‘Doctor Strange’ writer Jon Spaihts talks about blowing the Marvel Cinematic Universe wide open

Overnight success takes years. Just ask Jon Spaihts. The screenwriter has two of the most anticipated genre films of 2016 hitting theaters over the next few months. Passengers starring Jennifer Lawrence and Chris Pratt and Doctor Strange, Marvel”s first real foray into expanding beyond the boring mortal plane. Coming down the pipe, the writer also has his hand in Universal”s reboot of The Mummy, a take on Van Helsing, and is working with Guillermo del Toro on Pacific Rim: Maelstrom. All of which would be exciting enough on its own, but Spaihts is also a huge nerd.

One of us. One of us.

With Doctor Strange out now, HitFix Harpy spoke with Spaihts by phone to get an idea of how massive a shift Marvel is making by cracking open the door to the multiverse.

Image Credit: Marvel Entertainment

HITFIX HARPY: Way back in June of 2014, you announced your involvement with the film on Twitter by saying Doctor Strange was your favorite Marvel hero, so it was a good day. Why is Doctor Strange your favorite Marvel hero? 

JON SPAIHTS: I think scale. I've always loved mind-bending fantasy and deep science fiction where you grapple with cosmic ideas and put the world or even universe itself at risk, travel to other planes of existence. Doctor Strange is the very pinnacle of the ladder of superheroing, from the street level heroes at the bottom who are beating up bank robbers to the bigger heroes who are fighting worldly super villains. Then at the top you've got Doctor Strange, who protects the world from wayward gods and from its utter unraveling; to save every life on Earth time after time. I love that cosmic scale. That went hand in hand with some of the most stunning visuals that ever appeared in pages of comics. Psychedelia and beautiful runic graphics and inscriptions. They felt very ancient and very futuristic at the same time. 

Did you have a favorite Doctor Strange art growing up that you were hoping you would be able to incorporate into the film?

SPAIHTS: I have multiple favorites. Too many to choose a favorite. There are very dark undead tales. There's Nightmare. There's Dormammu. There are rival sorcerers. There's great stuff throughout the canon. Really wonderful modern stuff. He's played a big part in a couple of the big story arcs of the last ten years. They're all incredibly enticing. 

But our decision was simplified in this instance by the fact that Doctor Strange's origin story is one of the most compelling ever told in the pages of comics. While we did have a big blue sky discussion at the top of the process about which way to go with the movie, in the end, we came home to the origin.

That's a nice segue since when Marvel began their Cinematic Universe with Iron Man, nobody outside of comic book readers really knew who he. The same true about Doctor Strange. It feels as if Marvel is coming full circle to introduce these more cosmic elements. Will Doctor Strange become an integral part of Phase IV?

SPAIHTS: I do think that one, there are enough amazing Doctor Strange stories to make more Doctor Strange stand alone movies for as long as Cumberbatch will let us. You could tell great stories about him until the end of time. He is such a big player in the Marvel universe and the comics.  He frequently comes to the aid of other heroes or acts as an explainer for story lines. I think he's a very natural part of the integrated MCU. It is my hope that his arrival will unlock some of the biggest storylines that Marvel still has waiting in the wings. 

At this point, audiences are very familiar with Thanos, but Doctor Strange doesn't really deal with him much. You talked a little bit about Dormammu, and there's also demons and gods Strange fights against in the comics. Was it freeing to be able to write these larger than life villains? 

SPAIHTS: Yes, it was freeing and thrilling, honestly. Some of the Doctor Strange encounters are so large that they almost begin to lose person-hood. They are more like forces of nature; it”s like having a grudge against gravity or time or death. It's a big deal to come up against some of these forces. 

I'm challenged as a writer to keep them alive as personas on screen. It's a combination of finding a way to allow entities that big to feel real, to feel like people and also to connect them to people closer to the ground. Minions and underlings who allow us to understand them.

When is comes to Baron Mordo, he”s traditionally been presented as Doctor Strange's nemesis. That changed for the film, though. What was the thought process there?

SPAIHTS: Mordo, as originally presented in Doctor Strange's comic origin story, was transparently wicked. In order to tell the story of his betrayal and eventual evolution into a nemesis for Strange in the richer world of the MCU, he needed depth, to make him a full fleshed character with subtleties and human dimensions. For any betrayal to land you first, have to create bonds that can be broken. You need friendship and brotherhood. I think it's the natural maturing of that story that if Mordo is to be a wayward brother, first he must be a brother.

Mordo is not the only character that was transformed for the big screen. Doctor Strange came out in the 1960s and obviously there were a lot of odd things in there that don”t translate to modern day. Were you guys caught flatfooted at all by the push back to the changes you made to the Ancient One?

SPAIHTS: I think we knew we were walking on mine fields in certain ways. We're very aware of Doctor Strange comics, as you say they're very odd. He himself was a kind of Fu Manchu character with very strange style. In the earliest comics, he seemed himself to be trafficking in potentially evil energies, whereas he quickly was reformed into a clear good guy. It was muddier in the early going. 

Of course, his companion characters were often dated tropes which could never survive a modern telling. The obedient manservant Wong on a mountain top with the Ancient One. Mordo, a mustache-twirling baddie you could see from a thousand miles away. All of those characters needed updating. You needed to find gender diversity and ethnic diversity, so Mordo became the character of African extraction, and the Ancient One became a woman. All of those changes had enriching consequences for the emotional connections between the characters. Especially letting the Ancient One be a mother figure as well as an extremely powerful sorcerer is exciting in the movie and helps to feed the relationships. 

I'm also really proud of what we've done with some of the original Asian characters from that milieu like Wong, this figure from the Ancient One's world whom we”ve given depth and power and agency in this film that was never really in comics.

Just as a continuation of beating my own person drum, is there any chance of seeing Satana in a cameo on screen? Would you be happy to bring her in later? I feel like she's so under-utilized.

SPAIHTS: I would be delighted to see her hit the screen. I am hoping that by throwing wide the doors to the magical with Doctor Strange that we may be able to invite, at least in cameo appearances, a number of the magical characters into the Marvel cinematic universe. I would be delighted to see them turn up.

Who would be your first pick?

SPAIHTS: It's so difficult to choose. In fact, I'm going to keep my mouth shut about them because we might actually be incubating some other characters for future things. I'm not going to tip my hat. Suffice it to say that down this road, there are a number of players in Doctor Strange's magical world I would be thrilled to bring to the screen.