Luke Owen looks at the MCU timeline…
Warning, there are some spoilers for Doctor Strange in this article.
It’s become standard reasoning to believe that each movie in the Marvel Cinematic Universe follows the last (with the exception of Captain America: The First Avenger, for obvious reasons). Iron Man 3 clearly follows on from the events of The Avengers, and Captain America: Civil War continues on from Avengers: Age of Ultron. Thor: Ragnarok also has to take place after Avengers: Age of Ultron, otherwise that scene where The God of Thunder takes a bath with Stellan Skarsgård would be plain weird. Ant-Man, released at the tail end of Phase Two, also has to follow on from Avengers: Age of Ultron as Scott Lang visits the new Avengers HQ to have a tussle with Falcon. So, yeah, it’s safe to presume that each film continues the timeline of the last.
But I think Doctor Strange is different. I think it takes place long before the events of Captain America: Civil War. I actually think it takes place before the events of Ant-Man, Avengers: Age of Ultron and Thor: The Dark World. In fact, I think it takes place before Captain America: The Winter Soldier.
In the movie [read my review here], we see Stephen Strange as a very successful neurosurgeon living in his nice apartment in New York. He drives his fancy cars, he does well in his work and he’s generally a well-to-do man. He then crashes one of those fancy cars – his own fault – and he ends up in hospital with hands that are damaged beyond repair. With no one left to turn to, he travels to Nepal and meets up with Mordo and The Ancient One who train him in the Mystic Arts to become a Sorcerer. Throughout his training, he ends up in the New York sanctum just in time to see its previous dweller and protector murdered by Kaecilius, and by the end of the movie he is tasked with being the new protector of New York’s sanctum and is on his way to becoming the Sorcerer Supreme.
With a crash of the magnitude Strange is in, he would have been in hospital for quite some time – and that’s before he’s even allowed to go home and look after himself. Furthermore, we know that he’s had a lot of experimental and expensive surgeries to repair his damaged hands, which would also take time for execution and recovery. Even with his photographic memory, his training with The Ancient One and Mordo wouldn’t have been quick, so it would have taken him some time to get good at being a Sorcerer. At a bare minimum, it would be two years from the crash to being the New York Sanctum proctor.
We know that the events of the movie, prior to the crash, must take place after 2012 as the New York skyline has the Avengers Tower, the former Stark Tower that was re-purposed as the base for Earth’s Mightiest Heroes following their battle with the Chitari. We also know that The Avengers stopped using that Tower after Ultron attacked them in it, forcing them to relocate to Avengers HQ, as seen at the end of Avengers: Age of Ultron and in Ant-Man and Captain America: Civil War. It’s safe to assume that the Avengers Tower is still there but not in use, and from that we could infer that they would not have the Avengers logo lit up – even if it is powered by Tony Stark’s sustainable power – meaning the film must have taken place prior to Avengers: Age of Ultron at the very least.
But the key to my theory is in a line of dialogue from Captain America: The Winter Soldier. During a scene where Cap, Black Widow and Falcon interrogate HYDRA agent Jasper Sitwell, he says, “Zola’s algorithm is a program for choosing Insight’s targets… a TV anchor in Cairo, the Under Secretary of Defense, a high school valedictorian in Iowa City, Bruce Banner, Stephen Strange, anyone who’s a threat to HYDRA.” The mention of Strange’s name suggests that HYDRA were already aware that he was a Sorcerer of the Mystic Arts, and therefore the protector of the sanctum in New York – which makes him a threat.
Now a good counter-argument would be that HYDRA is keeping tabs on everyone they deem to be a threat, and doesn’t necessarily mean it’s because Stephen Strange is a Sorcerer. There’s even an addendum to that quote where Sitwell adds, “Now, or in the future” and points out that Zola’s algorithm predicts threats based on people’s DNA, phone records, emails, etc. So, yes, it’s possible that HYDRA kept tabs on Stephen Strange because they felt he would be a threat down the line. Zola’s algorithm could have worked out that Strange possessed something within his DNA that meant he was destined to be a hero. Perhaps it’s because he has a photographic memory, or something along those lines.
But are we really to believe that HYDRA would kill Stephen Strange simply because he’s a really good and successful neurosurgeon? Especially one that is so well-known for being a self-centered, egotistical dick who only looks out for himself? Hardly the baseline for superhero tendencies. Wouldn’t it make more sense that HYDRA knew that he was the protector of the New York sanctum, and on his way to becoming Sorcerer Supreme and therefore kept tabs on him? And if that’s the case, it means that the events of Captain America: The Winter Soldier take place after Strange’s training. So if he crashed his car in 2012, the two years of recovery and training would bring us to 2014, when Captain America: The Winter Soldier is set.
As a follow-up argument, the tone of the mid-credits sequence for Doctor Strange suggests he’s been at this game for some time [read about that here]. At the end of the movie we simply see him walk into the sanctum to assume his new role, but in the mid-credits he tells Thor that he’s been tasked to monitor all activity in the cosmos and he’s read up on The God of Thunder and his mischievous half-bother Loki. This delivery indicates he’s been Doctor Strange for a few years now, and the fact he can help Thor find the missing Odin suggests he already knows where he is. Meaning that, while the film events of Doctor Strange take place before Captain America: The Winter Soldier, the mid-credits sequence takes place in modern day following the events of Captain America: Civil War and leading into Thor: Ragnarok.
The theory isn’t perfect, and could easily be picked apart (I think there’s even a throwaway line in the movie about him having something special in his DNA), but I’m fairly confident in saying Doctor Strange takes place before Captain America: The Winter Soldier, and that’s why HYDRA were keeping tabs on him. As discussed, it is possible Zola’s algorithm predicted he was a threat, but that seems unlikely and improbable.
Either that, or the mention of Stephen Strange by Sitwell was just a throwaway Easter Egg and meant nothing. Which is also very possible.
Luke Owen is the Deputy Editor of Flickering Myth and the co-host of The Flickering Myth Podcast and Scooperhero News. You can follow him on Twitter @ThisisLukeOwen and read his weekly feature The Week in Star Wars.