Dr. Strange is another enjoyable entry in the Marvel Studios master plan. Of course, this film is another superhero adventure with the obligatory origin story. Familiar tropes fill the screen, with numerous parallels to another goatee-sporting narcissist (Tony Stark); though, here we trade technology for magic–yet the occult-inspired world of the comics becomes (I think, wisely) a more mainstream science-fiction framework, traveling through other dimensions.
I saw the film originally back in November and had fun with it, but recently watching it a second time, I wondered how heroic Strange is. Cumberbatch has said in interviews he was drawn to the role because of the change in the character, because of his journey through hardships and vulnerability.
Certainly the film highlights Stephen’s self-centered genius in the opening scenes. He delights in how his skill exceeds that of fellow doctors and what kind of reputation he is building. His friend and love interest, Dr. Christine Palmer dares to criticize how he humiliates another doctor and will not take surgeries unless they also have the potential for press attention. He argues his grand efforts will ultimately save more lives. At this point, though, we feel Stephen may make this argument not for those lives, but for the fame such work will bring him. When Christine pulls him out to talk with the family of the person he has just saved, he turns his body to diminish a hug from the patient’s mother (or wife). Such body language only proves his discomfort with such interactions, not that he is inherently selfish, but other signs, like the luxurious life he leads and the speed with which he decides which cases are worthy of his attention, offer further hints to his self-absorption.
The car crash, obviously, radically upends his life. The succeeding surgeries potentially further ruin his hands–Stephen certainly thinks so, passing out the blame, lamenting that he could not operate on himself. Cumberbatch effectively dramatizes the downward spiral, which includes his cruel critique of Christine, who has been helping him. He accuses her of turning him into a charity case, and as she walks out hurt, she notes that he has always only done things for himself.
Stephen runs into limitations; he cannot fix himself and cannot find a doctor who will try highly unorthodox experimental treatments. He learns what it is for a doctor to turn him down as the doctor speaks of the reputation he needs to preserve. In this broken stage, he eventually tracks down a character (Benjamin Bratt) who has experienced a miraculous recovery and learns about Kathmandu. Having used his last funds, beaten by robbers in the street, Stephen finally makes contact with Mordo and then the Ancient One.
Even in his brokenness, Stephen remains prideful. The Ancient One notes his ego and proceeds in humbling him with a rushed presentation of the multiverse and by rejecting him, pushing him back out on the doorstep. After hours of Stephen refusing to leave, she has Mordo open the door again. In the succeeding weeks, Stephen does consent to training, but he also seeks ways to go around Wong, the librarian who guards the magic books and artifacts. He still thinks he can bend the rules for his own purposes. He treats magic, just as he did medicine—such knowledge is power.
When he learns of the responsibilities that attend such power and of the Ancient One’s efforts to protect the earth from encroaching megomaniacal superbeings, like Dormammu, Stephen declares he did not sign onto such obligations; he was only there to find a way to get his old life back. The timing of Kaecilius’ attack, though, throws Stephen into a position where he must defend his life. During the ensuing events, to save himself, Stephen destroys the astral form of one of Kaecilius’ associates.
Here we have some more ambiguity about Stephen’s self-perception and code of ethics. In a quiet moment some viewers may overlook, after Christine helps him recover from his wound, Stephen checks the body of the associate and discovers the man is dead. In a succeeding conversation, Stephen complains he has broken his Hippocratic oath in killing the man. So is Stephen upset he has killed, or is he upset he has deviated from his vision of who he is? The former is more altruistic, the latter, more self-centered. Is it possible to separate the two concerns?
But what is our definition of a hero? Most would expect more altruism. Where does that leave Stephen? There are other crucial encounters before the story ends, many sharing a similar ambiguity. The most telling, perhaps, is his final conversation with the Ancient One. After he has exposed her connections to the Dark Realm, he still fights for her, revealing the telling relationship that has developed between them.
We have a feeling that relationship drives him into the final confrontation with Kaecilius and then Dormammu. However, we also notice the hubris is not entirely gone. He decides to confront the big villain because he wants to see if he can emerge the victor. There is the sacrificial side of being locked into a loop with Dormammu’s tortures, but Stephen’s propensity to “break the rules” is what got him there. His efforts to advance himself have finally led to the means to save everyone.
So is Strange a hero? As he steps into the role of Sorceror Supreme, what do we think. The film leads us with one final telling image: after conversations where he admits his selfishness to Christine and thinks about using his powers to restore his former life, he moves toward the upper room window in the New York sanctum and looks down at his shaking hands, seemingly embracing his new life.