Superhero movies of late are ideal material for the study of politics. If we define the discipline as the study of power, then films like Iron Man and Spiderman can become part of the political science curriculum as have Rousseau, Hobbes, and Locke. Doctor Strange meditates on the ambiguities and balancing acts involved in the exercise of power: its attainment, its use and its limitations. Spiderman taught us that with great power comes great responsibility, and Doctor Strange pretty much exercises his according to Uncle Ben’s advice. He uses his abilities, at great risk to himself, to defeat the villain, Dormamu.
So far so good. But I also find an interesting tension between this ethic of sacrifice and the glorification of the hero. In the film, Strange is told to “let go” to learn the magical arts, and is informed by his mentor, the Ancient One, towards the end that all these are “not about him.” But pace the mentor, as a superhero movie, it is precisely about him. As such, the call for humility is undercut by the conventions of the genre, which is all about putting the hero front and center.
This ambiguity, however, should not be taken to mean that the film calls for selflessness (let go and it’s not about you) but actually does not (you’re a great superhero). On the contrary, this ambiguity represents exactly how power should be exercised: that it should be pressed into the service of others. And this balancing act — between being powerful and deploying power for selfless reasons — explains why, for all his amazing abilities, Strange’s hands are made to be irreparably injured. His disability rightfully reminds him that his power is not absolute, that it has limits, and that he himself has limitations.
This concern for limitations explains why Strange serves as a foil to the villain Kaicelius, who in contrast wants to be immortal. In essence, the bad guy represents someone arrogant enough not to accept one’s limits, i.e. one’s mortality and weakness. Strange himself starts out this way, unable to accept that the treatment for his injuries have run their course, and that he would never be able to use his hands again. This inability to accept his limitations leads him to refuse the help, love, and support of Christine Palmer. Of course, being the superhero, he does learn to accept his limits, not to seek immortality, and uses his ability against evil. Strange is horrified to learn the his mentor has long been dipping into the magic of the Dark Dimension.
At the same time, however, Doctor Strange the movie is not simply about a hero learning to accept his limits. In fact, it is also about breaking them. Indeed, one must also realize that Strange’s disavowal of limits — a mark of the villain Kaecilius — is what precisely drives him to seek power and become the superhero that he is. If he hadn’t persisted and gone to Nepal, there would have been no hero. Furthermore, it is also his refusal to be limited by rules — he breaks the law against manipulating time — that enables him to save the world. If he hadn’t done so, the world would have been destroyed.
Even so, he is not wholly to be congratulated on this defiance, and this is why Karl Modo deserts him in the end. You’d have thought that Karl would be thankfully ecstatic. But that he is made to leave and conflict with Strange reminds us that breaking the rules — even if for a good reason — has its costs. And that we, like Karl, should be wary of people who can flout the rules the way Strange does. These reflections on power — its ambiguities, costs, etc. — are fully explored in the X-Men series and in Captain America: Civil War , both of which grapple with the question whether people with power (mutants and superheroes) can be trusted. For all our admiration for Professor X, there should be a corresponding wariness of Magneto. And for every Captain America, there is an Iron Man.