The Selfish Mister Doctor

As The Ancient One breathes her last, she stretches out the moment of her death infinitely just so she can watch the rain fall. Her Astral Projection leaves the egotistical Strange with one final lesson before leaving him to his own devices: “It’s not about you.”

This world of warriors is not Strange’s narrative to own. His tale is not one of success in mastering combat, or even mastering death, but one of accepting pain and failure. It’s during the Ancient One’s acceptance of her own death that she lays out two choices before him. On one hand, he can go by way of Jonathan Pangborn (Benjamin Bratt), the miraculously recovered paraplegic who set Strange on his journey. He can return to the Western world as Pangborn did, and use his magical gifts to walk around just as he did before, fixing his hands and resuming his futile attempts to control death for the sake of personal glory. Or, he can stay on his new path and continue learning, accepting 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 help people.

Strange has spent a lifetime acquiring knowledge. His photographic memory assists with both medical diagnoses and pop culture tidbits, both of which he uses to embarrass his colleagues. He continues his quest for knowledge even at Kamar Taj, sleeping while his Astral self remains awake to read, but it isn’t until the Ancient One’s death that he acquires new wisdom. Her death anxiety and his fear of failure are intrinsically linked, forces bound by time that neither character can control. And it’s in the acceptance of these natural forces that Strange is able to become a saviour.

I’ve Come to Bargain

When Dormammu makes his way to Earth, Strange only shows up after the requisite Marvel third-act mayhem has ravaged a city. The destruction however, takes place entirely off-screen.

Strange proceeds to use Time Stone to undo the battle of Hong Kong. All the damage to property and all the loss of life, flowing in reverse, as if acting in direct opposition to the modern Hollywood action blockbuster. Bit by bit, fallen structures begin to stand, and people’s wounds begin to heal. Strange, albeit by meddling with natural law, has become a healer on a large and mystical scale. Following this, he travels directly into the Dark Dimension, a world where Dormammu has transcended time and attained immortality. He introduces the demonic entity to time itself. Time, once Strange’s enemy, and the enemy of all these sorcerers who sought eternal life, has now become Strange’s ally despite the suffering it brings. He uses the Stone to create a time loop, beginning with his challenge of “Dormammu, I’ve come to bargain,” and ending in his death before resetting.

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

Shows up to bargain. Challenges Dormammu. Painful and violent death.

Shows up. Challenges. Pain and death.

We only see this loop play out perhaps a dozen ways, but it’s something Strange likely lived out hundreds if not thousands of times, trapping Dormammu in a perpetual cycle where Strange himself experiences pain and failure ad infinitum. If Dormammu wishes to continue living unbound by time, he has to accept Strange’s bargain of taking Kaecillius with him and leaving Earth for good. Through his wisdom and 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, a process achieved through enlightenment. Not only has Strange found a way to heal in service of others without the physical use of his hands, he has overcome his fear of failure. Not by finding perpetual success – the kind of success centered around himself and around garnering adoration – but by being unafraid to fail for all eternity, in service of protecting others.

In the end, Strange accepts his broken hands and his broken watch, a reminder that he can control neither time nor pain, but only accept them as inevitable. Over the course of the film, Strange hits 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 himself up to new ideas, whether accepting Eastern philosophical outlooks that help him get in touch with himself spiritually (rather than materially), or accepting kaleidoscopic mirror dimensions, which make the film’s action scenes a unique visual feast.

The film’s design draws heavily from Steve Ditko’s original comic designs, presenting new parallel worlds and visual possibilities, but the film’s narrative is Marvel’s first foray into accepting new philosophical approaches to storytelling. The kinds of approaches that lie outside the established Western paradigm, and the kinds we’d begin to see more of from Marvel as the Road to Infinity War was paved.

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