Unlike Captain America: Civil War, Doctor Strange is something of a standalone film. You don't need to have watched a half-dozen other Marvel movies to get your head around the movie; you don't need to be familiar with the ins and outs of Marvel continuity in order to make sense of everything. But the lack of overt continuity nods is already causing a lot of heated debate among fans; when is the film set? How does it fit in the wider MCU timeline?
The First Mention of Stephen Strange
We got our first mention of Stephen Strange back in 2014's Captain America: Winter Soldier, when Hydra identified him as a possible threat. Fans were fascinated. Did that mean Stephen Strange was already Sorcerer Supreme? In the build-up to Doctor Strange's release, Marvel visionary Kevin Feige explained that particular Easter egg:
"He is very well-known as a surgeon. He has got various awards and plaques you're going to see over there; he attends various galas, might be driving at one point in this movie. He has name recognition and a talent and certain Hydra computers identified him as somebody that could cause trouble for their agendas."
The film opens with Stephen Strange as an award-winning neurosurgeon, a consultant who takes on the most prestigious cases and has developed an international reputation for his genius. He's ruthlessly ambitious, only accepting cases that are of value to his career and challenge his intelligence. That said, Strange's ambition is tempered with a degree of wisdom; he's smart enough to recognize when even he can't handle a case, and as a result, has a miraculously unblemished record.
All this means Stephen Strange's career involves international lectures on his revolutionary procedures. He has a global reputation, and medical practitioners all over the world hang on his every word. Should he decide to oppose Hydra, he'd be a powerful voice against their rule. No wonder Hydra considered him a threat, even back when he was just a neurosurgeon!
So When is the Film Set?
So we start off with the certain knowledge that Stephen Strange was an active neurosurgeon back in 2014 — and not a Master of the Mystic Arts. Now let's turn to the movie itself; when is it set?
Naturally, the movie's opening sequence kicks off with some of Stephen Strange's cases, establishing his skill as a surgeon. We're given brief glimpses of the awards on his wall - and, significantly, some of these are dated 2016. We can immediately say that the bulk of the film is set this year.
Just before Strange's car accident, he gets a phone call discussing possible cases. One that he rejects is significant:
"I've got a 35 year old Marine Colonel, crushed his lower spine in some kind of experimental armor."
At first glance, this is a nod to Captain America: Civil War - but it turns out that's not the case. Director Scott Derickson told Digital Spy:
"That's not War Machine, actually. It sounds like it. And maybe in some other iteration we were even thinking it could be."
Is it possible that Justin Hammer is still experimenting with the Iron-Man-esque armors we saw in Iron Man 2? Whatever the case may be, we're still left with background images in the film establishing the accident as happening in 2016. This also fits with the official tie-in comics, which claim to be set in the "Present Day".
How Long Is Strange's Training?
Again, director Scott Derickson gives us an indication of how much time passes during the film. He explained:
"The movie leads up to the present day, you know, and if you watch the timeline of the movie, from the time when Strange is blown through the Sanctum in the middle of the movie, the rest of the movie runs in real time."
So, according to Scott Derickson, Doctor Strange concludes in early November 2016. Some fans are frustrated at this; they understandably feel the time-period (a 2016 beginning, and a November 2016 end) is too short for Strange to lose his fortune, find Kamar-Taj, and be trained by the Ancient One.
In defence of that timescale, the film notes that Stephen Strange wouldn't have taken long to blow his money - the movie's dialogue states that he typically spent money as quickly as he made it. He may have been making a fortune, but he was also spending a fortune, and didn't have much set aside for the kind of medical operations he underwent. As regards Kamar-Taj, Strange's own prodigious memory ensured he learned at a remarkable rate - again, the film states as much. You can add a possible 'No-Prize' by suggesting that, due to spells from the Book of Cagliostro, perhaps time in Kamar-Taj doesn't flow at the same rate as in the real world. It's awkward, and slightly uncomfortable, but it's a possible 'twist' to the tale.
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Pulling all this together, we can be pretty confident that Stephen Strange has his car accident at the end of April this year. What we don't really know, though, is how much time passes during the rest of the film; how many months does Strange spend trying to find a way to regain use of his hands? How many months is he in Kamar-Taj? These questions are wide open, and will remain so until we get further tie-ins. It's entirely possible we won't learn the answers to those questions until the release of Thor: Ragnarok. Still, at least we have some kind of idea how the movie fits in with the wider MCU — all because of a couple of details in the film!