Doctor Strange’s Maddening Journey Through the MCU

By Zach Johnson

It’s a mad, mad world.

In 2016, Benedict Cumberbatch originated the role of Stephen Strange in Marvel Studios’ Doctor Strange, introducing audiences to a more mystical side of the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU). It’s been a strange journey since then—one that saw Stephen study the Mystic Arts, get blipped out of existence, and crack open the Multiverse. Speaking of the Multiverse, with Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness opening in theaters Friday, we’re taking a spell-binding trip down memory lane.

To start, let’s revisit when Stephen literally crashed into the MCU with Doctor Strange. An arrogant and renowned surgeon, a distracted Stephen lost control of his car one rainy night—and with it, his hands. He resented those who helped him survive the crash, including his former girlfriend, Dr. Christine Palmer (Rachel McAdams). “No one could have done better,” she assured him, to which he curtly replied, “I could have done better.” Ignoring everyone’s advice, Stephen sought out expensive, experimental procedures in the hopes of healing his hands. Alas, it was no use. One day, he heard about a man named Jonathan Pangborn (Benjamin Bratt), a former paraplegic who—for reasons medicine could never explain—had regained total use of his body. After Stephen located him, Jonathan shared cryptic instructions: “The place you’re looking for is Kamar-Taj. But the cost there is high… I’m not talking about money. Good luck.”

So, to Kathmandu, Nepal, Stephen went. Just before he got tangled up in a street fight, Karl Mordo (Chiwetel Ejiofor) appeared. “Forget everything you think you know,” Mordo told him, before introducing him to the Ancient One (Tilda Swinton)—who confirmed she had healed Jonathan “in a way,” as she knows “how to reorient the spirit to better heal the body.” Given his medical background, Stephen scoffed. “You’re a man looking at the world through a keyhole,” the Ancient One said. “You’ve spent your whole life trying to widen that keyhole to see more, to know more. Now, on hearing that it can be widened—in ways you can’t imagine—you reject the possibility?”

The Ancient One teaches Stephen Strange the ways of the Mystic Arts in Doctor Strange (2016).

Feeling superior, Stephen replied, “There is no such thing as spirit. We are made of matter and nothing more. You’re just another tiny, momentary speck within an indifferent universe.” The Ancient One then pushed his astral form outside of his physical form. “You think you know how the world works? You think that this material universe is all there is? What is real? What mysteries lie beyond the reach of your senses?” she asked. “At the root of existence, mind and matter meet. Thoughts shape reality. This universe is only one of an infinite number: worlds without end, some benevolent and life-giving, others filled with malice and hunger—dark places where powers older than time lie ravenous and waiting. Who are you in this vast Multiverse, Mr. Strange?” (Something tells us that question will finally be answered in the sequel…)

Mystified, Stephen begged to become a student of the Mystic Arts, and the Ancient One eventually acquiesced. She then explained some very basic principles: “We harness energy drawn from other dimensions of the Multiverse—to cast spells, to conjure shields and weapons, to make magic.” Stephen immersed himself in his studies and befriended Wong (Benedict Wong), a sorcerer and librarian. Wong told him about the Ancient One’s private collection, which Stephen would later borrow in secret. With it, he learned how to use the Eye of Agamotto, a relic that can manipulate time. (He didn’t know then that it contained one of six Infinity Stones, but more on that later.) Mordo and Wong discouraged Stephen’s curiosity, as the relic could create spatial paradoxes and time loops. As Wong said, “We do not tamper with natural law.”

Wong then explained that the sorcerers protect Earth from mystical threats, and there are sanctums in Hong Kong, London, and New York. “The Sanctums protect the world,” Mordo added, “and the sorcerers protect the Sanctums.” After learning about Dormammu, a powerful entity from the Dark Dimension, Stephen had enough. “I’m out. I came here to heal my hands,” he protested, “not to fight in some mystical war.”

Doctor Strange uses the Eye of Agamotto to turn back time in Doctor Strange (2016).

Timing, ironically, was not on his side. Within moments, the zealot Kaecilius (Mads Mikkelsen) appeared and attempted to steal the Eye of Agamotto from him. Stephen escaped to the New York sanctum, with Kaecilius and his followers in hot pursuit. Although Stephen was saved by the Cloak of Levitation, he was badly wounded and turned to Christine for help. After filling Christine in on his adventures, then fighting off one of Kaecilius’ followers, Stephen returned to the Sanctum. There, the Ancient One promoted him to Master Strange of New York—but he tried to turn her down. “When I became a doctor, I swore an oath to do no harm, and I have just killed a man,” he reasoned. “I am not doing that again. I became a doctor to save lives, not take them.”

Stephen then accused the Ancient One of drawing power from the Dark Dimension, as Kaecilius had claimed. “She is not who you think she is,” he told Mordo, who refused to accept it. After Kaecilius returned, Stephen moved the fight to the Mirror Dimension. There, the Ancient One saved them—and, in doing so, confirmed the accusations. She was badly wounded, so Stephen brought her to Christine. While on the operating table, her astral form left her body and Stephen followed. “You wonder what I see in your future?” she asked him. “I never saw your future—only its possibilities. You have such a capacity for goodness. You always exceled—but not because you crave success, but because of your fear of failure… Arrogance and fear still keep you from learning the simplest and most significant lesson of all: It’s not about you.” After revealing that Jonathan, too, drew power from the Dark Dimension walk, she said, “As you well know, sometimes one must break the rules in order to serve the greater good.” Finally, she told Stephen, “We don’t get to choose our time. Death is what gives life meaning.” (It’s a lesson the Stephen fans would meet years later in What If…? should’ve known.)

Stephen, Mordo, and Wong then traveled to Hong Kong, where Stephen took the fight directly to Dormammu. Confronting the powerful entity in the Dark Dimension, Stephen used the Eye of Agamotto to trap Dormammu—and himself—in a time loop. Finally, Dormammu accepted Stephen’s bargain and agreed to leave Earth alone. Stephen won the fight, but he lost Mordo’s respect. “You still think there will be no consequences, Strange? No price to pay?” he asked. “We broke our rules, just like [the Ancient One]. The bill comes due. Always!” Disillusioned, he left to walk his own path.

Stephen next appeared in Thor: Ragnarok (2017), after Thor (Chris Hemsworth) and Loki (Tom Hiddleston) mysteriously appeared. “I keep a watch list of individuals and beings from other realms that may be a thread to this world,” he told Thor. “Your adopted brother, Loki, is one of those beings… So, why bring him here to New York?” Thor explained that if they found their father, Odin (Anthony Hopkins), they would promptly leave Earth. Stephen obliged, creating a portal and sending them to Norway.

Doctor Strange and Wong learn of Thanos’ master plan in Avengers: Infinity War (2018).

Stephen encountered even more Avengers in Avengers: Infinity War (2018). After Thanos (Josh Brolin) acquired the Space Stone, Heimdall (Idris Elba) summoned the Bifrost to send Bruce Banner aka the Hulk (Mark Ruffalo) to Earth, where he crash-landed in the Sanctum Santorum and warned Stephen and Wong of the danger ahead. With no time to waste, Stephen used a portal to contact Tony Stark aka Iron Man (Disney Legend Robert Downey Jr.). “We need your help,” he explained. “Look, it’s not overselling it to say the fate of the universe is at stake.” Back at the Santorum, Wong explained how the Infinity Stones each control an essential aspect of existence—including the one Stephen wore around his neck. “Our oath to protect the Time Stone cannot change,” Stephen told them. “And this Stone may be the best chance we have against Thanos.”

It wasn’t long before two members of the Black Order descended upon New York City to retrieve the Time Stone. An enchantment prevented Ebony Maw (Tom Vaughan-Lawlor) from stealing the Eye of Agamotto, however, so he took Stephen prisoner aboard his ship. Tony followed them, while another young hero, Peter Parker aka Spider-Man (Tom Holland), snuck onboard to help. Once onboard, Ebony Maw used dozens of microsurgical blades to torture Stephen in the hopes of convincing him to give up the Time Stone—but his plan was thwarted, thanks to Peter’s pop culture prowess. With Ebony Maw no longer a threat, the trio debated what their next move should be. Tony’s plan to fight Thanos on Titan won, with one condition. “You have to understand, if it comes to saving you or the kid or the Time Stone, I will not hesitate to let either of you die,” Stephen told him. “I can’t—because the universe depends on it.”

Stephen Strange sustains an injury in battle.

After teaming up with the Guardians of the Galaxy, they landed on Titan to prepare for battle. As they worked out a plan, Stephen went forward in time to view alternate futures—and out of 14,000,605 possibilities, he only saw them defeat Thanos in one. Despite the odds, they put up a good fight—but when Tony was in danger, Stephen bargained to save him: “Spare his life,” he told Thanos, “and I will give you the stone.” Successful, Thanos headed to Earth to retrieve the sixth and final Infinity Stone. “Why would you do that?” Tony wondered. Stephen replied, “We’re in the endgame now.” After Thanos acquired the last Infinity Stone and killed half the universe with the snap of his fingers, Stephen turned to his new ally and said, “Tony, there was no other way.”

With that, Stephen turned to dust.

In Avengers: Endgame (2019), five years had passed after Thanos’ galactic genocide—but Super Heroes like Steve Rogers aka Captain America (Chris Evans) and Natasha Romanoff aka Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) never gave up on trying to find a way to bring back their fallen friends. After Scott Lang aka Ant-Man (Paul Rudd) fortuitously returned from the Quantum Realm, Tony unlocked the secret to time travel. Together, the surviving Avengers devised a plan to go back in time, steal the Infinity Stones, and bring everyone back to life. Their plan worked—although not exactly as expected, as Thanos caught wind of their efforts and reigned fire on the Avengers compound. They fought valiantly, and just when it seemed all hope was lost, Stephen and his fellow sorcerers opened portals that welcomed the avenged heroes back onto the battlefield.

During the fight, Tony called over to Stephen and said, “Hey, you said one out of 14 million we win, yeah? Tell me this is it.” Stephen replied, “If I tell you what happens, it won’t happen.” Later, Tony saw the opportunity to seize the six Infinity Stones. He looked at Stephen, who pointed his finger, confirming it was his 1/14,000,605 chance.

Stephen Strange conjures powerful shields in What If...? (2021) 

Marvel Studios’ first-ever animated series What If…? (2021) flipped the script on the live-action stories of the MCU. Stephen’s debut appearance featured Christine dying in car accident, prompting him to travel across the world and study the Mystic Arts. After he became the Sorcerer Supreme, he manipulated time, again and again, to save Christine—and each time, she died. “Why does this keep happening?” he asked. “Aren’t we allowed to be happy?” He learned that Christine’s death is an Absolute Point in time—i.e., it’s unchangeable. Stephen disagreed and set off to find the Lost Library of Cagliostro. There, he discovered a book that claimed he could “gain the power through the absorption of other beings” in order to change an Absolute Point.

Another sorcerer, O’Bengh (voiced by Ike Amadi), advised against going down this dark path. “There is a fine line between devotion and delusion,” he told Stephen aka Strange Supreme. “Love can break more than your heart. It can shatter your mind.” Strange Supreme was undeterred, and gradually absorbed more beings. In the same universe, an echo of the Ancient One appeared warned another Stephen that two possible timelines were occurring in the same universe. “If the other Strange succeeds,” she explained, “the resulting temporal paradox will destroy this universe.”

Strange Supreme shows Captain Carter a magic trick in What If...? (2021).

Stephen was then summoned by Strange Supreme, who ultimately absorbed him, too. Strange Supreme managed to save Christine, but she only saw him as a monster. And as reality began to crumble, she began to fade away. Desperate to make things right, Strange Supreme addressed The Watcher (voiced by Jeffrey Wright), who is not allowed to intervene. “I didn’t mean for this to happen!” Strange Supreme shouted. He later got a chance at redemption after Ultron (voiced by Ross Marquand) threatened the Multiverse. The Watcher assembled a team of variants—including Strange Supreme—to separate Ultron’s body from the Infinity Stones. Strange Supreme used a protection spell to help his new friends—dubbed the Guardians of the Multiverse—fulfill their mission. They ultimately succeeded, but Killmonger (voiced by Michael B. Jordan) betrayed them and stole the Infinity Stones. After trying to stop him, Strange Supreme had an epiphany: “We were never meant to win,” he said. “We were here to separate the stones from the body.” Together, Strange Supreme and the Watcher sealed Killmonger in a time-looped pocket dimension, which the former promised to watch over. “I have nothing but time,” he said. “And besides… what are friends for?”

Doctor Strange tries to make everyone forget Peter Parker’s alter ego in Spider-Man: No Way Home (2021).

The live-action Stephen next appeared in Spider-Man: No Way Home (2021), in which he half-joked to Peter that Wong had become Sorcerer Supreme “on a technicality” because he had “blipped five years.” Peter wanted him to turn back time, to protect his civilian identity, but Stephen reminded him that he no longer had the Time Stone. Using the Runes of Kof-Kol (“a standard spell of forgetting”), he might be able to help. Wong argued the spell was “too dangerous,” but Stephen pitied Peter and reminded Wong they’d used it for far less: “Come on, Wong. Hasn’t he been through enough?”

As Stephen began his incantation, he said, “The entire world is about to forget that Peter Parker is Spider-Man, including me.” That caused Peter to panic and ask to exclude certain people. Stephen called it off, explaining, “That spell was completely out of control. If I hadn’t shut it down, something catastrophic could have happened.”

As it turned out, something catastrophic did happen. “That little spell you botched where you wanted everyone to forget that Peter Parker’s Spider-Man? It started pulling in everyone who knows Peter Parker’s Spider-Man from every universe into this one,” Stephen said after Peter encountered Otto Octavius aka Doctor Octopus (Alfred Molina) and Norman Osborne aka Green Goblin (Willem Dafoe). Ominously, Stephen warned Peter, “The Multiverse is a concept about which we know frightenedly little.”

After sending Peter to round up other Super Villains, Stephen produced an ancient relic: The Macchina di Kadavus. “I’ve trapped your corrupted spell inside,” he explained, “and once I finish the proper ritual, it’ll reverse the spell and send these guys back to their universes.” Peter wanted to rehabilitate them, but Stephen dismissed that idea. “In the grand calculus of the Multiverse,” he argued, “their sacrifice means infinitely more than their lives. I’m sorry kid: If they die, they die.” Standing up for himself, Peter stole the Macchina di Kadavus—and to everyone’s surprise, he managed to trap Stephen in the Mirror Dimension for the next 12 hours!

Stephen Strange sends Peter Parker on a mission in Spider-Man: No Way Home (2021)..

By the time Stephen reappeared, he came face-to-face with three Peter Parkers. “Look, I am really impressed that you’ve managed to give them all a second chance, kid,” he told Peter (Holland), “but this has to end. Now.” The Green Goblin detonated the Macchina di Kadavus, cracking the Multiverse wide open. “They’re starting to come through and I can’t stop them,” Stephen said. “They’re here because of you.” And so, Peter asked Stephen to cast a new spell to make everyone forget him. “It would work,” Stephen said. “But you gotta understand, that would mean that everyone who knows and loves you, we’d have no memory of you. It would be as though you never existed.” Peter said he understood, and Stephen conjured a spell that erased him from memory.

So, where does that leave Stephen now? In Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness, he will traverse the mind-bending and dangerous alternate realities of the Multiverse—with the help of mystical allies—to confront a mysterious new adversary.