Marvel Studios Countdown: 'Doctor Strange' Just Introduced One of Marvel's Most Unique Villains

Marvel Studios Countdown: 'Doctor Strange' Just Introduced One of Marvel's Most Unique Villains

Nov 07, 2016

Thor has Loki, Captain America has the Red Skull, and Dr. Stephen Strange has Dormammu. If you caught Doctor Strange this week, then you’ve already met the otherworldly villain. Sure, Mad Mikkelsen was front and center in the film’s marketing, as evil sorcerer Kaecilius, but the big showdown at the end of the film is a mind-bending one on one confrontation between Strange and the master of the dark realm, Dormammu. It was a treat for long-time Marvel fans who might have been let down that a third-stringer like Kaecilius was positioned in all the marketing as the film’s sole bad guy.

In the comics’ Strange was calling on Dormammu’s powers almost from the get-go. This is quite a departure from the film, where (spoiler) Dr. Strange admonishes the Ancient One for tapping into the power of Dormammu’s dimension. If we want to explain it away, “Marvel No-Prize” style, we could chalk it up to the MCU Strange’s general inexperience. The comics begin Strange’s adventures from a point in which he’s already a learned mystic (Strange Tales #110, 1963), so maybe it’s only a matter of time before the Cumberbatch version of Strange is calling on Dormammu’s dark energies.

At any rate, we aren’t introduced to Dormammu as a character until months into Strange’s comic appearances (Strange Tales #126). Before Dr. Strange had his own comic book, he shared the pages of Strange Tales with the Fantastic Four’s Human Torch and later Nick Fury. Interestingly, Dormammu’s not considered purely evil in his first confrontation with Strange. Strange considers that Dormammu, being from another dimension, can’t comprehend that what he’s doing might be destructive. Dormammu decides that he wants to rule Earth’s dimension, but Strange learns from Clea (who would go on to become Strange’s paramour after this initial appearance) that Dormammu’s realm holds back a real of savages known as the Mindless Ones.

If Dormammu diverts his attention from his dark lair, then it will be weakened, and allow the Mindless Ones to puncture through and begin to invade numerous dimensions. After a skirmish which taxes Strange’s powers, Strange makes an appeal to Dormammu (and not unlike the film, he can be reasoned with), who agrees that he should stay put but swears revenge for being outwitted. The Ancient One is so impressed with Strange’s display of power that he gifts the doctor with a new red cloak (the one we’re all familiar with; he’d been wearing a blue one) and a circular Eye of Agamotto amulet instead of the short-lived square one he’d been sporting for a few issues.

Just a couple of issues later (#130), Dormammu returned for his revenge in a multi-part storyline. He granted powers to Mordo (Strange’s peer and a villain from the start) and the two contentious partners put a kind of mystical bounty on Strange’s head that had sorcerers from all around the world hunting for Strange. Since Dormammu had sworn to stay in his own realm, he needed Mordo to kill Strange and thus end the pact. Strange spends a little time hiding in another dimension, but returns for the sake of the ailing Ancient One. Dormammu and Mordo are defeated when Clea uses trickery to free the Mindless Ones, leaving Mordo without his interdimensional abilities.

Some of the older Marvel books have aged better than others, and the earliest Doctor Strange stories still hold up well as funky little adventures. Artist Steve Ditko progressively expands his imagination with each passing tale, until we get to the dazzling weirdness that leaves its visual stamp on the new movie. Stan Lee seems to enjoy taking what he knows about Eastern mysticism and then mashing it together with his own make-believe Marvel occultism. Strange often seems to be too powerful - always having just the right spell of artifact to get him out of any situation - but the stories remain charming to this day.

From there, the struggle between Strange, Mordo, and Dormammu continued as a subplot, if not the main plot of the Strange Tales Dr. Strange stories. Part of the reason for Dormammu’s longevity is that in those early days, he was one of the few villains who made Dr. Strange sweat. Stan Lee established that facing Dormammu was a losing proposition and his defeat would never be so easy as a simple fist fight or deus ex machina spell. Plus, what Dormammu lacked in personality, he made up with looks. Ditko’s design places an almost impressionistic face in a smoking cloud amidst a high, spiny collar. Other artists interpreted Dormammu’s head as a simple flaming visage, but the film may be more of a throwback to Ditko’s original intent - the impression of a face beyond description, clouded in mystic miasma.

There’s no Clea or Mindless Ones in the Marvel Cinematic Universe yet. With Dormammu present, the possibilities are certainly on the table. It’s obvious the Doctor Strange sequel will be bringing Strange’s shifting relationship with Mordo into focus, but there’s no word to date on the return of the ruler of the dark realm. For now, Marvel fans will have to satisfy their imaginations with Scott Derrickson’s film and fifty-three years worth of Dr. Strange comic book adventures.

 

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