Along the path towards becoming a hero, a story’s protagonist often finds some sense of dissatisfaction in his ordinary world that prompts his journey. While they genesis of the journey is often selfish, becoming a hero requires becoming selfless and this transition often requires some help some from a mentor. This mentor, though frequently deceptive in his appearance, can be a powerful figure firmly rooted in the new world in which the hero will soon find himself. In the story of Doctor Strange, this mentor comes in the form of the stock wise, old mystic with an impressive card up his sleeve: the Ancient One.
The Ancient One was born in Kamar-Taj, a farming village secluded within the Himalayas nearly 500 years ago. In his youth, he began exploring the secrets of sorcery with a fellow villager, Kaluu. Even early on the paths of the two diverted with Kaluu searching for the self-serving benefits of the power of magic and the Ancient One hoping to use sorcery to benefit his fellow villagers. While together they demonstrated the great power of magic by briefly making Kamar-Taj a utopia free of disease and death, the two ultimately became engaged in a battle that decimated the village and led to Kaluu’s exodus into another dimension.
Reeling from the disaster he helped create, the boy sought out a group of Earth’s greatest sorcerers, The Ancient Ones, and devoted his existence to studying white magic and eventually became Earth’s first Sorcerer Supreme. As such, he was gifted by Eternity with the all-seeing Eye of Agomotto, which he used to hold Dormammu, the Lord of Chaos, at bay for the remainder of his days. Over his time, the Ancient One collected many magical artifacts, even traveling through time to collect the Book of the Vishanti, the most important tome of white magic, full of counterspells to black magic counterspells. Many of these artifacts now reside with Stephen Strange in the Sanctum Sanctorum.
When a car crash forever alters his life, Stephen Strange exhausts every means and all his money in the search to give him back the use of his crippled hands. Dissatisfied with what science has to offer, Strange heads to the Far East in search of the Ancient One and sets upon a journey into the unfamiliar world of mysticism, a journey on which he was always destined to be and that will change his conceptions of the world.
The Ancient One, the Sorcerer Supreme of Earth, is put off by Strange’s selfishness, but offers him the opportunity to study under him as his apprentice. Strange refuses the offer, but the Ancient One allows him to stay on and observe the world through the lens of mysticism, a world that Strange initially refuses and finds unintelligible. As time goes, Strange learns humility and selflessness under the tutelage of the Ancient One, but remains without the use of his hands. As Strange begins to find the mysticism around him increasingly plausible, the Ancient One is betrayed by Baron Mordo, a longtime pupil whose past is mired in black magic. In a move that cements his destiny as Earth’s next Sorcerer Supreme, Strange helps drive Mordo away and ultimately accepts the offer to study under the Ancient One and become Earth’s next mystical defender and a master of two worlds.
The cast of the upcoming Doctor Strange represents one of Marvel Studio’s strongest to date. Among the list of stars headlining the film is Academy Award winning actress Tilda Swinton who, in one of Marvel’s most creative casting decisions, will portray the Ancient One. With the role not only being genderbent but also racially altered, Marvel Studios president Kevin Feige was faced with a deluge of questions about the decision to cast Swinton. Feige told Birth.Movies.Death that the decision to open up the casting beyond the stereotypical wise, old man came up during the film’s development when the mindset of The Ancient One became a what instead of a who:
“As we were developing this film we looked at The Ancient One as a mantle more than a specific person,” Feige explained. “The sorcerers have been around for millennia, protecting us from things we didn’t know about until this story. There have been multiple [Ancient Ones], even if this one has been around for five hundred years, there were others. This is a mantle, and therefore felt we had leeway to cast in interesting ways.”
In an even further twist on the role, the androgynous, ethereal Swinton, in a July interview with The Guardian, stated she wasn’t sure if she would be playing the role as a man or a woman. This interesting and additional development speaks volumes to the ability of the talented actress and the confidence of Marvel Studios in her to portray the important aspects of the role through whatever interpretation the collaboratively deem best.
Though the MCU would benefit from the extended involvement of an actress of Swinton’s character, it’s not clear what role, if any, The Ancient One might have in a potential Doctor Strange sequel. Though The Ancient One is a key figure in Strange’s journey, the role of the mentor is one that often ends in death and Stephen Strange can’t be Earth’s Sorcerer Supreme with the Ancient One still in play. Than again, a visit from an astral Tilda Swinton in a sequel probably isn’t out of the question.
Next up in this series of Doctor Strange Meet and Greets: Dr. Nicodemus West.
Sources: Birth.Movies.Death, The Guardian