Doctor Strange hit theaters just a few days ago, catapulting fans deep into the weird far reaches of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. It’s brand-new territory for the long-running series; where superheroes like Iron Man and Thor already have fantastical abilities, they’re grounded in a reality that Strange and his mystical cohort can bend and even break at will. The walls between entire dimensions can come down when Strange is in the room, making him easily one of the most powerful beings Marvel has shown us on-screen.
That power raises the stakes for what to expect from Marvel’s outings going forward, especially as its heroes barrel toward Avengers: Infinity War. But with that comes an even hazier sense of what it means to be a hero in this universe. Marvel’s superheroes have gotten more and more morally compromised, and Strange is the most compromised yet. Watched in a certain light, Doctor Strange might actually be the closest Marvel has come to making a supervillain-centric movie.
Doctor Stephen Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) certainly believes he’s on the side of the angels. He wields black magic for the greater good of Earth, and defends his corner of the multiverse from extra-dimensional threats. He’s brilliant but flawed, and his debut film centers on how he learns to use his gifts for the good of humanity, not just for himself. But he’s also arrogant, dismissive of authority, and fully willing to use power he doesn’t understand. This is crucial: he has no problem using an Infinity Stone to alter the flow of time and achieve his goals, regardless of the outcome. In essence, he’s the MCU’s Tony Stark, but with phenomenal cosmic powers. That doesn’t make him evil, but it certainly makes him incredibly dangerous.
Doctor Strange, intentionally or not, complicates the question of what “doing good” even means in the MCU. In the film, the audience learns early on from characters like the Ancient One (Tilda Swinton), Wong (Benedict Wong), and Karl Mordo (Chiwetel Ejiofor) that sorcerers draw power from other dimensions to keep Earth safe. We also learn that there can be dire consequences to drawing on that power, and that some forms of magic are dangerous and corruptive. But later, when it’s revealed that the Ancient One prolongs her life with the same dark magic used by the movie’s villain, Kaecilius (Mads Mikkelsen), Mordo denounces her as a fraud. Her willingness to jettison her own strict rules on the mystic arts would force anyone to question whether those rules are actually necessary. The Ancient One may act selflessly in order to help others, but it’s easy to see the hypocrisy in her actions, and how they can be a slippery slope toward real evil.
With all this in mind, Mordo, one of Doctor Strange’s archenemies in the comics, becomes a plausible hero. He makes it clear why, from one well-established perspective, Strange has already gone bad. Mordo understands that achieving great power takes patience and discipline. Strange, in his arrogance, disregards his teachers and learns magic he doesn’t fully comprehend. Mordo understands that using mystical objects like the Eye of Agamotto can have catastrophic consequences. Strange uses it anyway, without even bothering to read the warnings. Strange could easily be seen as a wayward and prideful student just waiting to fall from grace. Mordo is rigid and dogmatic, but he has the training, discipline, and experience that Strange lacks. Is Strange, as a grasping neophyte sorcerer, in any position to question the rules that were expressly established to keep the multiverse safe? Compared to his recklessness, Mordo’s steadfastness seems like a virtue. Like Strange, Mordo thinks he’s on the side of the angels — and it’s easy to justify that perspective.
For people with power over the mechanics of reality itself, it’s far too easy to screw up in profoundly damaging ways. It would be one thing if the film fully embraced the danger inherent to that problem, acknowledging the weighty responsibility that comes with mystical power, and exploring how difficult it would be for anyone to follow the rules. Strange as an anti-hero would be challenging and enrich the film overall. Instead, it hand-waves it away by having The Ancient One insist that Stephen Strange is fundamentally good. It’s just not that simple. Comics history is littered with villains like Magneto, Doctor Doom, Ra’s al Ghul, and Ozymandias who are so utterly convinced of their own goodness that they can’t see the horrific impact of their actions.
And we’ve seen plenty of this murky morality in the MCU before. In Avengers: Age of Ultron, Tony Stark experimented on an Infinity Stone, whose power he couldn’t hope to understand, in hopes of keeping the world safe from otherworldly threats. (Sound familiar?) That resulted in Ultron, who nearly destroyed the planet. In that film’s aftermath, Stark and Captain America go head-to-head in Captain America: Civil War over whether they have the right to ignore governmental authority and oversight in the name of saving lives. Their conflict crippled friends and ended the Avengers. After 14 movies, the Marvel Cinematic Universe is actively questioning the rightness of superheroics. Doctor Strange raises the stakes by putting the entire multiverse in harm’s way, but it still questions whether those raised stakes justify Strange’s cavalier attitude.
Doctor Strange’s purpose in the Marvel Cinematic Universe is to expand our expectations of superheroes. He opens the door to the weird in a way that will likely be crucial to how these characters fight Thanos at the end of this series. But on their way to taking on that threat, Marvel superheroes are being dragged further into moral gray areas. In the past, it was easy to see the virtue in even Marvel’s more flawed superheroes, like Iron Man, or to understand how their imperfections came from high ideals, as with Captain America. With Doctor Strange, it’s all too simple to squint and see outright evil in his actions, and see a more principled enemy like Mordo as the good guy. That’s unprecedented, it and could color everything Marvel has planned for the future.