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The lessons every new superhero film should learn from Doctor Strange

“It’s not about you.”

Marvel Studios

The 14th film in a consistently successful franchise is not where you’d expect to see that successful formula shaken up. Yet Doctor Strange demonstrates some serious lessons that future superhero films need to learn.

The film isn’t perfect. There’s the predictable first act (his car accident and downward spiral are recapped twice in the film, so you could’ve started the movie with the first magic lesson and told the earlier stuff in shorter flashbacks). There’s problematic casting (which director Scott Derrickson owned up to and admitted was an error). And the same MC Escher-style spell is used a too often by the end. But it’s worth noting that Doctor Strange expands what superhero films can do and subverts familiar tropes.

Build a sense of mythology

Marvel Studios

Like Guardians of the Galaxy, Doctor Strange expands the Marvel Cinematic Universe by letting you know that weird, cosmic forces live in it and have been there for a long time. We know that all the magical items had previous owners and that there have been others to carry the mantle of Sorcerer Supreme. It’s clear that the Ancient One, Mordo and Wong have already fought many battles against mystical threats before Stephen Strange ever came into their lives. And the Ancient One reveals the existence of a multiverse full of realities, many with different rules and laws of physics, significantly expanding what is "possible" for the MCU.

The Mirror Dimension is particularly clever, as it not only allows Doctor Strange to subvert the overuse of collateral damage and disaster porn in superhero films by allowing sorcerers to battle in an isolated place even at the center of a city, but also provides an explanation as to how such awesome battles could have happened without ever being noticed or mentioned by S.H.I.E.L.D. and Earth’s superheroes. Clever!

Give a villain an arc

Chiwetel Ejiofor as Karl Mordo in Doctor Strange. Image: Marvel Studios

Lots of superhero films have trouble with their villain arc. Some shrug us off with characters who are simply unapologetically evil, without much dimension. Others characters are humanized to the point that we have trouble connecting them to the evil acts they’ve committed. In Doctor Strange, Mads Mikkelsen beautifully plays a sadly simplistic villain who follows a giant CGI demon. But in juxtaposition, we get a great fall from grace arc with the character of Mordo, played by Chiwetel Ejiofor. Just as Strange has a journey towards heroism, Mordo is given a solid journey from trusted colleague to a man who feels betrayed by principles he strictly adhered to.

This is a great improvement compared to some other Marvel movie villains — scientists who decide to create super-terrorists because Tony Stark was once a jerk to them at a party, blue guys with sledgehammers who seem to just really dig being angry, businessmen who are angry that Hank Pym didn’t tell them secrets about how to shrink real good so now they’re going to help a Nazi science cult. Remember the snarky, mash-up robot brought to life by a magic rock who tells us, "Look, I just don’t like this humanity business and I dislike my sort-of-father after googling him, so I’m wiping you all out?" That wasn’t as cool as it could have been. In contrast, Mordo is not only more layered than that, he has a more interesting purpose and viewpoint than his comic book counterpart ever had.

Talk seriously about life and death

Marvel Studios

Whether or not superheroes can kill and under what circumstances has become a hot button topic, with some saying it should be allowed for some and not others, and other fans saying it should be all or nothing. While one could argue that Tony Stark is justified in blowing away super-terrorists in Iron Man 3 and later telling his robots to follow suit, or that Superman’s execution of an alien terrorist in Man of Steel was the fastest solution to an awful situation, it’s odd and disappointing when the characters don’t address the potential moral and psychological consequences one way or the other. Neither Iron Man 3 nor Man of Steel have the heroes mention if they regret these actions a day later or feel justified, if they will now view killing as sometimes necessary or only to be done in special circumstances. Just one or two lines of dialogue, a remark like "I didn’t like it, but it had to be done" or "I failed this time but will be better in the future" would fix that. Even Batman V. Superman had that in the last scene.

Captain America: Civil War shows characters addressing these moral and psychological consequences to some degree — Doctor Strange takes things further. The Scarlet Witch feels guilty over the deaths of innocent bystanders in Civil War, and is challenged about whether she has the authority to make the battlefield decision that led to it. In Doctor Strange, Stephen kills an enemy in what seems to be a pretty clear case of self-defense. Even knowing that — and knowing that the person was a threat to life on Earth — Stephen is compelled to say that he is greatly bothered by taking a life, both as a person and as a doctor. This feeling, and his argument with Mordo and the Ancient One that pragmatism doesn’t make it right, greatly humanizes the characters and grounds the story in emotional realism despite all the magic flying around.

The most compelling heroic and villainous characters are those who are proactive about their personal principles. I’m not sure what Star-Lord and Gamora’s mission and principles are when they decide at the end to patrol the stars together at the end of Guardians of the Galaxy, other than "I like my friends." But with Doctor Strange, the protagonist’s morality becomes clear by the third act. Stephen Strange doesn’t want to just stop evil, he wants to uphold his morality, and believes he’s smart and powerful enough to stop a foe without resorting to lethal violence. He wants there to be more to his life and purpose than just fighting. Which leads into the last really neat thing Doctor Strange did...

Save the day creatively

Marvel Studios

As much as I enjoy superhero films, a lot of them start to feel less special by the final climatic battle. Many movies decide that the last fight will simply keep going until one person is beaten into submission or blown up, whereas so many comic books involve the hero or heroes coming up with creative solutions, often by utilizing their powers in ways that the villain wasn’t prepared for. Doctor Strange delivers perfectly on this point.

In all of Stephen’s fights, he wins not because he’s more powerful, but because he’s clever. He takes advantage of magical and mundane things around him (windows, amulets, living capes, defibrillator paddles), he asks for help when he needs it, and he defeats the dreaded Dormammu of the Dark Dimension (shut up, you love alliteration) by breaking the rules in a way that would not have occurred to the by-the-rules minds of Wong and Mordo. With this movie’s climax, Marvel Studios gives us a hero who subverts what we’ve come to expect in climatic disaster battles, a guy who makes us emulate his intellect rather than just his power.

And to top it off, Doctor Strange has two stinger scenes that, rather than seeming tacked on, truly made me excited for what comes next. I’m hoping Marvel realizes what it has in Stephen Strange’s first adventure. The upcoming film Thor: Ragnarok might involve the destruction of Asgard, so let’s hear what Thor, Loki and others really think about the fact that their lives seem to involve violence that endanger worlds that aren’t their own. Let’s see Thor win a problem through his mind and heart, not just a well placed lightning bolt. T’Challa is already a scientist and king, so in Black Panther I hope we see him win by truly proving why he deserves his titles and accomplishments, rather than just blasting an enemy away. Guardians of the Galaxy had the origin story of renegades acting heroically, now let’s see them be both proactive and interestingly creative about their goals in Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, and let’s see them expand the Marvel Cinematic Universe and multiverse even further. It’s not just about keeping superhero films from growing stale and predictable, it’s about keeping them fun.

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