The 14th film in the #MCU, Doctor Strange is sure to be a tremendous success. It introduces fans to a whole new part of the MCU - a mystical, supernatural part, filled with awe and wonder. Even before its North American release, though, international fans - and critics - had plenty of time to form an opinion on the film. One common opinion seems to be that, for all Doctor Strange is a tremendously fun movie, it's just a rebooted Iron Man.
Take Uproxx. The site's review carries a title that says it all:
Do these critical reviews have a point?
How Similar are Tony Stark and Stephen Strange?
Uproxx's review really hinges on one paragraph, in which they paint a broad-brush picture of the hero's journey.
"Tell me if this story rings a bell: We meet a self-involved, extremely wealthy, charming egomaniac whose bottom line is about making more money and acquiring more prestige. When he is struck with life-threatening injuries, he seeks out an advanced and radical treatment to cure himself. During the process, he learns to be a better human being, then learns to be a hero. By the end of the movie, after a lot of training montages, he’s a full-fledged superhero and he doesn’t care who knows it."
It's impossible to deny that the characters aren't similar. As Uproxx observe, both are self-involved, wealthy egomaniacs; but I'd posit that Stephen Strange is a whole lot less charming than Tony Stark. When we meet Tony Stark, he clearly prides himself as being something of a ladies' man; if a woman looks hot, he's interested. In contrast, it's obvious from the get-go that Stephen Strange is only interested in a woman who can keep up with his intellect, and only one woman meets his criteria. Unfortunately, although he and Christine Palmer have history, Christine realized long ago that Strange's self-absorption made it impossible to have a relationship with him.
Uproxx's broad-brush summary also misses one fundamental difference in terms of the character arcs. Tony Stark, crucially, saves himself; his genius leads to the successful creation of the Arc Reactor, which saves his life and enables him to escape the Ten Rings. He can look at the Iron Man armor with pride, seeing it as the fulfilment of his life's work.
In contrast, Stephen Strange doesn't save himself; he is rescued. In order to find peace (not healing), Strange must abandon everything he thought he knew and embrace a whole new reality. Where Tony Stark could easily resume his old life, as CEO of Stark Industries, there's no going back for Stephen Strange; he had to learn a measure of humility, and realize that he'd only seen the world through a keyhole. It's a crucial difference.
The Hero's Journey
Looking at the overall plot structure, you can easily see similarities between Doctor Strange and Iron Man. That's inevitably the case; both tap into Joseph Campbell's appropriately-named 'Hero's Journey'. Let me illustrate the point by comparing the first acts:
- The ordinary world — both films open by establishing the character's ordinary world. Tony Stark is seen as a charming, egocentric billionaire weapons developer; Stephen Strange is seen as a successful, innovative surgeon.
- The call to adventure — the status quo is disrupted. In Tony Stark's case, the disruption comes in the form of the Ten Rings attack; in Stephen Strange's case, it comes in the form of a car crash. It's arguable that Doctor Strange has a much longer 'call to adventure' phase, though, with this section of the plot only ending when Strange learns of the Ancient One.
- Meeting with the mentor — both films have a mentor figure, although Ho Yinsen barely plays that part for Stark. The Ancient One is essentially the traditional mentor figure for Doctor Strange.
- Crossing the threshold — this is the stage at which the hero commits to his new life. Stark's first threshold is his decision to abandon weapons manufacturing, but in a strange way part of his arc isn't really completed until the press conference at the end of Iron Man. In contrast, a single glimpse of the untold possibilities the Ancient One can reveal to him is enough to bring Strange to his knees with the request: "Teach me."
When I break it down like this, it's pretty clear that both Iron Man and Doctor Strange follow the pattern of Campbell's Hero's Journey. As a result, structurally the films do indeed have real similarities. That said, when you dig into the details, everything is different; most notably the relationship with the mentor figure. In Iron Man, Ho Yinsen inspires Tony Stark and then dies; in Doctor Strange, the Ancient One plays a major part in Stephen Strange's unfolding story, and her later death aligns perfectly with the classical Hero's Journey.
The MCU Factor
Ironically, though, I don't think the narrative similarities are the reason people are comparing these two films. Instead, I think the reason is a far more subtle one.
Both Iron Man and Doctor Strange are origin stories that also serve as an introduction. Iron Man introduces us to the very concept of the #MCU, particularly in that glorious end-credits scene. Thirteen superhero movies are built on the foundation of that end-credits scene. Doctor Strange, however, stands alone — and introduces us to magic in the MCU, something we've never seen before. It feels like a fresh start.
This, I think, is why critics are comparing the two films. Both serve the same functional purpose in terms of the wider MCU; both are introductions as well as origins. One introduces us to a world of science, the other to a world of magic. The two are inevitably going to be compared and contrasted.
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As you can see, there are distinct similarities between Doctor Strange and Iron Man. That said, these only exist when you take the most broad-brush approach to the individual characters; the minute you dive into the details, you see that there are real differences between Stephen Strange and Tony Stark. It's true that the film's overall plot structure is similar, but that's really because both Iron Man and Doctor Strange are variations on a theme - they're inspired by the classic Hero's Journey. In my view, the reviewers are actually doing both a films a disservice by comparing them in this way. The movies are different enough that I think each stands quite effectively on its own two feet.
Do you think Doctor Strange is essentially just a rebooted Iron Man, but wackier?
Poll Image: Marvel Studios