‘Doctor Strange’ and the Bargaining of Self

14 Weeks into our MCU Rewatch, The Avengers are disassembled, leaving a fledgling Sorcerer Supreme to pick up the pieces.

“Answer me this Bachelor’s Degree…” Oh man. Someone, please punch Stephen Strange in the mouth. After having his precious little surgeon’s hands shattered inside the dashboard of his crashing Lamborghini, the good doctor no longer even attempts to put a lid on his repellent condescension. He’s graduated from self-satisfied Übermensch to full-blown, raging piece of human garbage. If you thought Tony Stark needed a few sequels to evolve beyond a cocky A-hole then Strange will need the entire Phase Four to progress past his impenetrable narcissism. The guy is a jerk.

In Guardians of the Galaxy, Corpsman Dey pleaded to Nova Prime that Star-Lord was correct in self-assessing as being an asshole but not 100% of a dick. Dey simply didn’t believe anyone could be 100% of a dick. Keep in mind, when he says this, Ronan The Accuser was in mid-process of annihilating his home planet. And yet, total dickishness is not possible. Well, sir, let me introduce you to Doctor Strange.

You want to say, “Hey, Doc can’t help himself.” Incorrect. He absolutely has complete control of his personality. We all do. Whatever his possible excuses could be they are not obviously sympathetic. He’s not a drunk. He’s not a man-child caught under the weight of his genius father’s shadow. He doesn’t have a big green monster bubbling beneath his surface. He doesn’t have Capsicle’s tragedy of losing a few decades under the ice. Strange is just a dude who loves the smell of his own stink.

Where Stark can slide on charm with a wink and a smile, Strange has none of that class president charisma. His burden is the value he places upon himself. He’s god’s gift. We should all be so thankful to be in his presence. Gross.

Dr. Stephen Strange is only tolerable when he’s capable of saving lives inside his operating theater. The car crash that robs him of his abilities also robs him of purpose. With his hands distorted into shaking stalks of brittle bone, Strange discovers that his worth amounts to absolutely zero. Struggling his way through physical therapy, the only thing he can possibly respect is Mr. Bachelor’s Degree’s natural resistance to his smug-punk face.

The Therapist slaps down the medical records of Jonathan Pangborn. The one-time paralytic was miraculously healed, and this impossible feat is the only offense that could pull Strange from his stupor. The idea that there are answers outside his reach is appalling and personally insulting. The arrogant ass witnesses Pangborn’s jump shot, listens to his mumbo-jumbo regarding his mental elevation at Kamar-Taj, and books a one-way ticket to Kathmandu. Cue the Irving Berlin: whatever this muggle can do, Strange can do better.

Where guilt and failure inevitably motivated Avengers like Iron Man and Thor, Doctor Strange seeking enlightenment is actually just a further extension of his ego. He has had decades of validation from lesser men and women. His wizardry over medicine and Billboard’s Top 40 bolstered his reputation amongst his peers, but more importantly, that skill raised his vanity to titanic heights. Why should he behave any differently once he’s discovered a natural talent for sorcery?

“Teach me.” The first good punch Strange receives is delivered by The Ancient One. Dismissing her preposterous linking of chakras to MRI scans, the broken surgeon practically begs her to smash his astral self from his physical form. Tripping beyond the infinite, catching the briefest glimpse of the world hidden from his scientific view, Strange’s immediate response is to stake his claim.

A good chunk of the film is devoted to breaking that complete confidence of the mind. First, he must be shown that the impossible is probable, and then his resulting virtuoso exhibition must be challenged. The addition of the requisite bad guy to battle helps tremendously. The fallen pupil story is always a good persuader for the budding hero.

See that Kaecilius guy? He learned all the wrong lessons. Don’t be like him. Hopping back and forth between London and the Dark Dimension, making time his enemy, chasing immortality as a sad extension of his Noxzema needing carcass. Doctor Strange may be a dick, but he’s at least a few more trips down the rabbit hole before hitting the rock bottom of villainy.

Strange is surrounded by teachers. After years of education building him up onto his rock star surgeon pedestal, he thought he had risen above being a student. Knocked off his feet, he rediscovers his craving for lessons. It’s a hunger that requires an army of professionals to feed.

The Ancient One is there as a master to idolize and chase. The librarian Wong is the keeper of forbidden and forever tempting texts. Baron Mordo is that swell pupil a few grades ahead of you. He’s happy to help until you become a bother; stealing his teacher’s pet status is a big no-no. Revealing that teacher to be a bit of a tool is even worse. See also, Kent from Real Genius.

Ultimately, Strange’s only hope of achieving Avengers membership comes down to how much The Ancient One’s final lesson sinks into his brain. “It’s not about you.” You are not the center of the universe. You’re certainly not the center of the multiverse. You are but a blink of light, or a flash of lightning. No matter how hard you try, you will eventually fade from existence. Understanding this, and doing your best to leave the planet better off than when you plopped upon it, is the pinnacle of heroism.

Is Doctor Strange capable of putting others before himself? He has stolen and bent rituals to his will. He has unmasked his mentor as a charlatan. However, even with the world falling under transdimensional threat, Strange sticks to his Hippocratic oath, refusing to take the life of even the most monstrous of men. Not a lack of spine, but the first hint of Strange seeing the worth of the life beyond his own.

As rad as it is stepping into the Steve Ditko black light painting that is the Dark Dimension, Doctor Strange’s bargaining with Dormammu’s big giant head is less gratifying than the internal wheeling and dealing this jackass has been orchestrating throughout the runtime. Stephen Strange is the toughest pill we’ve had to swallow so far in the MCU. There were times I thought I was going to choke on him. The struggling soul is what Marvel does better than most. Their final grudge matches always come down to eradicating the flaw of self.

What Doctor Strange Contributes to the MCU:

  • The Multiverse -“You think this material universe is all there is?” After taking a peek at the Quantum Realm in Ant-Man, Doctor Strange goes full-Stanley Kubrick on us. There are a lot more possibilities than what we have seen on Earth, Asgard, and the cosmos of Guardians of the Galaxy. I am ready to set up shop in the Dark Dimension or Mirror Dimension or even an Alternate Dimension. In the mysterious landscape of Marvel Phase Four, our heroes could find themselves in sci-fi concepts we thought were left to other franchises.
  • Wong – Benedict Wong is not the manservant of the comic books. He is a keeper of vast, mystical knowledge. An equal to Doctor Strange, not a sidekick. I thought he was going to be reserved for solo adventures, but I am ecstatic to see him hanging out on his own individual Infinity War poster. A definite badass in his own right.

What Doctor Strange Withholds from the MCU:

  • The Ancient One – A tricky character to translate in 2016. A dash of Celtic background info and we’re all good with the white-washing?…Casting Tilda Swinton goes a long way in earning my acceptance of the character. I’m pretty sure she’s an actual Sorcerer Supreme in real-life. She has the wisdom, but more importantly, she has the ability not to take any of Strange’s nonsense. Her stare has as much strength as any physical or mystical smackdown. Swinton pulls off that almost alien omnipotence.
  • Dormammu -We got barely a taste of this demon. He’s just a giant floating, flaming ripple head who he hates time gem shenanigans, and is willing to scrap his lackeys at a moments notice. I imagine we’ll get a better idea of his fiery rage in a sequel. He certainly won’t be happy kicking back in the Dark Dimension after being duped by Strange.
  • Baron Mordo – Now that he’s free to wallow in villainy, Chiwetel Ejiofor is going to crush as Baron Mordo. Not to say that I don’t enjoy his work in the first film, but I’ve been waiting to see this actor break bad again post-Serenity. Ejiofor slays with a smile and it’s a delight to watch.
  • Dr. Christine Palmer – Strange is such a savage towards Palmer. She inexplicably puts up with his B.S. for waaaaaaay too long. Trying to nurse him back to health, and attempting to explain how there is more to life than the hands that have defined his career. Strange practically spits on her kind spirit. It’s a nearly thankless role for Rachel McAdams, but she gives Palmer a warmth of heart which necessarily underscores what a prick Strange is.
  • Dr. Nicodemus West – What is Michael Stuhlbarg doing in this movie? He plays the subpar doctor who lacked the magic to restore the strength to Strange’s hands. West may come into more significance in the sequels. His character is the catalyst figure in one of Doctor Strange’s most prominent stories, “The Oath.” In that tale, Dr. West followed Strange to Kamar-Taj to learn from the Ancient One. There he learned that he was just as much a second fiddle to Strange as back in the real world, and it spurned his jealousy into villainy. More Stuhlbarg in your movies is always a good thing. For now though, all we understand about his morality is that he’ll snag some free chips from the vending machine when he thinks no one is looking.

Further Reading:

Doctor Strange & Doctor Doom: Triumph & Torment” by Roger Stern and Mike Mignola – The Fantastic Four’s arch-nemesis convinces Stephen Strange to travel with him to hell to free his mom’s soul from the clutches of Mephisto. Some have claimed this to be the greatest Dr. Doom story ever told, and I’m inclined to agree with them. As far as Doctor Strange tales go, it’s pretty much tops as well. The plot is packed with rich melodrama, intense exchanges of pride shot back and forth between the dueling doctors. The dangers result when their worldview align and an even darker spirit looks to wedge himself into their dick-measuring contest. Gothically illustrated by Mike Mignola (the creator of Hellboy), “Triumph & Torment” is worth the little extra cash it might cost you to track down.

Read more from our series on the Marvel Cinematic Universe:

PHASE ONE

PHASE TWO

PHASE THREE

More to Read:

Brad Gullickson :Trekkie, Not Trekker. Weekly Columnist for Film School Rejects, co-host of the In The Mouth of Dorkness Podcast.