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The MCU is a masterpiece of fiction; an innovative shared universe that transcends the boundaries of any genre. If you want space opera, you can tune in to Guardians of the Galaxy; if you want political thriller, watch Captain America: The Winter Soldier; and if you want sorcery, watch Doctor Strange. But one common criticism of the entire MCU is that it has something of a 'villain problem'. In the build-up to Doctor Strange, Marvel seemed very proud of Mads Mikkelsen's Kaecilius, and seemed to be hoping he'd be something of a turning-point for them. But is he?
WARNING: SPOILERS FOLLOW!
Who Is Kaecilius?
Making his debut in the official prelude comics, Kaecilius is a broken man. He'd lived a troubled life, but found peace at last with his beloved wife Adria. Tragedy robbed him of that peace, though, when Adria died due to complications during pregnancy. In a heartbreakingly cruel twist of fate, Kaecilius lost both his wife and unborn child.
Devastated, Kaecilius plunged deep into despair. He was found by Baron Mordo, and became a member of the Master of the Mystic Arts. Even as he served the Ancient One, though, he began to believe that she was hiding her deepest magic from him; he sought the power to conquer death itself. He soon realized that the secrets he sought were held within the Ancient One's forbidden tomes, and encouraged others to side with him; finally, he launched a brutal raid on the library, stealing pages from the Book of Cagliostro.
As we saw in Doctor Strange, using these pages he was able to take power from the Dread Dormammu. He became convinced that, if he only broke down the Ancient One's mystic protection of our world, Earth could become part of the Dark Dimension; he believed that accomplishing this would overthrow the tyranny of death itself.
The Problem of Kaecilius
Unfortunately, the reality is that Doctor Strange as a movie doesn't really develop Kaecilius. We are told that he was shaped by tragedy, and the Ancient One is reminded of Kaecilius when she meets Stephen Strange. But we never see the tragedy, and by the time we meet Kaecilius, he is already twisted to the point of insanity. The film only describes his background using the broadest of brushstrokes, meaning we essentially see Kaecilius as nothing more than a madman who has bought into the lies of Dormammu.
Mads Mikkelsen plays the part with aplomb; his Kaecilius is truly powerful, truly menacing, and more than a little fanatical. Unfortunately, bereft of his background, he's also completely unrelatable. Worse still, The Zealot had fashioned Kaecilius as a fascinating polar opposite for Stephen Strange; both were arrogant men, both touched by tragedy, and both sought to conquer death (one through sorcery, the other as a surgeon). Although Doctor Strange gives a few nods to the similarities between the two men, it isn't really drawn out effectively. You can't help but feel that the conflict of personalities could have been much more profound.
Here's the oddity: if you compare The Zealot with Doctor Strange, then the comic actually sets up Kaecilius to be a much more potent, powerful, and three-dimensional villain. That backstory is actually essential to flesh his character out, to allow us to truly understand why Kaecilius is committing these atrocities.
Was Kaecilius's Arc Damaged in the Edits?
During an episode of his podcast, Dan Harmon - who was brought in to do reshoots on Doctor Strange earlier this year - unwittingly revealed a list of files on his computer. These gave a lot of hints to the film's eventual plot (and confirmed Dormammu's appearance in the film). They also, tellingly, included a couple of scenes that seem to have been cut from the final edit.
One of these is a scene described as "Kaecilius_01_Seduction". The scene description matched countless comments in interviews, where Kaecilius was described as a man who had been seduced by the forces he encountered. And yet, although early on in the film we see Kaecilius perform a powerful ritual, this really doesn't carry a sense of 'seduction'. I can't help but wonder if a number of Kaecilius's scenes have been cut. Naturally, I can't prove that this is the case - it may well be that the Zealot ritual was indeed intended to be a 'seduction'. But, with other much-anticipated scenes cut from the theatrical release, it's a very real possibility.
How Powerful is Kaecilius?
The next issue is a simple one: how powerful is Kaecilius? He and his Zealots are able to handle trained Masters of the Mystic Arts, and destroy both the London and Hong Kong Sanctums. They manage this in spite of the fact that the Masters are ready for battle, and — in the latter case — are armed with all the relics they could muster. In contrast, Doctor Strange is able to hold Kaecilius off, and prevent the destruction of the New York sanctum, pretty much single-handedly — granted, he has the help of some seriously useful relics, but still the contrast remains. Worse still, remember that Stephen Strange is a mere neophyte compared to the other Masters, whom Kaecilius defeats with ease.
It's probably supposed to be an indication of just how powerful Stephen Strange really is. The Ancient One, after all, has been peering through time and has seen Doctor Strange in her future; he is a man of infinite possibilities, who has the raw power to become the next Sorcerer Supreme. Unfortunately, because Strange survives his first encounter with Kaecilius mostly through bumbling, it simply doesn't quite work. We wind up with both Kaecilius and Strange feeling... oddly inept in that battle.
It's worth noting that the final battle poses no such problems. After all, when matters come to a head, Doctor Strange is armed with the Eye of Agamotto, a power beyond anything Kaecilius could muster. It's no surprise he lost that particular battle!
Let me be clear: I loved Doctor Strange. I'm an enormous fan of Marvel films, and Doctor Strange was almost everything I could have hoped for. I watched it in glorious IMAX 3D, and I reveled in its beautiful, psychedelic insanity. But the sad truth is that Marvel hasn't solved their famous 'Villain Problem' with Doctor Strange.