Warning: This article contains SPOILERS for Doctor Strange.
For a movie which forms part of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, #DoctorStrange has a surprising lack of connections to the wider shared narrative of the world it inhabits. A well contained origin story in its own right, the newest offering from Marvel Studios focuses more on establishing the titular character himself than it does linking itself up to the rest of the MCU.
There was, however, one big reference in particular which nods to the wider MCU, and could help us figure out when the events of Doctor Strange actually take place in reference to the rest of the movies. But you may have missed it in among the excitement of everything else going on.
If you noticed it then well done, have a cookie. If not, then read on, but be warned — this post contains some minor spoilers for Doctor Strange. So if you want to go into the movie with a completely blank slate, then take heed from the Cloak of Levitation and go no further.
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A Captain America: Civil War Easter Egg?
If you haven't heard Doctor Stephen Strange's origin story by now then congratulations, but I'm about to spoil it for you. Near the beginning of the movie, the arrogant, top-of-the-world Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) is involved in a nasty car accident, which causes terrible nerve damage to his hands and robs him of the ability to perform surgery. This sends his character spiraling into depression and bankruptcy, triggering his quest to Nepal to heal his hands. But we're getting ahead of ourselves.
The reference comes well before Doctor Strange has ever heard the name of the Ancient One, occurring just before his fateful car crash. Strange is speeding along a dangerous road in his sports car while on the phone to a nurse named Billy, who is trying to convince him to take on one of a number of difficult surgery cases.
The three cases Billy describes here are:
- a woman with an electrical implant in her brain to treat schizophrenia, who has just been struck by lightning.
- an elderly woman who has a damaged brain stem.
- and a Marine Colonel with a crushed lower spine.
Hang on a second, doesn't that last one sound familiar?
"I've got a 35 year old Marine Colonel, crushed his lower spine in some kind of experimental armor."
At first hearing this we immediately thought of Colonel James "Rhodey" Rhodes (Don Cheadle) — a.k.a. War Machine — who had his spine damaged and suffered paralysis in his lower body after crashing during the Leipzig Airport Battle of Captain America: Civil War. So, a pretty straightforward Civil War reference, right?
Nuh uh, not so fast, because the age of the Marine Colonel described doesn't match up with that of Rhodey. Canonically the MCU Rhodey is in his late 40s, with Cheadle himself being 51, not 35. Bummer.
However, It's Probably An Iron Man Reference
So, not a Civil War reference. But you don't just go throwing phrases like "experimental armor" around in the MCU for no good reason, so we know this goes back to Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) somehow (most things do in the MCU). Perhaps it's a reference to the events of Iron Man 2 back in 2010, which saw Justin Hammer (Sam Rockwell) using marines to test out his failed Hammer versions of the Iron Man suits.
If so, what does this tell us? Firstly it helps locate us within the world of the MCU, something which is needed given how far away from that world Doctor Strange seems at times. Secondly it allows us to put a timestamp on the events which occur towards the beginning of the movie.
We know Doctor Strange has to take place after the events of The Avengers as we see Avengers Tower (formerly Stark Tower) a few times in the movie — once at the beginning, and again when Kaecilius (Mads Mikkelsen) battles Strange and Baron Mordo (Chiwetel Ejiofor) in the mirror dimension of New York. Wong (Benedict Wong) also refers to the Avengers as the protectors of Earth whilst teaching Strange of the Three Sanctums, which means they've become well established by this time, but likely haven't had their Civil War fallout yet.
While we'd been told beforehand from Kevin Feige and others at Marvel that Doctor Strange would take place following the events of Civil War, this helps us to understand how much time passes as the events of the movie move forward. You don't just learn magic overnight after all, and when Strange rocks up at the hospital in New York Christine Palmer (Rachel McAdams) remarks that a long time has passed since they last saw each other.
By the end of the movie we assume we've pretty much caught up with the MCU as it moves forward, as established by that mid-credits scene which sets up the events of Thor: Ragnarok quite nicely. So now the question left to be answered is, when will Strange meet the rest of the Avengers? And will the big bad of this movie return for Infinity War? We'll find out as we move forward in the MCU, which has just become a little more mystical than it was before.
Doctor Strange releases in the US November 4, 2016.