A guide to the cinematic ancestors of the latest Marvel flick.
The latest installment of the Marvel Cinematic Universe franchise is one of the most interesting in terms of its story and one of the freshest in terms of its visuals. No movie is without precursors, though, whether that means Doctor Strange feels like a remake of Iron Man or is sort of actually a redo, albeit with barely any plot similarities, of the 1978 TV movie Dr. Strange. It is visually reminiscent of Inception, which director Scott Derrickson acknowledges, but at its foundation is just a story adapted from a comic book and a look inspired by the source material’s artwork, specifically that of the title character’s creator, Steve Ditko.
The following recommendations aren’t all direct influences on Doctor Strange, but each has some sort of relation to the MCU flick, even if they’re just also homages to the same visual references, like M.C. Escher. If you like the magical superhero movie, hopefully you will also like these. Even if you don’t, though, you’ve at least had a little film history lesson.
Going to Bed Under Difficulties (1900)
It’s always good to start off with a Georges Melies film when recommending films after a fantastical genre picture. For Doctor Strange, the pick is this brief and basic sketch in which a man is just trying to go to bed but can’t seem to remove all of his garments before another set of clothes magically appears on his body. It’s got a bit of the surreal and slapstick combo that we find in the new Marvel movie, as well as a Sisyphean cycle that relates a little to the time loop at the end of Doctor Strange. Melies remade his own film in 1903 titled Up-To-Date Spiritualism, but the original is better. Watch it in full below.
The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920)
Robert Wiene’s silent horror classic about a “strange doctor” is one of the films Derrickson names as an influence on the film, and it is actually one of his all-time favorite movies. Here you can find some of the roots of exaggeration in architectural production design, its anti-realist visuals related to dream logic rather than other dimensions. Derrickson also just acknowledges German Expressionism in general when talking about Doctor Strange, so consider this a starting point to then discover such early essentials as Henrik Galeen’s The Golem and The Student of Prague.
Ballet Mechanique (1924)
While it’s unlikely this was the first film to use kaleidoscopic imagery, Fernand Leger and Dudley Murphy’s Dadaist masterpiece is the one that best comes to mind when similar optical effects appear in Doctor Strange. Also in this French short you’ve got a person repeating her steps in a loop, though here it’s not caused by a narrative involvement of time manipulation (a filmic involvement of time manipulation, yes). With input from Man Ray and featuring an homage to Charlie Chaplin, this is one of the most important and also one of the most enjoyable experimental films ever made. Watch it in full below.
Steamboat Bill Jr. (1928)
As noted earlier, there’s a good mix of the surreal and the slapstick in Doctor Strange, and so the greatest deadpan slapstick silent film hero needs a place on this syllabus. In Steamboat Bill Jr., arguably his finest work after The General, Keaton encounters the real rather than the surreal, but like the warped Mirror Dimension this features a chaotic twisting of the normal, only it’s a natural disaster caused by extreme weather instead of sorcery. There’s a moment in Doctor Strange where the title character is stuck in place that reminds us of Keaton trying to walk against hurricane force wind.
The Raven (1963)
Steve Ditko is said to have based the look of Dr. Strange on Vincent Price, and it might have been after he saw this early 1963 release from Roger Corman based on the poem of the same title by Edgar Allen Poe. Ditko brought the idea to Stan Lee midyear and he made his comics debut in July. In The Raven, Price plays one of a trio of rival sorcerers (Peter Lorre and Boris Karloff are the other two). Doctor Strange also involves sorcerers of various rivalries, and if Price’s Dr. Craven is Strange, then Karloff’s evil Dr. Scarabus is Kaecilius. Maybe Lorre’s Bedlo is a combo of Mordo and Wong.
Two elements of Doctor Strange, the Escher influence and the Sisyphean time loop, are the only components of this avant-garde animated short from Polish filmmaker Stefan Schabenbeck. For seven minutes, it’s just a man trying to go up the stairs in a labyrinthine world of staircases. It could be longer, as it’s sort of therapeutic to watch even if it’s obviously frustrating to experience. There’s something soothing about looking into eternity, which is why Escher’s famous piece “Relativity” is such a popular poster. Watch the short in its entirety below.
Bedknobs and Broomsticks (1971)
Everyone’s favorite part of Doctor Strange seems to be the Cloak of Levitation, a cape that has a life of its own. The idea of a sentient object as sidekick reminds a lot of fans of the magic carpet in Aladdin, but we can go back even further for something else from Disney. Using the “Substitutionary Locomotion” spell, Angela Lansbury’s character gives life to various items of clothing, which humorously attack the others in the scene. Later it’s used again on medieval armor, creating a magical army that fights off the Nazis in this enchantingly fun World War II fantasy.
A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984)
The entire Nightmare on Elm Street series is worth looking at for its regular employment of surreal dream logic visuals. Freddy Krueger can alter any kind of setting in the dream world, and he often does so for clever gimmicks where he traps his victims or keeps them from reaching him and his prey (there’s a great time loop in the fourth movie, The Dream Master, and an Escher-inspired maze in the fifth, Dream Child). It all begins here, though, a film that uses the famous rotating set effect when a girl is being murdered in her sleep but the kill can be witnessed as a magic trick in the real world.
If there’s any mainstream movie besides Inception deserving recognition for the visual ideas of Doctor Strange, it’s Jim Henson’s fantasy favorite starring David Bowie as a Goblin King who can manipulate the physics of his castle. Of course, the sequence most aligned with Doctor Strange’s effects, featuring staircases that go any which way, is straight up lifted from Escher’s “Relativity” and so not necessarily an influence on Derrickson as much as both movies pay tribute to the same artwork. The movie also stars Jennifer Connelly, who has also been in a Marvel movie (Hulk), a movie by Derrickson (The Day the Earth Stood Still), and another movie to watch after Doctor Strange for its manipulated physics, Dark City.
Doctor Mordrid (1992)
You probably already knew about the 1978 Dr. Strange movie made for TV, but you may not know there was another movie based on the character 14 years later. Doctor Mordrid was actually supposed to be an official adaptation from the comics but the producers’ option on the character expired before they could get it done. They went ahead with the project anyway with a changed name, and it’s actually pretty bad in many ways, yet still not nearly as awful as the true Marvel movies of the era. The stop-motion effects have an old-fashioned Harryhausen-like charm.
Kung Fu Panda (2008)
A reluctant hero who clowns around too much turns out to be the One, to the dismay of many other students training with an old Master. And when the Master’s now-evil former student seeks some pages that will give him ultimate power, it’s that One who must take him down. That is the basic plot of both Doctor Strange and the first Kung Fu Panda movie, which isn’t given enough credit (nor are its sequels). The franchise is far and away the best thing DreamWorks Animation has ever done, not counting Aardman films.
My Beautiful Broken Brain (2014)
What kind of documentary could possibly be included on this list? One not involving sorcery but seeing the world in a warped manner that resembles the Mirror Dimension of Doctor Strange. The film is co-directed by and about Lotje Sodderland, who suffered a hemorrhagic stroke and now has distorted memories and sensory perception. Obviously the cameras couldn’t record what it looks like through her eyes, but she and the other director, Sophie Robinson, document the perspective with special effects, resulting in a feature that’s both magical and tragic. You can stream it on Netflix.
Also worth checking out if you’ve never seen them: Holy Mountain, Altered States, Pink Floyd: The Wall, Groundhog Day, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, The Frighteners, The Matrix, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, Enter the Void, 2001: A Space Odyssey, the Lord of the Rings trilogy, all the other MCU movies, and yes of course Inception. Join in by mentioning movies that clearly inspired Doctor Strange or that you were reminded of in a reply to this post.