There has been some grumbling about Doctor Strange, the movie, that it isn’t in the same vein of MCU movies. It isn’t as groundbreaking with its plot, and it generally feels a little more vanilla with the underlying plot structure. Nearly every single piece has approached the subject by saying that it is technically beautiful, but. Let’s delve into the but here, (yes, you can enjoy that pun), and deconstruct Doctor Strange.
Oh, and, spoilers. (Obviously).
I would suggest that the best way to look at Doctor Strange is as a fairly by wrote “Heroes Journey” in the vein of Joseph Campbell.
We begin with “how things are”, Strange is an egotistical doctor, high on his own self-value, until something terrible happens. This is the stand-in for his own call to adventure. Instead of it being based upon high minded ideals, we have Strange simply going about attempting to find aid to return to the previous state of affairs.
After hustling through the montage of attempts, we finally reach the proferred supernatural aid from The Ancient One, combined almost immediately with his refusal of the call. The Ancient One then enlists the actual incident of Supernatural Aid, here with Tilda Swinton standing in for the “old wise man or the crone” of Campbell’s version.
The story leans even more heavily into the Heroes journey with the crossing of the first threshold being represented by Strange being literally accepted through the threshold into the magical world that Mordo et al inhabit.
Within the movie, we then move through The Belly of the Whale over the initial periods of his education until the transition to the Initiation through being forced to teleport on his own for the first successful time. This represents the Road of Trials that move through the continued montage of training until after we reach the Eye/Time Gem.
The portions of the Meeting with the Goddess, the Temptation, and the Atonement are a little more abstracted, handled largely through the metaphor of returning to the normal earth, reliving and confronting his past relationship with Palmer, and the confrontation with the alternate version of himself in the form of Kaecillius.
The Rescue from Without is reflected by the Ancient One returning to Strange, telling him that he will have to break the rules, and further gesturing towards the Mastery of Two worlds in a very traditional manner.
The Crossing of the Return Threshold is Strange pushing back into the normal world, turning back time itself to defeat Dormamu and the other threats that have destroyed the world itself. This is further developed through bringing in the allies, and for developing the methodology in which these parties represent differening viewpoints.
It is the Mastery of Two Worlds that, in my opinion, represents one of the deepest and best representations of the monomyth within Doctor Strange. The final conflict is an interesting and earned “conflict” that is more in line with the development of the quasi-sagacious character that Strange is. Further, this final conflict is a compelling representation of the mastery of those two different worlds.
Finally, the Freedom to Live, exemplified through the acceptance of both the rules and the need to bend them at times, we see Strange accept the mantle of his own Sanctum and move forward with his journey from there.
The net result of all of this Doctor Strange cleaving a little too closely to the heroes journey, accepting it as a monomyth without imagining as widely as it could. While still creating a solid story, Marvel has been exemplifying surprisingly experimental and deep interpretations of genre and writing. I suspect that this is, in part, where the general blase interpretations of the Doctor Strange narrative are coming from. Solid fundamentals, but not going as deep or as inventive as it could.