The Flying Sorcery of Dr. Strange: Benedict Cumberbatch Is Marvel's Most Bizarre Magician

Marvel’s most bizarre magician will be the subject of his own movie in 2016 starring Benedict Cumberbatch.

Photo Illustration by Emil Lendof/The Daily Beast

It is impossible to talk about Dr. Strange without mentioning soap, apple juice, and suicide.

The comic book character was created by Steve Ditko in the early 1960s for the comic book Strange Tales and yet because it has been alleged that Strange was one of the few characters longtime Marvel Comics CEO Stan Lee accidentally admitted to someone else inventing, the character rarely appeared on the covers of the magazine with which he shared a name.

The first story featured a man who hires Dr. Strange to help interpret his troubled dreams. Armed with the power of astral projection, the doctor enters the dream, discovers the man’s secret and twisted business dealings, and narrowly escapes death at the hands of the villain Nightmare.

Strange was a surgeon who lost the use of his hands in an automobile accident. After journeying to Tibet in pursuit of a mystical cure for his condition, the disgraced doctor became a sorcerer in apprentice to The Ancient One, an ageless monk who lives in a monastery in the Himalayas. Strange is sometimes assisted by Wong, another monk gifted to Dr. Strange by The Ancient One.

As part of their ambitious film schedule, Marvel has cast British actor Benedict Cumberbatch to play the doctor in 2016. The actor is currently winning critical praise for his portrayal of persecuted British scientist Alan Turing in The Imitation Game and has also appeared in Star Trek Into Darkness and The Fifth Estate. The eponymous movie will be the second in Phase 3, and is currently expected for a November release following Captain America: Civil War.

It will not be the first time Dr. Strange appeared on screen. In 1978, JAG writer Philip DeGuere directed a made for TV version of the story in which Arrested Development’s Jessica Walter plays King Arthur nemesis Morgan Le Fay, who possesses the body of Anne-Marie Martin (the former spouse of Jurassic Park author Michael Crichton). The roles of Strange and Wong were played by original Inglorious Bastard Peter Hooten and prolific American actor Clyde Kusatsu. Hoping to capitalize on the success of the live action Incredible Hulk and Amazing Spider-Man, the movie was an attempt to launch a new series. It premiered to adequate ratings, but Stan Lee has suggested it would have done better had it not aired at the same time as the critically acclaimed Roots.

Inspired by Stan Lee’s childhood love of the radio show Chandu the Magician, Dr. Strange follows the tradition of white people going to Asia and gaining magic powers. Chandu learned his in India, but they are largely the same as Strange’s (astral projection, mind control). Broadcast out of Southern California on the Don Lee Network starting in the 1930s, it was one of the longest running nationally syndicated radio broadcasts. White King Soap sponsored the show on the West Coast, and Beech-Nut Gum in the East.

White King, a subsidiary of the Los Angeles Soap Company that incorporated in the first year of the Civil War, went out of business in the 1980s when the cost of retrofitting its U.S. plants drove the company into bankruptcy, but in its heyday, they sponsored popular radio shows like Chandu and the equally exploitative Queen for a Day, on which housewives were encouraged to share their heartbreaking stories of domestic service. The show literally crowned a winner and rewarded contestents with vacuum cleaners and other domestic appliances. Beech-Nut is still in existence, and is the third largest baby food manufacturer in the United States. They were among the first companies to begin packaging baby food in glass jars instead of cans.

As the Los Angeles Soap Company was shutting its doors, Beech-Nut was caught in a bizarre juice scandal resulting in the then largest corporate fine ever imposed on a U.S. corporation and jail time for its CEO and vice president. The company ran afoul of the FDA when the famous cold case investigator and former NYPD narcotics detective Andrew Rosenzweig found evidence a supplier known as Universal Juice was substituting real apple juice for a apple-less mixture of high fructose corn syrup and beet sugar. The company stonewalled Rosenzweig and smuggled already packaged bottles of the “juice” from New York State to a warehouse in Secaucus, New Jersey. It was then shipped to Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic, and sold for 50 cents on the dollar.

The American baby boomers who grew up eating Beech-Nut’s jarred food loved Eastern mysticism and its promise of spiritual transcendence. Dr. Strange personified these trends. In their time working on the character, comic artist and illustrator Frank Brunner and writer Steve Englehart took the doctor back to the beginning of the universe where Strange may have become its original creator. Because it implied that the character was God, Stan Lee objected to the implication and almost made the pair include a disclaimer in the book featuring the story. They were saved at the last minute by a letter sent from a Texas reverend praising the character’s religiosity. The editor then removed the disclaimer and printed the letter instead. It was only many years later that Brunner came clean and, in an interview with Comic Book Artist, admitted they invented a fictional reverand, wrote the letter themselves, and mailed it to Marvel editor Roy Thomas when Englehart visited the Lone Star State.

The character’s magic also attracted the attention of spiritualists from all over the U.S., including the former comic editor catherine yronwode and her husband Nagasiva. As editor-in-chief of Eclipse Enterprises, catherine published some of the early works of comic legends Alan Moore and Neil Gaiman. Along with Trina Robbins, catherine is the co-author of the 1985 book Women in Comics, one of the first histories exploring contributions from those creators “overlooked or ignored by most other histories of comics.” Nagasiva is also the outreach director of the Church of Euthanasia, which seeks to end human overpopulation of the Earth by advocating for suicide, abortion, cannibalism, and sodomy.

catherine yronwode has also assembled a guide to the Vishanti, the magical beings that grant Dr. Strange his power. Written by hand in an antique ledger, the work is titled The Lesser Book of the Vishanti and is a companion to the Dr. Strange comics. The book’s suggestions were incorporated into the Dr. Strange canon when comic writer Peter B. Gillis adopted Yronwode’s suggestion about the identities of the trio. Sadly, the original files for the book were lost when the Russian River overflowed and inundated Yronwode’s home. The text was reconstructed thanks to collectors who had purchased them through yronwode’s website. The original ledger, stored in a loft, was spared.

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Cumberbatch, who rose to international prominence playing Sherlock Holmes in the 2010 BBC reboot and has a dedicated fanbase, is the perfect choice to play Dr. Strange. Because the doctor’s power manifest psychically, this provides the opportunity for long shots of the beautiful actor sitting perfectly still while his deep, mellifluous voice, which is also found in Peter Jackson’s Hobbit trilogy as the dragon Smaug, explains the mysteries of the universe.