Everything You Need to Know About Marvel’s New Big Bad In ‘Doctor Strange’
The following post contains SPOILERS for Doctor Strange and that big weird giant floating head in the movie.
Being a Marvel zombie has its advantages. Collecting comics for more than 20 years means I have thousands upon thousands of them stashed away in my parents’ basement and closets, a treasure trove worth literally tens of ones of dollars. It also means that the biggest cinematic universe going in Hollywood is pretty much aimed at a target audience of me every single time. And finally, it means that when a giant floating head shows up out of nowhere in the middle of a movie, I know who the hell the giant floating head is and what the hell is going on. With this great power, though, comes a great responsibility. So here’s what you need to know about Dormammu, the surprise Doctor Strange bad guy and new major evildoer of the Marvel Cinematic Universe.
First of all: In Marvel Comics, he’s not a disembodied head; he’s a similar-looking head on top of a human form. And he wears the most evil costume of all: A purple and red jumpsuit with underpants on the outside.
(The bedazzled gold belt is totes evil too. Only bad dudes wear bedazzled gold belts.)
Dormammu debuted in the pages of Marvel Comics’ Strange Tales #126, written by Stan Lee and illustrated by Steve Ditko. At the time, Doctor Strange was the secondary feature in the book; Strange Tales’ main stars were the Human Torch and the Thing from the Fantastic Four, while Strange appeared in a 10-page backup story at the end of each issue. Strange first appeared in Strange Tales #110, cover dated July 1963. For his first year, his main opponent was Baron Mordo, a former student of Doctor Strange’s teacher in the mystic arts, the Ancient One. (In the film version, Mordo, played by Chiwetel Ejiofor, is still aligned with the Ancient One, although by the end of the story, he’s lost his faith in Strange and his methods.)
A few other one-off villains joined the mix, including one issue where Doctor Strange battles a haunted house (as in a sentient, living house from another dimension. Early Doctor Strange comics are super weird). Then, in Strange Tales #126, Dormammu joined the fray.
Although he looks different than he does in the movie, and even in later comics by Lee and Ditko, Mr. Mammu’s M.O. basically remains the same: He’s the ruler of a dark dimension and he wants to conquer Earth. Through the years, he’s clashed with Doctor Strange on numerous occasions, and also done battle with the Avengers, Ghost Rider, and the Defenders (which in Marvel Comics is traditionally a group of oddball heroes led by Doctor Strange, not a bunch of street-level New York crime fighters). Despite a 50-year-history, he hasn’t evolved much beyond that earliest version. What you see is basically what you get.
His appearance gets tweaked here or there, but usually it’s a riff on this red-and-purple color scheme and that steaming or flaming red-lined head. The filmmakers, perhaps sensing that an almighty multiversal despot in red-and-purple Spandex might not make for a terrifying adversary, decided to turn him into more of an abstract being, keeping the big weird ribbed-for-his-interdimensional-pleasure head and ditching the goofy costume. I think it was the right call.
A lot of the other key parts of Dormammu’s comics mythology didn’t make it into Scott Derrickson’s Doctor Strange movie. That includes the white-haired woman in the image above, Clea, who is Dormammu’s niece (I guess the flaming ribbed head gene skips a generation) and a longtime Doctor Strange love interest. It also includes the Mindless Ones, big hulking brutes whose name pretty much sums up their motivations and dispositions. Dormammu often uses the Mindless Ones in battles with Strange, but Derrickson went with a more grounded approach, casting human sorcerers like Mads Mikkelsen’s Kaecilius as the Dread One’s emissaries.
Here’s one interesting tidbit that doesn’t have a lot of bearing on Doctor Strange, but could actually become a major plot point in a Doctor Strange 2: At the end of Strange and Dormammu’s first comic-book encounter (in Strange Tales #127), Strange actually saves Dormammu from a horde of Mindless Ones (this is why it pays to have smart employees). Dormammu’s moral code means that even though he hates Strange he is now in his debt and thus can’t kill him. Strange then makes a deal:
The second part of their deal is actually very similar to the end of the Doctor Strange movie, where Strange outfoxes Dormammu into a temporal stalemate using his Eye of Agamotto (with the Time Infinity Stone inside) to trap the super-villain in an endless loop. The only way he can escape is by striking a deal; Strange will set Dormammu free, but only if he agrees to leave Earth alone forever. Reluctantly, the demon agrees.
“Forever” in this case lasted about three months. When Baron Mordo returns in Strange Tales #130, he’s more powerful than ever before. At first, Strange can’t figure out where Mordo got his enhanced abilities, but eventually Lee and Ditko reveal his secret to the reader: Dormammu’s given his magic a little tszuj as a way to destroy Earth without breaking his bargain with Dr. Strange.
I have absolutely zero inside knowledge of Marvel’s plans for a Doctor Strange sequel. But it’s very easy to envision this as the way Doctor Strange 2 plays out. At the end of the first film, Mordo has decided that there’s too much magic in the world, and sets out to destroy it. What if Mordo makes a deal with Dormammu to boost his own power so that he can destroy Strange and his ilk? Teaming with a dark dimensional overlord might seem to clash with the goals of a guy who wants to eradicate magic, but he’s also using magical means to eradicate magic, so I wouldn’t put a little hypocrisy past Mordo.
This is no guarantee Dormammu will rear his giant head in Doctor Strange 2 (or that Marvel will even make a Doctor Strange 2; nothing is official in that regard as of yet). I could also see Dormammu popping up in some form (maybe in red underpants?) in Thor: Ragnarok or in either of the upcoming Avengers movies. With his powers and desires, he’d make an appropriate opponent for any of those heroes. For now, though, that’s what you need to know: Big fiery head, evil, obsessed with conquering Earth, has been known to work with Mordo, and likes to wear his underpants on the outside.