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Dr. Strange Puts Medical Superhero Myth Under The Stethoscope

$80 million opening demonstrates that stereotypes around the profession and its limits are as pernicious as ever. The moviegoing public responds to these tropes for a reason: maybe they recognize the truth behind the special effects?

The latest Marvel superhero to hit the big screen actually has a medical degree — or at least he did before going beyond the limits of science in pursuit of unorthodox treatment.

It’s a classic mad doctor trope, older than Frankenstein. Along the way, Dr. Strange indulges all the arrogance of a world-class surgeon, suffers as his expertise hits a wall and then hunts redemption through mysticism.

And with $80 million in opening weekend box office, that hoary storyline seems to resonate with an awful lot of people out there who want to believe in a certain kind of doctor.

Working miracles of fantasy

From the beginning, Dr. Strange generates spectacular outcomes for his patients. They trust him to cut into nervous tissue, preserve vital function and repair the effects of trauma.

In return, he can effectively write his own career ticket. Even a non-star neurosurgeon can earn $300,000 to $500,000 per year.

That pattern of miraculous intervention doesn’t really change once the character trades his scalpel for a magic amulet. His medical expertise extended a lot of lives. When that power of life and death gets free rein to play out in comic book terms, he saves the world.

It’s not hard to interpret the movie as an over-the-top expression of the omnipotence that quite a few patients have in more mundane physicians. Stan Lee and Steve Ditko found it easy to imagine Dr. Strange having the power to do anything because, in large part, our society already grants doctors the power to do just about anything within reason.

If there’s a cure, a good doctor will find it. Otherwise, the condition is simply beyond the limits of modern medical science and we have to admit defeat. Within those extremes, there’s really no room for bad days — the spiraling cost of malpractice insurance shows that the public simply finds it extremely difficult to see that a physician can make honest mistakes.

The illusion of omnipotence is seductive and arguably at least a little corrosive. With a lot of doctors, it goes to the head, feeding the god complex that distorts Dr. Strange’s pre-superhero career. He wasn’t an especially nice guy. He bought his own hype.

Patients and their families appreciate medical expertise but resent the ego that often goes with it. They look for moral confirmation of their feelings in popular entertainment, making the bullheaded doctor a stock character in endless soap operas and procedural dramas.

Physician, heal thyself

And when the patterns of drama take the arrogant down, a lot of people cheer. That’s how a lot of people feel about doctors and why the shift from hubris to humiliation is hardwired into the Dr. Strange saga.

Strange hits the limits of his own mortality. When he gets hurt, he’s just another patient, someone who needs more help than he can personally provide.

His own condition defeats modern surgical technique. It’s inoperable. People who’ve heard a doctor give them bad news feel a secret thrill when the pathology swings the other way.

The revelation that a gifted neurosurgeon is just another human being is dramatically satisfying for these people — evidently millions of them in the last few days — because it confirms the combination of suspicion and resentment that the profession inspires.

I know every doctor worked incredibly hard to get to where he or she is. From inside the profession, choosing medicine is all too often a thankless way to spend your life. The money and prestige barely cover the psychic and financial cost.

But from outside, healthcare is a miserable system stacked against the potential patient, arguably more stress-producing in its complications as the majority of simple physical complaints. The cost and complexities of making sure a cure is available when you get sick are truly often worse than the disease.

I’ve seen medical technicians with great benefits cut back on insulin because they can’t pay the going deductible on a full monthly dose. It’s that bad out there.

Since doctors are the primary point of contact most people have with that system, a lot of pent-up frustration with the system feeds back onto perceptions of the profession.

Add it all up, and while it’s a little simplistic to say so many people love to hate Dr. Strange because he’s a doctor who needed taken down a few pegs, that dynamic is central to the character.

An “alternative” to medicine

Either way, once the arrogant star surgeon hits the skids, the Hollywood story structure practically requires him to make a show of humility in order to win forgiveness from the audience.

Dr. Strange achieves this by giving up all his hard-won credentials and expertise in order to start his life again at the bottom.

For a change, people explain things to him instead of the other way around. He makes mistakes. He discovers that he still has things to learn.

It’s compelling wish fulfillment for people who feel powerless in the tug-of-war between their own bodies and medical intervention. They love to watch a doctor exposed as fallible and human too.

Strange’s story forces him to accept forces that transcend his medical training, “more things in heaven and earth” than school equipped him to understand.

Like a lot of suffering people pushed to the edge of modern medical science, he searches the world for a miraculous remission, a statistical jackpot, any fringe treatment that can succeed where conventional therapies fail.

Because it’s a superhero movie, he finds it. Magic gives him his hands back. Mastering magic — from a new moral position of humility and altruism — lets him save the world.

As far as I know, the character never needs to pick up a scalpel again. His old medical training gets absorbed into the new world of cosmic threats and responses.

It’s the same dream of mysticism as higher-level medicine that drives endless alternative theories and therapies in the here and now. Whether it’s snake oil, the placebo effect or simple wishful thinking, people have always looked for comfort and healing wherever the science breaks down.

Of course this is wish fulfillment for the doctors in the audience, too. Dr. Strange isn’t bound by the laws of science or the regulations on the profession. He can save the world.

And he does it through radical innovation. He breaks the rules, making it up as he goes.

Because it’s a superhero movie, it works. Try that stuff in a hospital environment, and there would be serious career repercussions.

Dr. Strange Puts Medical Superhero Myth Under The Stethoscope - overview

Summary: $80 million opening demonstrates that stereotypes around the profession and its limits are as pernicious as ever. The moviegoing public responds to these tropes for a reason: maybe they recognize the truth behind the special effects?

The latest Marvel superhero to hit the big screen actually has a medical degree -- or at least he did before going beyond the limits of science in pursuit of unorthodox treatment.

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Scott Martin
Scott Martin

Senior Editor | Scott is occasionally considered “the greatest secret in the wealth management business,” having tracked developments since 2001 for publications like Research, Buyside and Institutional Investor. An advocate for the trust industry, he has testified to the Nevada Senate Committee on Commerce, Labor and Energy on issues of national competition.