlisting Strange’s colleague turned foe Mordo. Given that Mordo is present in Doctor Strange (he's played by Chiwetel Ejiofor), it’s not unreasonable to suspect that he might link up with the Dread Dormammu in a future chapter of Strange's cinematic saga.
What was Dormammu's dumbest comics moment?
In 2008–09, Marvel published an infamously bad mini-series crossover called Ultimatum, set in an alternate version of the Marvel universe. In Ultimatum, a bunch of supervillains teamed up and murdered many of the world’s heroes in unnecessarily gruesome ways. One such offing came when Dormammu squeezed Doctor Strange so hard that his head popped like a grape. No, seriously:
Does he have the sassiest poses of any Marvel villain?
At least in his Ditko incarnation, absolutely. I mean, come on, look at the page below — is he gonna fight Doctor Strange, or challenge him to a voguing competition?