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Science Adds Richness and Layers of Authenticity to “Doctor Strange”

Benedict Cumberbatch as Doctor Strange
Doctor Strange. Credit:
AntMan3001 CC BY-SA 2.0.

The best email AAAS Member and astrophysicist Adam Frank ever received was quite short. In fact, it only contained six words.

It said, “Marvel wants to talk with you.”

As a life-long Marvel Comics fan, Frank said that “the clouds parted, and the sun shone” after he read the email, which was sent to him from Scott Derrickson, director of the movie “Doctor Strange.” Soon after Frank received that email, he was flown to Los Angeles to meet with Derrickson, script writers and even Kevin Feige himself – the head of Marvel Studios.

When Frank met Feige, the leader of Marvel asked him to name his favorite comic. “I nailed the question because my favorite comic is a very obscure edition of Star-Lord.” Star-Lord, although now well-known since he was the main character in the popular "Guardians of the Galaxy" movie, was only recognized by true fans when Frank was growing up. 

In addition to talking about their favorite comics, Frank, Derrickson, Feige and others discussed scientific aspects of “Doctor Strange,” including the multi-verse, the nature of consciousness and other scientific themes present in the movie.

“It’s fascinating for me as a scientist to see what their concerns are,” said Frank. “They are trying to advance this story, so what elements do they need from science to make the story?”

 At first glance, it might seem confusing that a movie about a sorcerer – Doctor Stephen Strange – should include science at all, since it is fiction. Yet, although Doctor Strange finds himself in a world of mysticism, scientifically complicated themes of consciousness and alternate dimensions are constant throughout the movie and require a scientific expert’s opinion to make aspects of the movie as believable as possible.

Ultimately, Frank was hired as the science consultant for the award-winning “Doctor Strange” movie. As an astrophysicist with a background in human spirituality, Frank was a great fit to provide the scientific “brains” behind the superhero movie.

“What is great about the Marvel Universe is that they are very science-based in the sense that science plays an important role in the fictional universe,” Frank said. “What they needed to do, and this is the whole idea of universe building in science fiction, is that you need to build a universe with rules and the rules are self-consistent.”

Now, that doesn’t necessarily mean that “Doctor Strange,” as well as the Marvel Universe, must always be scientifically accurate. Spiderman’s powers originated from a spider bite. So, case in point that not everything in the Marvel world is realistic. Yet, what Derrickson and the rest of the “Doctor Strange” team did was bring enough of the real science across to build the story.

“[Derrickson and colleagues] care about representing the process of science and, most importantly, the excitement of science to the general audience. And that is what I think matters,” Frank said.

Not only is a science-based Universe an important aspect in “Doctor Strange,” but Frank feels that the picture of science is very positive in the Marvel world. “General scientists are not depicted as mad scientists or as nerds or geeks but as people who are very dedicated to the betterment of humanity and really challenged by the search for knowledge and truth,” he said.

The positivity does not stop with science and scientists. Marvel Studios also uses their reach and voice to tackle larger worldly issues. For example, Frank says that in “Captain America: The Winter Soldier,” although it is a superhero movie, it addresses the tough topic of veterans returning from war. Additionally, the 2018 film, “Black Panther” raises important issues about race and colonialism, Frank says.

“It is interesting that you can use these billion-dollar blockbuster movies to also get people to at least raise the issues – a whole range of issues – that maybe otherwise people wouldn’t think about.”

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