[Warning: SPOILERS ahead for Doctor Strange]
Just 20 years ago, the superhero genre had a mostly niche fanbase. Its few populist bursts came in the form of films like 1978’s Superman: The Movie and 1989’s Batman. For anybody but enthusiasts (nerds), reading the source comics was out of the question, and even critically honored examples like Batman: The Animated Series were primarily only seen as appropriate for children.
Flash forward to today. The superhero genre is a staple of the modern zeitgeist. With the release of Doctor Strange, there have been six major superhero films to hit theaters across the world this year, and there are at least six more already lined up for 2017. The wealth of material to draw from isn’t so surprising. Marvel and DC have been producing story content of this sort for the better part of the past century. The question of “why now” can even be answered simply — because special effects finally made it possible. But what is it about superheroes that have made them such a lasting institution, and so ripe to bloom into mainstream popularity? What is it that non-nerds are now learning about superhero myth that nerds have known for decades?
Like many action films, superheroes are empowerment fantasies. They let average folk imagine the impact they could have on the world around them if they only had the strength to assert their will. This has drawn some legitimate criticism since a moral takeaway that “might makes right” is something that decent parents wouldn’t want their children to latch onto. Fortunately, superhero stories are also morality tales. In the most successful of these, the Übermensch in question still must struggle against his or her inherent weaknesses to defeat a similarly powerful, yet evil foe. Power, they say, does not come without a price, or a moral obligation for selfless use.
This Superhero’s Journey has taken many forms. Superman and Captain America had heroic hearts from the start, and their primary struggles come from the increasingly gray morality of the world around them. The Hulk and Black Widow both become heroes only by re-directing abilities fueled by inner turmoil towards noble causes. Spider-Man, (Christopher Nolan’s) Batman, Iron Man, and Thor begin their journey’s doing the wrong things for selfish reasons, only to take a journey towards humility, selflessness, and a sense of responsibility towards a higher cause.
Doctor Strange, Marvel’s Master of the Mystic Arts, recently entered the public arena with his own solo film, and a lot of folks are already comparing Benedict Cumberbatch’s take on the character to Robert Downey Jr.’s Tony Stark, aka Iron Man. This isn’t completely unwarranted. The two share a level of genius, wealth, sharp wit, facial hair stylings, and above all — incredible arrogance. However, while Stark’s arrogance does inform his personal hero’s journey, it doesn’t define it. Tony may have learned a responsibility to do the right thing, but even after appearing in half of the MCU’s 14 films, he’s still learning the hard way that just because he’s smart, that doesn’t mean he’s right.
Doctor Strange’s journey is entirely about his arrogance, and it is a journey unique to that of any other superhero film to date. As a life-saving brain surgeon, he begins the film dedicated to preserving life. But, to preserve his record, he only accepts flashy cases that he knows he can fix, and his lifestyle proves he’s benefiting greatly from his services. He’s doing the right things, but for the wrong reasons. For whatever good he does, he isn’t a hero. He’s a self-centered profiteer, and ultimately a horrible and damaging human being in every respect outside his work. Because of this, his good deeds have severely limited mileage. (Strange turns down the chance to heal James “Rhodey” Rhodes, aka War Machine, because the spinal damage he suffered in this year’s Captain America: Civil War was tricky enough to pose a potentially impossible challenge.)
Out of the blue, Strange suffers a dramatic traffic collision. Nerve damage to his hands destroy not just his ability to perform surgery, but everything he has built his inflated identity on. At this point, we see him travel through the five stages of grief.
DENIAL – He refuses to believe that the problem is as severe as Doctor Christine Palmer (Rachel McAdams) has described to him. He begins spending money on hopeless endeavors rather than redirecting his genius in a new and promising direction.
ANGER – He lashes out at Christine when she tries to help him move past his loss.
BARGAINING – This coincides with the first true sign of humility that Strange is willing to exhibit. Having exhausted Western medicine and traveled all the way to Kathmandu, Nepal, Doctor Strange has had his mind unlocked to the vast mysteries of the unknown multiverse. Strange begs The Ancient One (Tilda Swinton) to teach him to use the mystic arts to heal himself. Knowing his intentions are purely selfish, she refuses and has him tossed out on the street.
DEPRESSION – Fortunately, Strange doesn’t spend much time in this stage (otherwise, the movie would be kind of a bummer), but this is where he’s at as he sulks, defeated, on the doorstep of Kamar-Taj.
ACCEPTANCE? – Who knows if he would have eventually admitted defeat, made his way home, and finally come to peace with his situation. The well-meaning Baron Mordo (Chiwetel Ejiofor) convinces The Ancient One that despite Strange’s arrogance, his brilliance will make him an asset against the threats their order faces. With the possibility of recovery once again within his grasp, he desperately pursues the study of the mystic arts.
It isn’t long before The Ancient One’s concerns over Strange’s motives are put to the test. With the rise of the zealot Kaecilius (Mads Mikkelsen), Strange finds himself fighting for his life in the New York Sanctum Sanctorum. In an astral fight with one of Kaecilius’ minions, Strange kills in self-defense.
The taking of life has a very interesting place in the intersectional conversation of superheroes. Some stories, like the Netflix Daredevil series, are all about finding the correct moral line on the issue. Even singular characters, like Batman, have taken a range of stances on the issue across different interpretations. From “That is the line a vigilante should never cross” (The Dark Knight) to “The ends justify the means” (Batman V Superman: Dawn of Justice), the caped crusader’s stance is just as varied as his fandom.
There are legitimate arguments for every side of this discussion, but as Strange has a moment to realize that he’s now a killer, he regrets it for the wrong reason. Hippocratic Oath aside, Strange believes that he wouldn’t have to deal with his messy feelings of guilt over self-defense if he had just been smart enough to figure out how to non-lethally incapacitate his astral opponent. The piety he longs for is actually, in his mind, a failure to outwit his opponent, and that hurts his ego.
Strange extends his self-righteous ego trip to challenging The Ancient One for bending her own rules. This mistake very well looks to come back and bite him in the sequels, since the post-credits stinger makes it clear that the rigid morality of Mordo has sent him on a destructive path. But Strange, for all his arrogance, is a man who’s able to look outside the box for solutions. He just never thought to look outside the box of his own ego. In the slowed down final milliseconds of her life, the astral form of The Ancient One relays to Strange the most important life lesson he’s ever learned, “It’s not about you.”
In the past, Strange’s pride begat a price of a crippling fear of failure. So often such a quality might be praised. Fear of failure does, after all, push humanity hard to succeed. Strange himself can point to the vast knowledge he’s developed as a result of demanding to be the best. He can point to the many lives he’s saved. But ultimately all his best work is hamstrung by his refusal to put his ego on the line.
Doctor Strange‘s fantastic, reverse-destruction climax says something meaningful about who he is as a hero. Once a doctor on a small scale, he has now become a healer of cities and realities, with time as his scalpel and stitches. But if magic has widened his skills and his goals, it also has a limit. The chaotic entity of Dormammu exists outside of time, and Strange’s only chance of success is to kamikaze bomb the other-dimensional god with an Eye of Agamotto-fueled time loop.
ACCEPTANCE! – “Dormammu, I’ve come to bargain,” Strange says, failing to pose any kind of tangible threat to the seemingly all-powerful force. He fails to make much of an impression. And he continues to fail, over, and over, and over again. He confronts the most colossal blow his ego could possibly take — the fate of failing, on repeat, for all eternity — and suffering horrible humiliating death after horrible humiliating death. When Strange returns, it seems as if time has not passed, but he could have been in the Dark Dimension for an eternity. For the audience’s sake, this scene didn’t last 20,000 years, but for all we know that was just due to careful editing.
Tony Stark may be a hero, but his full propensity for self-sacrifice wasn’t something he learned until his third appearance in The Avengers (and based on actions in Civil War, he still hasn’t learned to sacrifice his ego). Steve Rogers was a hero even before he got powers. When he sacrifices himself at the end of The First Avenger, his choice comes without a hesitation or a second thought. Doctor Strange took a much longer and more painful road to heroism through deductive reasoning, eventually having to sacrifice himself not once, but infinitely to prove his worth. So despite his blanket similarities to Stark, Strange’s story is not “Iron Man with magic.” It’s a much more succinct message that true heroism only comes through selflessness and that what we do has less meaning than why we do it. An act of good, done for the wrong reasons, can only go so far.
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