Doctor Strange and the Troubled Hero in Fiction

Doctor Strange
Copyright © 2016 by Marvel Studios

I finally got around to seeing Doctor Strange, that great addition in the ongoing Marvel Cinematic Universe. While I admit that my interest in the MCU these days only centers around movies featuring a talking raccoon and a literal-minded alien played by Dave Bautista, it’s still nice to see what other stories this saga has to offer. And I must say, Strange definitely stands on its own as a magic-centered storyline.

But as I was watching this movie (and trying to deal with Benedict Cumberbatch doing an American accent), I noticed a neat little storytelling trick that I’d like to explore in detail. Namely, this: how do you make a hero’s flaw part of the story?

You’d be surprised at how difficult it can be to give a modern hero a serious flaw. Most storytellers settle on a traumatic incident, like the loss of a loved one, or they fall back on a general feeling of inadequacy. But in the MCU, we get heroes with personality flaws right off the bat. In Stephen Strange’s case, it’s his arrogance. He’s a brilliant neurosurgeon and he damn well knows it. He’s also more likely to consider how things affect him than he does consider anyone else.

Rewatch the scene where Strange and his love interest Christina are having their last conversation in Act One, right before he finds the lead that sends him on his mystical journey to Kathmandu. Christina’s trying to impress upon him that he’s more than just a skilled surgeon, that life isn’t just about continued success. But Strange refuses to give up, even when it means outspending himself on experimental, unguaranteed treatments to fix his nerve damage. It’s a tense, well-played scene, and it gives us the starting point of his inner and outer journey.

In Act One, Strange only wants one thing: to be healed and to be a success again. In Act Two, when faced with the Ancient One and the truth of how small he is within the multiverse, Strange wants to still be a success, but now it’s in a different field. He learns to deal with his shaking hands and perform real magic, but he still hasn’t corrected his basic flaw. He’s still, for lack of a better term, an arrogant prick.

It isn’t until Act Three, when the villain has all but claimed victory in Hong Kong sanctum, that our hero actually becomes a hero. He puts himself forward in a single act of self-sacrifice, rather than looking for the shortcut and the ego boost. Even when it means (spoilers) locking himself in a recurring loop with an eldritch being outside of time,  Strange puts all his knowledge and skill to use, but he does so for the larger purpose of saving the earth and all its inhabitants. He also makes a deal with said godlike entity, showing a patience and concern that Stephen Strange from Act One would never demonstrate. It’s in this sequence that he proves himself to be the Sorcerer Supreme.

Now, you might say that we can see the same character arc in films like Iron Man and Thor, where we watch those heroes grow from arrogant, boastful prodigies to slightly more humble, world-oriented people. And you’d be right, of course. In that sense, Doctor Strange fits the same character design as them.

But what I find interesting about Strange is that its hero isn’t a playboy billionaire inventor or a Norse god made human. For all his brilliance, Stephen Strange really is human. He has the same gift to learn magic as anyone else, and it’s only by an accident and the patience of a good teacher that he learns to harness it. That same human starting point also makes his arrogance a little sharper by comparison. He’s a good surgeon, but he’s also more self-destructive and dismissive than, say, Tony Stark or Thor might be at the beginning. It’s a kind of a hubris that we can all relate to, even if we don’t really want to see ourselves that way.

Even in an era where we’re inundated with superhero movies and antiheroes in the vein of Walter White and Don Draper, it’s still good to stop and examine what kind of people we’re rooting for and just how they grow as characters onscreen. We don’t simply go, “He’s a gambler!” or “He’s got pride!” The flaw has to be something our heroes wrestle with in the course of their journey. Ideally, it’s something they overcome by the end of their story, even if their tale has a tragic end. When you look past the fireworks and landscape-bending magic shows, this is what you have at the heart of Doctor Strange and I’m glad it’s there.

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