Marvel's Origin Stories: A discussion on Doctor Strange

Staff - November 11, 2016

Warning: spoilers discussed below

Staci: Doctor Strange finally arrived in the movie theaters this past Friday, with enthusiastic reactions from film and comic book fans alike. With a whopping 90% on Rotten Tomatoes, it’s quite obvious that the film succeeded in introducing yet another character to the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU). Now, many people are trying to postulate what exactly this addition means for the MCU, and how this fits in amongst other Marvel origin stories.

If you compare Doctor Strange to its comic book counterpart -- Marvel Comics’ Doctor Strange (1968) #169 -- you’ll notice a few small (and one not-so-small) changes to Stephen Strange’s rise to Sorcerer Supreme. In the comics: Strange was more obviously arrogant.; he certainly didn't learn of Kamar-Taj from a Jonathan Pangborn (Benjamin Bratt), an addition that could potentially carry on into future films; and, greatest of them all, the Ancient One was a Tibetan man, not a blonde woman.

The controversy surrounding the erasure of an Asian character from an Asian-based film has been relentless, and rightly so, considering Marvel’s supposed interest in increasing their diversity. Sure, they’ve replaced Tony Stark with Riri Williams in the new run of Invincible Iron Man, but outright changing the Ancient One because he was “a racist stereotype” instead of simply updating him to fit politically correct standards is an insult to Tibetan audiences. It’s a pretty negligent and risky move that’s isolated many fans.

Aside from this glaring issue, Doctor Strange might be the best Marvel origin story yet.

Well, not the best, but we’ll talk about that in a minute.

Brooke: Doctor Strange is arguably the strongest evidence for the power of the Marvel brand. To think that audiences will flock to the theaters to see an origin story for a character they’ve likely never heard of before (Doctor Strange being one of the niche superheroes in the Marvel canon) is something I wouldn’t have considered before the success of the MCU. It attests to the corporate strength Marvel has built up through consistently solid work. However, this does come at a bit of a price. Marvel has acquired its reliability through an increasingly cookie-cutter formula for its films. Some fans were even beginning to notice this, and wondered if perhaps audiences would eventually tire of the Marvel product. But with its mysticism, rave reviews, and refreshing blend of fantasy and realism, Doctor Strange should postpone that superhero fatigue for much longer.

The Ancient One controversy is an unfortunate stain to an otherwise great film. The filmmakers tried to sidestep the issue by specifying this Ancient One as “Celtic” in the film, but that does not make up for the obvious refusal to cast Asian actors in prominent roles. Also, Christine Palmer was likely one of the weakest Marvel female characters we’ve had yet. In another parallel to Iron Man, Christine is like a second version of Pepper Potts. She lives on the sidelines throughout the entire movie: dropping everything to nurse Steven back to health, despite having an ER to run, she performs an operation on Steven’s body, upon which Steven emerges from the astral realm to explain to her how to perform her own procedure. She has little backstory, agency, or characterization beyond her relationship to Steven, which is disappointing to see, given Marvel’s recent, albeit still insufficient, improvements in portraying women.

1: Why does Doctor Strange matter in the Marvel Universe?

Staci: I think that going beyond just Strange’s own comic run and discussing his place in the larger Marvel Universe is an easier question to answer, considering that all of the superheroes matter! Yes, even Howard the Duck, for those of you disappointed after Guardians of the Galaxy.

Strange has a significant role in a few runs of the comic book series The Illuminati, an intriguing storyline that brings together compelling characters. Within the Illuminati are some of the most intelligent and powerful heroes in Marvel -- Tony Stark, Black Bolt, Namor, Professor X, Reed Richards aka Mister Fantastic, and our new favorite, Doctor Strange. I think that Strange’s mere inclusion in such an elevated group of individuals proves his importance, as they have been forced to make some tough decisions, such as whether or not to destroy parallel worlds.

But you also have to consider the power that Strange holds. Ignoring his “classic” form (where he had virtually every power imaginable), Stephen Strange is a manipulator of energy, time, and space, a sorcerer of magic, and master of all dimensions. His abilities exceed most heroes, placing him at the top of the list when it comes to powers. Combined with his sharp intellect, Strange has come to the aid of nearly all heroes in the comics. So why does he matter? Because he is awesome, and as Erskine said in First Avenger of Steve Rogers: “Not a perfect soldier, but a good man.” What Marvel always wants to prove to us is that you don’t have to have powers to be a superhero; you simply must have admirable values and the willpower to do good works.

Brooke: Doctor Strange is another important example of how a flawed superhero proves to be the most endearing and empathic. His character arc is far from complete in the movie -- at the end of the film, he still retains a bit of his arrogance. The film has left room for him to continue to develop and change as more stories come along, which is essential to the growth of Marvel beyond its usual superhero formula.

Doctor Strange is also evidence that Marvel films can change subject and tone and still produce a quality film. Doctor Strange as a more fantastical, mystic-based storyline as opposed to the more grounded storylines of the rest of the MCU is evidence that Marvel has the talent to take their heroes in new directions.

2: Why does Doctor Strange seem so much like Iron Man?

Staci: You really have to consider what Marvel Comics is as a creative entity: many of the same people developed most of their comics at the same time and by, resulting in similarities between multiple characters. Yes, on the surface, Strange is much like Stark; they’re both highly intellectual wealthy males who are proud of their work, end up in some form of bad situation, and then grow from that situation. But if you really consider the two men, they’re actually very different. Strange was arrogant, but once he loses control of his hands he becomes humbled. He’s able to make conscious decisions that aren’t based on his ego. While Tony Stark did lose everything, he still manages to make headstrong judgments. Strange is essentially what Stark would be if he, well, focused less on himself on more on other people.

Brooke: Tony Stark’s character arc has been about him learning to care about other people more than himself--he started out as a weapons manufacturer, and now he uses his suits to help those around him. Doctor Strange is similar--he comes from a place of wealth, prestige, and power--but his arc has origins in a slightly different place. As a surgeon and medical researcher, he already cares about other people, but he cares about other people for the purpose of his own self-aggrandizement. It’s a bit of a twist on Stark’s narcissism, one that I think is interesting and a nice change from the black-and-white categorization of either “cares about people” or “doesn’t care about people.” But, on the surface, it’s easy to draw parallels between Stark and Strange without recognizing this subtle shift.

3: Where does Doctor Strange fit in amongst other Marvel films? Is it their best origin story to date?

Staci: It’s spectacular because it finally brings the mystical world to a traditionally more realistic, grounded film genre. It provides something that seems new and unique amongst so many biopics, especially releasing now during awards season. So when you think about Doctor Strange as a Marvel film, it’s difficult to locate where it should be, since the film is so fresh and exciting. Through process of elimination and a bit of guess-and-check, I decided that it should be placed above all Marvel origin films but Deadpool, Ant-Man, and Guardians of the Galaxy because many of its components have already been explored through these films; the humor matches Ant-Man’s, and the cinematography is much like Guardians, and, of course, I think we can all agree that nothing was as carefully crafted with love and devotion as Deadpool.

Brooke: Doctor Strange is part of the build-up to the Avengers: Infinity War films, and given the massive, fantastical, planet-trotting scale of those films, Doctor Strange makes an easy introduction into the fantastical side of the Marvel canon for the casual moviegoers who are not as familiar with the comics. It’s an introduction of yet another major player, one who will bring a host of unique side characters and contemplations not previously explored in the MCU. It’s a valuable entry by Marvel Studios, which was beginning to face the prospect of superhero fatigue within its audience.

I’m not sure if it’s their best origin story to date. It’s certainly their most different and novel, but “best” is difficult to define, given the unique context of each film. Is Iron Man the best because it was Marvel’s first attempt at building a long-lasting character and universe? Is Captain America: The First Avenger the best because it excellently captured the essence of the war years? These are likely questions of opinion. The confidence of Marvel and assurance of box office success certainly bolstered this origin story in ways that other origin stories did not experience. But it’s certainly a wonderful origin story, one that every Marvel fan should see and judge for him or herself.

This article was co-written by Brooke DiGia and Staci Bell