As of May 2018, the Marvel Cinematic Universe is 10 years and 19 films old. In celebration, we’re talking about the deeper elements of the MCU, mostly film-by-film. We’ve already talked about how Iron Man is about finding truth, why Incredible Hulk might not be in the MCU, that Iron Man 2 is the true beginning of the MCU, how Thor does the work to make the Avengers great, why Steve Rogers was alone BEFORE he fell in the ice, why the Avengers weren’t the Avengers until they beat the tar out of each other, how Iron Man 3 exposes the hidden symbolism of Tony’s life, that no matter what the advertisements say, Marvel TV isn’t connected to the MCU, that Loki’s greatest illusion is Loki himself, that the Winter Soldier represents Steve’s darkest fear, how Peter Quill didn’t know who Star-Lord was, my crazy fan theory about the Infinity Stones creating Ultron, that Ant-Man is the unfortunate casualty of the greater MCU, and why Steve Rogers had to sacrifice the Avengers for the good of the world.
What a world we get to play in. Back in 2008, Iron Man introduced us to a brand new world, a world where science and technology could allow a billionaire to fly in his robot suit powered by personal truth and the resolution of daddy issues. A few years later, Thor came in and showed us that the world is bigger than Earth and that magic exists, even if it’s secretly just science we don’t understand.
With Doctor Strange, not only does real magic exist in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, but now it’s a gateway to the Marvel Cinematic Multiverse. For a movie that is often overlooked in the larger MCU, Doctor Strange is remarkably important. What’s more, Doctor Strange represents one of the most amazing movies I’ve ever seen in IMAX 3D.
I get why people say that Stephen Strange is just another Tony Stark, but I think that’s a very surface level analysis. Yes, they are both wealthy white men with facial hair. Yes, they are both arrogant and pointed at disaster. Yes, they’re played by actors that play Sherlock Holmes. Yes, they’re both guided by bald spirit guides…
…what was I saying?
Anyhow, Stephen Strange is a different person from Tony Stark. While Tony Stark is driven by self-loathing and a drive to fill the void inside his soul, Stephen Strange is driven by a quest for perfection. While Tony Stark thrives on self-destructive tendencies, Stephen Strange strives for complete control.
And, when we meet Stephen Strange, he is in complete control. Stephen is a world-renowned neurosurgeon with a perfect record and a strut that would make 1970s John Travolta jealous. He does CNN interviews, he attends award ceremonies, and he drives his ridiculously expensive sports car in whatever lane he wants. As Stephen drives, he plays god behind the wheel and callously chooses life or death for potential patients before nearly losing his life as he careens his car off a mountain road.
It’s natural that Stephen’s story truly begins when he loses that control.
When Stephen wakes up, he’s in a hospital bed, and he’s lost the most important tool of any surgeon: his hands. His hands are still there, they’re just completely useless. They’re being supported by eleven stainless steel pins and suspended in front of him like they were put there by a butcher with a grotesque sense of humor.
“What did they do?” he says with tears, and Christine Palmer explains everything that went wrong.
“No one could have done better” she tells him, but Stephen knows that’s not true.
“I could have done better.”
It’s true. And it’s a cruel joke.
In accordance with his comic book origins, Stephen spends a fortune on experimental treatments trying to regain the use of his hands. Now Stephen finds himself on the other side of the divide. Now other doctors are playing god as Stephen is rejected by surgeon after surgeon, worried about their own perfect records. At the end of one of these calls Christine arrives with a helping hand and Stephen, who is searching for anything he can call control, rejects the only person close to him in order to feed his own ego.
Out in the open Stephen rejects Christine, but of course he holds on the watch she gave him. He thinks enough of it that as he uses his last dollar on a one-way ticket to Kathmandu, he still keeps the watch. As thieves attempt to take it from Stephen in the streets of Nepal, the watch breaks and Stephen finally realizes what has been true of him since the crash. He has no control.
While I’ve often heard it said that time is the theme of Doctor Strange, that really isn’t true. “Time” is a theme of the movie in the same way that “capes” are a theme of the movie. Just because a story contains something doesn’t mean a story is about that thing. If that is true, then Super Mario Bros is about jumping, Inside Out is about moving to San Francisco, and Casino Royale is about playing poker.
The greater themes of Doctor Strange are perception and control. Over the course of the film, Stephen’s perceptions of himself and the world around him are destroyed. If Stephen can’t use his hands, then he can’t be a doctor. Stephen’s entire perception of self resolves around that concept. Without that essential element, Stephen isn’t just a man without control. He’s a man without an identity.
When Stephen meets The Ancient One, she’s not just there to teach him magic, she’s there to teach Stephen who he is. On the surface, Stephen is there to heal his hands, but on a deeper level Stephen wants his hands back so he can use them to regain control. She agrees to teach him how to heal himself with full knowledge that learning how to do that will make Stephen realize that the control he’s looking for, the control he thought he had before, is nothing but an illusion.
Stephen wasn’t in control. He only had the perception of control. He wasn’t important, he only perceived that he was important. As Stephen learns about the powers that he could possess, he struggles to master them the way he mastered the field of medicine.
“You cannot beat a river into submission, you have to surrender to its current as your own,” the Ancient One tells him. “It’s not about you,” she reminds him.
In the spectacular final act of the film, Stephen faces off against a villain he can never defeat, an extradimensional devourer of worlds named Dormammu. There is no defeating Dormammu, there is no controlling Dormammmu, so Stephen cedes control to the river and resigns himself to an eternity of pain.
(It turns out better than you think when you know how it ends!)
As Dormammu retreats, Stephen returns to Earth, learning his place in the greater multiverse.
He is Doctor Strange.
Next week: Guardians of the Galaxy: Vol. 2