The Selfish Mister Doctor

As the Ancient One breathes her last, she stretches out the moment of her death. Lightning slows to a halt. A second become an eternity. Like Ho Yinsen to Tony Stark, and Abraham Erskine to Steve Rogers, the Ancient One leaves Strange with one final lesson before she departs: “It’s not about you.”

This world of warriors is not Strange’s narrative to own. His tale is not one of mastering combat, or even mastering death, but of accepting pain and failure so he can work in service of others. As the Ancient One accepts her death, she lays two choices before Strange. He can either go by way of Jonathan Pangborn (Benjamin Bratt), the miraculously recovered paraplegic who set Strange on his journey — he can return to the west as Pangborn did, pretending to fix his hands the way Pangborn uses magic to walk,  resuming his futile attempts to control death for the sake of personal glory — or, Strange can stay on his new path, continuing to learn, to heal, and to accept death and failure as a part of life (perhaps even experiences that give life meaning), as he expands his worldview beyond what he thought he knew. Like Siddhartha Gautama, the first Buddha, he can give up material gain and find new ways to help humanity.

Stephen Strange has spent a lifetime learning. It’s what separates him from Tony Stark, who repeats mistakes in new iterations. Strange’s photographic memory assists with both medical diagnoses and pop culture tidbits, which he initially uses to embarrass his colleagues. He continues his quest for knowledge at Kamar Taj, sleeping while his Astral self remains awake to read. He learns fact after fact and skill after skill, but it takes the Ancient One’s passing for him to learn new wisdom.

The Ancient One’s death-anxiety reflects Strange’s biggest fears. They form a continuum, an endless cycle of fears of mortality and failure, two forces bound by time that neither character can control or bargain with. In accepting these forces as natural, even spiritual, Strange is able to fulfill his role as a saviour.

I’ve Come to Bargain

When Dormammu makes his way to Earth, Strange confronts him after the requisite third-Act mayhem. However, the destruction of Hong Kong — which would be a “trailer moment” climax in any other Marvel film — takes place entirely off-screen.

Strange uses the Time Stone to undo the carnage. The damage to property, and loss of life, all flow in reverse, as if in direct opposition to the modern Hollywood blockbuster. Bit by bit, fallen structures begin to stand, and people’s wounds begin to heal. Strange becomes a healer on a vast and mystical scale, albeit by meddling with natural law

A future problem posed by Time Stone, a device that can undo death itself, is one of dramatic stakes. The Marvel movies already treat death as a non-factor, so in order to ensure narrative integrity here, Strange is confronted by Mordo, to whom the idea of bargaining with death (as the Ancient One did) is a step too far. In Strange’s next major appearance, Avengers Infinity War, he refuses to let the Time Stone fall to anyone who might use it this way — at least, for as long as he can. He crosses a vital ethical boundary in Doctor Strange, and seemingly takes an oath to never do so again. The next time around, Thanos, the villain, is the one trying to turn back time.

Following the healing of Hong Kong, Strange travels directly into the Dark Dimension, a world where Dormammu has transcended time and attained immortality. In order to defeat Dormammu, Strange introduces Dormammu to time itself. Time, once Strange’s enemy, and the enemy of all who fear death or seek eternal life, is now his ally, despite the suffering it brings. Strange uses the Stone to create a time loop, beginning with his challenge of “Dormammu, I’ve come to bargain,” and ending in his own death.

Strange shows up to bargain. He challenges Dormammu. He fails. He is killed, painfully and violently. The loop begins anew.

He shows up to bargain. He challenges Dormammu. Failure, pain and death — ad infinitum.

We see the loop play out a few dozen ways, but Strange may have lived out this moment hundreds or even thousands of times. He traps Dormammu in a perpetual cycle, wherein Strange is prepared to experience pain and failure in infinite permutations. If Dormammu wants to be unbound by time, he must accept Strange’s bargain of taking Kaecillius and leaving Earth for good.

Eastern Philosophies

Through his newfound wisdom, and his acceptance of pain, Strange attains a form of moksha or nirvana, the Hindu, Buddhist and Jain concept of release from perpetual cycles of death and rebirth — literalized through his battle with Dormammu — a state of being achieved through enlightenment. Strange not only find ways to heal people without the physical use of his hands, he also overcomes his fear of failure. Not by finding perpetual success, the kind that once hinged on money and adoration, but by being unafraid to fail for all eternity.

In the end, Strange accepts his broken hands. His watch, once a symbol of status, is now cracked from his accident. A reminder that he can control neither time nor pain, but can only accept them as inevitable. Over the course of the film, Strange embodies all three pillars of Taosim: “frugality” by fixing wasteful destruction, “compassion” by working in service of others, and “humility” by accepting personal failure in favour of glory. His journey is one of opening up to new ideas, whether accepting philosophical outlooks that fulfill him spiritually (rather than materially), or accepting the existence of mind-bending mirror dimensions, which make the film’s action a unique visual treat.

The film’s kaleidoscopic effects draw heavily from Steve Ditko’s original designs. It features parallel worlds and new visual possibilities, along with an underlying ideology that marked Marvel’s new approach to western blockbusters — the kind of approach we’d begin to see more of on the road to Avengers: Endgame.


Expanded from an article published April 19, 2018.

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