So Doctor Strange is a trippy film to say the least, boasting exploration of different dimensions and a general questioning of reality. It’s an intriguing new approach to an MCU film and raises existential questions regarding careers, relationships and death. It goes beyond the usual “who am I? Why am I here?” and into the realm of “what can I do with myself now? Who can I trust in this world?” when Stephen Strange, a man who’s so good at his job he can get away with being an arrogant asshole about it, can no longer pursue his occupation as a neurosurgeon when his hands are severely damaged in a car accident. From this point onward, we see him having to completely change his perception of reality in order to continue his life in the direction he wants it to go in – and in the process ends up pursuing his newfound skill in the mystic arts instead. As you do.
What this sudden change in path teaches us is how ridiculously weird life can be. The logic of neurosurgery could not be any more different to the craft of magic, yet Stephen somehow finds he has a talent for both. He doesn’t exactly have an easy ride, though, and needs support from a variety of characters around him in order to push him through the difficult aspects of his journey so he can can progress to the level of skill he reaches at the end of the film – and even then, he’s not the most fantastic sorcerer out there. He learns a lot of existential lessons about himself, and those around him, too. So how could all this psychedelic mayhem apply to your own existential crisis?
Another Brick in the Wall
If there’s anyone that’s a walking definition of the title ‘privileged white male’, it’s Stephen Strange. He’s mastered the art of neurosurgery with the help of a photographic memory, made an insane amount of money from his job, and drives a Lamborghini Huracán, which he drives off a cliff. Not on purpose, but still… What a dick.
Okay, so maybe that’s a bit harsh, but the way he treats the people around him probably does classify him as a dick. This guy is so comfortable in his own skin that he’s confident enough to be extremely rude to people because he knows that they can’t afford to lose him since he’s so good at his job. Sound like someone we know?
Being a smug bastard isn’t the only thing Stephen and Tony Stark have in common. Comparisons between the characters have been made, and there’s no doubt that the two men do have similar origin stories: they’re both sexy geniuses, who then find themselves seriously injured, and as a result of that go on a journey of self discovery and become superheroes. Cool. But the thing is, Stephen has to go through the psychological distress of not being able to go back to his old life, whereas Tony doesn’t quite experience that in the first Iron Man – so, Stephen has to find a new calling later in life than society would expect someone too, and we can see that become overwhelmingly draining for him.
Seeing this struggle is important for the film’s audience, because it reminds us that life isn’t a smooth, freshly laid out road that we can follow with ease, travelling from birth, education, career, marriage, and children without many mishaps. It’s more like a really old crappy road filled with a load of potholes that really piss us off. For Stephen, so far career-wise he’s had a clear-cut path on what to do. He then has the car accident, and he’s completely lost. The one thing that appears to be the best aspect of his existence he can no longer pursue – so what the hell is he supposed to do now?
When Stephen discovers the mystic arts, he’s not impressed. It defies all logic that he follows, leading him to rejecting its existence – that is until he sees things from a new perspective. What sorcery does is allow him to develop new traits (such as open-mindedness to new realities) and build upon preexisting traits (like his determination to study a subject to the best of his ability). Now, this is a very optimistic outlook on life, because Stephen is extremely lucky to find himself to be very skilled in two very complex topics, but it still sends us a valuable message.
You might end up with life-changing injuries from an accident, or be diagnosed with a terminal illness, or develop mental health problems that then lead you to no longer be able to access something that gave your life purpose, but that does not mean that it’s the end of the world. It really feels like that, yeah, but there is more to life beyond that point, because a lifetime is a really long time. That might seem more like a curse than a blessing, but it’s actually the opposite way around; it means you have many more occasions to give your existence a new kind of meaning, which is why – after a long rest period and a good bit of self-care – there is still a reason to get up in the morning.
Wish You Were Here
You can’t really get through tough times without some support, and Stephen’s no exception to that rule. At various points throughout the film different characters are there to give him words of wisdom that are unique to them and the situation at that point. If we’re to divide this into certain sections, there’s the advice Stephen receives when he’s in the real world, the advice he receives when he’s in Kamar-Taj, and the advice he receives that’s associated with alternate dimensions.
Regarding real world wisdom, Dr. Christine Palmer (Rachel McAdams) is the main voice there. In the beginning, she’s the one letting Stephen know he needs to be a better person; when Stephen has his accident, she’s the one telling him to get up and take care of himself when he’s fixated on repairing his hands; when he returns from Kathmandu, Christine is the aspect of his old life that he now perceives as the most important, which arguably keeps him grounded to his initial reality. Despite their tumultuous relationship and the long period they’re separated for, Christine remains a crucial part of Stephen’s story, because she offers that comfortable familiarity to him – which is what we humans need to stay sane.
When Stephen reaches Kamar-Taj, Mordo (Chiwetel Ejiofor) acknowledges his potential to learn from the mystic arts and convinces The Ancient One (Tilda Swinton) to let him stay. He can see that Stephen has, in his own way, noted his mistake in assuming that he already knows everything due to his medical training, and after being shown a new reality is determined to discover more about the world. Mordo knows Stephen is alone in Kathmandu and wants to offer him a helping hand during a difficult period. He makes the effort not to pass a harsh judgement on Stephen despite him being disrespectful to the mystic arts. This is an attitude we could all familiarise ourselves with and put into action in our own lives, because without these kinds of people we probably wouldn’t ever be enabled a fresh start.
Stephen’s first experiences with alternative realities come from the hands of The Ancient One; she gives him the slap round the face he needs in order to get his head out of his own ass and stop being so narrow-minded. Without her pushing him to his limits, he wouldn’t have unearthed his ability to master sorcery – it was when she stranded him in sub-zero temperatures on Mount Everest that he finally gathered the capacity to teleport himself out of there. This was a drastic scenario to place him in, yes, but without it Doctor Strange would’ve been a much shorter, and much more disappointing film. That’s why, amongst the very gentle, very kind support we receive from people, we need someone else to give us a kick up the backside and help us find another way of doing things.
Having these individuals to lend Stephen a hand at separate points highlights to the audience that when you’re having a tough time, you can’t just unload all of your problems on one person – it becomes destructive to you, because you become too dependent on them, and it’s destructive to them, like it is to Christine after Stephen lashes out at her when she tries to support him. It’s essential to have a group around you to address your complex needs to benefit yourself and to prevent a singular person from becoming a punching bag for your issues.
The Great Gig in the Sky
Death actually plays a major part of Doctor Strange, particularly so focusing on The Ancient One’s story and the truth behind her immortality. We discover that she actually draws power from the Dark Dimension in order to maintain her life, which raises some red flags about the concept of immortality: firstly, the fact that in order to be immortal she took something from a place called the Dark Dimension (the name itself just gives off bad vibes), and secondly, if you’re avoiding the inevitable, then you’re just adding to your troubles.
Eventually, The Ancient One does die, and she doesn’t try to fight it – she accepts that what she did to achieve immortality was wrong. So, she dies. That’s it. She doesn’t make a fuss, she doesn’t try to gain more power to continue living. She knew that eventually, she was going to face consequences for her actions, and she accepted responsibility for them. The scene itself was a relaxing one, and demonstrated how in the grand scheme of things, her death was actually good thing.
We don’t know for absolute certain what will happen after we die, but we do know that we are definitely going to die. The Ancient One’s avoidance of death only ended up having negative consequences that not only affected her, but also the others around her. Because she didn’t play by the rules and remain mortal like everyone else, the very structure of the mystic arts community began to crumble.
I’m not going to deny that absolutely nothing positive came from The Ancient One’s immortality; without her, Stephen wouldn’t have reached his full potential as a sorcerer and Kamar-Taj wouldn’t have been as successful in helping people as it was. But because she was lying about such a major aspect of her existence, her legacy became twisted and caused more harm than good – particularly so in Mordo’s eyes. In the end, she had to face the ramifications for her misdemeanours.
This is a valuable lesson for us all – at some point in our lives, whether that be in the present or far into the future, we will have to understand that repercussions for negative actions are inevitable. It’s probably not going to be something as drastic as death (though if it is, what on earth did you do?), however it’s not going to be nice. That sucks, yeah, but shit happens.
Beyond trippy visual effects and the bearded face of Benedict Cumberbatch, Doctor Strange can teach us many lessons on how to cope with hard times in our lives. Whether it be through trying to move on from a troublesome event, looking for the right support from friends, or assuming responsibility for our own poor decisions, there’s a lot we can learn from this quirky new addition to the MCU.