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He’s the Gandalf of the Marvel Universe, but almost no one (until now) predicted that Doctor Strange would conjure the box office magic of Spider-Man, Captain America or Iron Man. Fortunately, Benedict Cumberbatch — by donning the Cloak of Levitation — is about to do for the character what Robert Downey, Jr., did for Tony Stark. With the best reviews of any Marvel film so far, Doctor Strange is on the verge of taking its hero from obscure oddity to mainstream phenomenon … and taking the Marvel Cinematic Universe into its next phase. So, do you believe in magic?

In 2008, Marvel Studios — untested and with a lot to prove — took a gamble and launched the Marvel Cinematic Universe. At the time, it was a nearly unprecedented concept: Marvel's greatest superheroes would coexist as part of one phenomenal film narrative. But for all the risks Marvel was willing to take with the #MCU, one was off the table: the introduction of magic. They would give us a talking, gun-toting raccoon, but not a wizard. Now, eight years later, magic is finally coming to the MCU. Why has Marvel Studios taken so long to introduce sorcery? How does it work? And where do we go from here? The first two Marvel movies — Iron Man and The Incredible Hulk — make one thing clear: the MCU was born in science. In fact, the stars of those two films are sometimes jokingly referred to as the "Science Bros"!

Both Iron Man and the Hulk are firmly rooted in the strange, impossible science of comic books. I mean, this is the kind of science where a genius engineer can whip up powerful exo-armor while held captive by terrorists, or where gamma radiation can cause you to turn into a rampaging behemoth every time you lose your temper! Still, it was science-fiction all the same, and the early MCU went to great lengths to make everything look as vaguely realistic as possible. Perhaps the best example is the care and attention Marvel consistently put into Iron Man's armor, particularly when it comes to flight. The success of Iron Man meant that the future growth of the MCU was guaranteed, and that led to a perplexing question: how would general audiences react to the more fantastical sides of the superhero genre? 

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Art, in its various forms, reflects the attitudes and conditions of its time. We often see this with fictional characters who change and adapt along with society. Captain America was created in the 1940s to convince Americans to go to war against Hitler, for example, but today — in the age of Edward Snowden — Captain America's stories are often parables about government surveillance. Doctor Strange was a product of his time as well, but you could also say that the Sorcerer Supreme had as much of an influence on the '60s as they had on him. The early '60s, in which Doctor Strange was created, marked the beginning of massive social upheaval. The assassination of JFK, racist violence in the South leading up to the  Civil Rights Act, and the escalation of the Vietnam War all shook Americans out of their tranquil 1950s mindsets. 

As Bob Dylan's ballad suggested, the times very much were a-changin'. In 1963, a few years before the counterculture movement really began, Stan Lee and Illustrator Steve Ditko created Doctor Strange, a figure steeped in themes of Eastern mysticism and cloaked in spiritual magic. It turned out to be a prescient creative decision. War, violence, and bigotry were issues that gripped the country and inspired many to take up the task of change. Many people who lived during the '60s often brag about how they were able to survive it, and in many ways, it's no exaggeration. By the end of the decade — as Vietnam turned into a bloody quagmire, and civil rights leaders such as Martin Luther King, Jr., and Bobby Kennedy were gunned down — millions of young Americans embraced Dr. Timothy Leary's message to "turn on, tune in, drop out" with LSD.

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Doctor Stephen Vincent Strange is a hero like no other. Stan Lee and Steve Ditko created him to explore a new avenue in their storytelling and bring new themes to their stories. Rather than a suit of armor or a radioactive spider, his abilities come from the mystic arts. In Strange's 53-year history, he has travelled to countless dimensions and battled a number of foes, ranging from celestial beings such as Galactus to demons such as Mephisto. But before all of this, he had to battle a much more relatable and human foe: his own ego. Before Strange had even thought of the Eye of Agamotto, he was a highly respected neurosurgeon. He graduated from Columbia University in record time and quickly rose through the ranks at New York Presbyterian Hospital. As a consequence of rapid success before the age of 30, however, he became arrogant, caring more about the money than about his patients.

He was a selfish and greedy man, even going so far as to refuse to treat anyone who couldn't afford their medical bills. Cold and egotistical, Strange also became a loner — especially when his mother passed away towards the end of his residency — closing himself off from the world. Tragedy struck Stephen Strange again when, two years after his mother died, his father became terminally ill. Strange was unable to take any more heartbreak and refused to visit his dying father. This outraged his brother, Victor, who confronted Strange at his apartment. The brothers argued until, in his blind rage, Victor walked out into the path of an oncoming car and was killed. Strange had lost his entire family — and he was about to lose his sense of self. Wracked with guilt, Strange buried himself even deeper into his work and he became even more reclusive.

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When I was seven, my parents would always buy me those small magician kits that included two red fluffy balls and a black stick with the white end. As a young immigrant to the U.S. from the Dominican Republic, magic made me feel powerful. And when I discovered that comic books had a magician character, I fell in love. Although I liked Spider-Man as much as any other kid, Doctor Strange was the superhero who made me stay and explore the Marvel Universe to its core. When I first saw a rabbit taken out of a hat, I almost cried. (Really.) The complete mysteriousness and impossibility of such feat took me to a world of excitement. I was living in a state and a country that didn't feel like home yet, but the transition was a happy one; I can attribute that to my love for comic books. It wasn't until I moved to the U.S. that I really started to become a comic geek, reading Doctor Strange's adventures in my school library.

 Like me, Doctor Strange was different. Like me, Doctor Strange loved magic. And, like me, Doctor Strange was just strange. Very few Marvel fans, at least before 2016, would've called Doctor Strange their favorite hero. He was always viewed as cool, but perhaps opaque or inaccessible to a general readership. There's something more to the Sorcerer Supreme that makes him my favorite, though. And that is the simple fact that he is different. While other superheroes can fly, turn to fire or exhibit incredible strength, Doctor Strange is able to carry the perfect punch without actually throwing a single punch. He dresses differently than any other superhero; even his hairdo was different. I myself was different when I moved to the United States, so it was easy to relate to an outsider superhero. Whenever Strange cast one of his spells, I would remember the phrase and repeat it over and over again.

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Everybody has probably wanted, at some point, to become a superhero — and Doctor Strange, like Batman, is one of the rare superheroes that you conceivably could become. Every kid who grew up reading Batman comics probably had the genius idea that if they just suffered some insane tragedy, did enough pushups and then somehow got rich enough to buy experimental military weaponry, they too could become the Bat and strike fear into the hearts of criminals. Likewise, Doctor Strange didn't get his powers from being an alien, a mutant, being bitten by a radioactive insect or some other impossible-to-replicate scenario. Which, believe it or not, is quite possible to replicate. This doesn't let you shoot fireballs out of your hands, unfortunately, but it does let you do all kinds of amusing and enlightening things with your own mind, so there’s that.

As a kid I obsessed over the idea of finding some way, any way, to become a superhero. In the '80s, comics still had back pages that sold all kinds of novelty items: giant model submarines, inflatable dinosaurs, x-ray specs — and often, enticingly and perhaps irresponsibly, books on mastering hypnosis and other strange mental powers. I became convinced that these mail-away books would open the door to actual superpowers ... and wouldn't they be impressed at school then, particularly the girls? As a teenager I graduated to studying the actual occult — again prompted by comics, in this case those of Grant Morrison and Alan Moore, who incorporated more serious "magical" material into their writing.

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