Marvel’s ‘Doctor Strange’ – A Hero’s Journey

Benedict Cumberbatch as Doctor Strange

It can be said that the movies of the Marvel Comics Universe (MCU) are heroes’ journeys most simply because they are about superheroes taking a path to overcome challenges to achieve a goal. But, the latest entry in the MCU, Doctor Strange, fits the classical definition of The Hero’s Journey. 

The Hero’s Journey

Introduced by American writer Joseph Campbell in his 1949 The Hero with a Thousand Faces, The Hero’s Journey is described as a common template for many heroic myths, whether those dating back to the Sumerian Epic of Gilgamesh, the Greek legend of Perseus, the Old English poem Beowulf or the much more recent original Star Wars trilogy, they share a roughly similar narrative plot template. Campbell writes,

A hero ventures forth from the world of common day into a region of supernatural wonder: fabulous forces are there encountered and a decisive victory is won: the hero comes back from this mysterious adventure with the power to bestow boons on his fellow man.”

While Campbell ascribes 17 “ stages” or plot points to the template, he allows that not all stages are needed to tell the tale. In the case of Doctor Strange, the script hits an even dozen of these stages.

It is at this point that I must warn that general spoilers follow.

Act One – The Call to Adventure

The story begins as it does in the classic 1963 comic book, with Dr. Steven Strange, a brilliant – and arrogant – neurosurgeon in modern day New York City. And, still following the comic book origin story, his life is irrevocably changed by an auto accident. This unwanted call to adventure sees him refusing to accept that he cannot return to his life as it was. 

In the classical Greek tales, the hero receives guidance from people he encounters as he tries to move forward. With Perseus, it is the gods Athena and Hermes, with Luke Skywalker, it is Obi-Wan Kenobi. With Doctor Strange, his first guide is his physical therapist, who directs him to Jonathan Pangborn, a man seemingly miraculously healed from a devastating spinal injury. It is from Pangborn that Strange learns of the existence of Kamar-Taj a temple complex hidden in Nepal (Tibet in the comic books). Having fully exhausted his wealth in pursuit of a medical solution and desperate to regain full use of his hands, Dr. Strange finally “crosses the threshold” and embarks on his adventure, ending Act One.

Act Two – Allies, Enemies, Conflict and Reward

Act Two opens with Strange in Katmandu searching for Kamar-Taj and faces both a physical test and well as a spiritual one, gaining an ally in Mordo, a disciple of the Ancient One and a sorcerer in his own right. Once accepted as a student, he finds that his tests have just begun as he struggles to understand this completely new mystical world. Strange is challenged by his lack of faith and his own arrogance and impatience. He overcomes these challenges, but is faced with a crossroads – he has achieved skills that could possibly return him to his medical career, but he is pressured to become a mystical protector of the world. His hand is forced when he has to battle an attack by a rogue sorcerer and his followers upon the locations that shield the world from other-dimensional forces.

In Campbell’s premise, this battle (a series of battles in the movie) are the apotheosis, the climax where the hero is forged and reborn having surrendered his old life for the new. Screenwriters Jon Spaihts, Scott Derrickson and C. Robert Cargill split this portion and put the Campbellian “boon” (Dr. Strange’s iconic artifacts, The Eye of Agamotto and Cloak of Levitation) into the middle of the first battle. Campbell uses the term “The Magic Flight” to describe this stage where the hero escapes with his reward, and it is entirely appropriate for the nature of the battles as they progress.

Act Three – A Hero Reborn and a Final Conflict

Act Three of The Hero’s Journey traditionally begins on the “Road Back” and the movie is no exception although it is handled here in a unique manner. Steven Strange has achieved his goals – although not the one he initially set out to do – and has been rewarded. But his quest has changed from being about his medical career and the task at hand is unfinished. A sacrifice has been made and another may be required. True to the Campbellian form, Dr. Strange is sorely tested and is purified by dying and being reborn (spoiler: many times).

Emerging from this final conflict, having saved the world and being resurrected as a true hero – a “Master of Two Worlds” as Campbell puts it, Dr. Strange is a changed man. As the new Sorcerer Supreme, Doctor Strange has returned home bearing magical powers for the benefit of mankind – and this new role is reinforced by the mid-credit “easter egg”, presumably teasing Thor:Ragnarok.

While The Hero’s Journey has been the template of many epic tales of Western literature for millennia, it is how the story is told that makes it resonate. In short, it is the journey itself that is literally (and literarily) important and Marvel has succeeded in telling a fine tale.

Extra reading

A brief summary of the twelve stages of a generic Hero’s Journey can be found here in this excerpt from Christopher Vogler’s book The Writer’s Journey: Mythic Structure for WritersIn it, Vogler provides a screenwriter’s companion to the original book by Joseph Campbell, entitled Hero with a Thousand Faces Campbell was arguably the world’s foremost expert on myth and legend, and it was he who pioneered the idea of the Monomyth, or the notion that at the base of each culture’s experience is a single narrative.  Campbell’s earlier book, The Power of Mythmakes for a fascinating read that will elevate the quality of your own work as a writer.

If you are a writer or screenwriter and want to apply the structure of the Hero’s Journey to your own work, the Vogler book at very least is recommended reading. One might assume that Joseph Campbell’s book would be of equal or greater value; while that’s true, the Vogler book covers Campbell’s work in such detail that you can get a functional working knowledge of Campbell’s paradigm by reading only Vogler’s work. To get a full understanding, of course, you’ll want all of these books.

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