Doctor Strange Is Cool (Except In His Own Movie)
Here's the way movie team-ups usually work. You get to know several characters individually through their own movies. Then, you see a movie featuring a bunch of these characters together. Perhaps not every character gets much time to shine, but their every scene is enhanced by the knowledge and emotional connection you got from watching them in their solo movie.
And then there's Doctor Strange. He showed up in the two Avengers extravaganzas, as well as the last Thor and Spider-Man movies. He plays the very entertaining role of a powerful wizard, a role that's a lot more fun to watch if you ignore his backstory. Specifically, if you ignore that he was an ordinary non-magical New Yorker just a couple years ago, if you picture him as an ancient mystic, which makes all the contrasts with modernity so funny.
For example, in Infinity War, Tony and Peter's relationship confuses him. "What is he, your ward?" he asks, because he's not familiar with modern life and so uses ideas from decades ago. Except, we know that he's just a modern as Tony (very similar to him in character in many ways, actually), and if we think about that, the dynamic falls apart.
Of course, maybe that was just him mocking the duo by comparing them to Batman & Robin (which would be stupid, nowhere as interesting as the way I first interpreted the line), but this continues. When Tony says "Dude, you’re embarrassing me in front of the wizards," that's funny because he finds himself awkwardly outclassed and humbled, and yet, no matter his magic powers, this Stephen Strange was an ordinary guy when Tony was fighting a robot army on a floating city. Strange's sincere statements ("It’s a simple spell but quite unbreakable," "he brought you face-to-face with the Master of the Mystic Arts") all work better from a long-experienced sorcerer. He casually tosses Loki away and transforms Mjolnir, which again feels more appropriate from a thousand-year-old wizard than someone new to the magic world.
I'm not quibbling with the logic here—I'll buy that he learned all he needed from studying those books, and a mental millennium of combat with Dormammu is bound to change a man. I just think all his scenes with other characters work better when you imagine this guy as having been the sorcerer supreme for, say, 250 years. Oh, I know how character development works, and I know these heroes are supposed to come from nothing and then grow into their roles. But if Marvel releases a prequel revealing that Tilda Swinton's Ancient One was Amy Schumer's boss at a New York magazine back in 2011, I don't think that would improve how we see her in the other movies.
Disney revisited Strange's role from his original movie recently in their What If...? series. Here too, curiously enough, they seem to want us to forget what he was really like in his solo film. In What If, the premise is that at the time of the original movie, he loves Rachel McAdams' character so much that if she died, he'd bend the rules of time and the universe and suffer eternally to save her. But the pair really weren't that close in Doctor Strange. They'd dated, I guess, but she wasn't much of a factor in his life anymore.
That episode rewrites the established character relationships, as well as the franchise's rules on time travel. And that's fine, actually. It's the best episode of the series, and you might be able to enjoy it even if you know nothing about any of these Marvel stories beforehand. Plus, the whole appeal of these weirdo spinoffs is you get to tell any kind of story you like without worrying about canon, right?
Maybe that's the lesson here. I don't have any script rewrites—I'm not saying Doctor Strange should start with the guy as an established wizard, and I'm not saying No Way Home should have Spider-Man say, "No offense sir, but I've been a superhero longer than you, I think I know what I'm doing." Maybe we should embrace the inconsistencies and interpret the characters whichever way works best for each story. If characters stayed consistent, Thor would still be bellowing solemnly like in The Dark World, and no one wants that.
Top image: Walt Disney Pictures