Remember in Marvel’s Avengers: Infinity War, when Doctor Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) called Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) a douchebag? It got a laugh in the theatre, but it was weird, right? After all, Stark could be incredibly annoying and full of himself, but when the movie came out, he’d been protecting the world as Iron Man for an entire decade — the sort of work that usually cuts people some slack. It turns out this strange line of dialogue has an unexpected origin.
Let’s set the scene, shall we? Strange and Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo) have summoned Tony to explain that the Infinity Stones are Thanos’ threat to the universe. The billionaire and the sorcerer quickly get into an argument when the former suggests the latter destroy the Time Stone to prevent Thanos from getting his hands on it, and Strange refuses, having given his oath to protect it. Tony snaps that Thanos is the bigger issue…
Dr. Strange: …if we don’t do our jobs.
Tony Stark: What is your job, exactly, besides making balloon animals?
Dr. Strange: Protecting your reality, douchebag.
As it turns out, “douchebag” was not part of the movie’s script by Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely. Instead, as the actor told the Hollywood Reporter in a sprawling, Marvel-light interview, he’d improvised the “tonally pivotal word” after watching RDJ and Tom Holland improv their dialogue throughout filming.
“I remember on the set when I called him a douchebag, there was this sort of ripple effect. ‘Oh my God. Did you just call Iron Man a douchebag?’ They kept it, good for them,” Cumberbatch said. “Then, it got the same kind of response at the cinema. I was just … I got bored of being compared to Liberace or whatever other retorts the guy with the same camp goatee had opposite me, so I tried to knock him down. It’s great fun to play with that stuff. You find your feet. The more times you do it, the more familiar it becomes.”
I want you to think about this for a second. Cumberbatch shares many scenes with RDJ and Holland, both on the planet Titan and the spaceship that takes them there. So he’s watching Downey Jr., who’s been improvising dialogue and doing it well for decades at this point, constantly riffing with Holland, who has such a natural rapport with the other actor that making up their lines must have seemed effortless.
It inspires him, so much so that the actor allows himself to go off-script, and his big improvisational contribution to the cinematic juggernaut that was Avengers: Infinity War is … calling someone a douchebag.
If Cumberbatch ad-libbed more lines, or whether they were as warmly received or as clever as a middle-school taunt, the actor has not revealed them.