The many dimensions of Doctor Strange contain plenty of juicy roles. Unfortunately, Rachel McAdams didn’t get one of them. The Oscar-nominated actress plays Dr. Christine Palmer, a colleague and ex-girlfriend of surgeon Stephen Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch). Like too many superhero girlfriends before her, Christine exists only to help and nurture the main character’s journey from self-centered Dude With Potential to self-actualized Dude Who Saves the Universe. She’s the character who sees the good in him from the beginning, who risks her own life to help him when he’s in trouble, and who cries when he inevitably leaves her to fulfill his noble purpose. McAdams does her best with the role, but it’s a futile task: If one were to rank the movie’s best characters, Christine Palmer would come in significantly below Dr. Strange’s Cloak of Levitation, a partially inanimate object.
This is a problem that has existed since the beginning of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. To inject its CGI-heavy adventures with some romance, the studio hires wonderful actresses — many of them Oscar nominees or winners — and then shunts them to the sidelines. The first was Iron Man’s Pepper Potts, Tony Stark’s put-upon personal assistant played by Gwyneth Paltrow. There’s a lot to like about both this character and Paltrow’s performance, and thankfully, Marvel has given her a bigger role in subsequent Iron Man films. That said, she still exists for the sole purpose of orbiting around Robert Downey Jr.’s character. Ditto for Dr. Jane Foster (Natalie Portman) in the first two Thor films. Even though she’s supposed to be a brilliant astrophysicist, Jane drops everything in her life the second she gets a glimpse of Chris Hemsworth’s hammer-wielding forearms. Inevitably, both Pepper and Jane become glorified damsels in distress so that their Avenger boyfriends can play the hero. And now it’s clearer than ever that they’re expendable to the Marvel universe: Paltrow was left out of Captain America: Civil War, and Portman will not appear in Thor: Ragnarok. (This summer, Portman told the Wall Street Journal that, as far as Marvel movies go, “as far as I know, I’m done.”
To its credit, the studio has done a better job with some of its subsequent superhero girlfriends. Peggy Carter (Hayley Atwell), the love interest in Captain America: The First Avenger, was a strong enough character to star for two seasons in her own spinoff TV series, Agent Carter. More recently, Ant-Man gave us Hope Van Dyne (Evangeline Lilly), who spends the film moving toward her own superhero identity, which will presumably be explored in the sequel Ant-Man and the Wasp.
But Christine Palmer’s character is a step backward. Over the course of the film, she allows Dr. Strange to belittle her accomplishments (he complains that a medical procedure they created together isn’t named after him) and their relationship (in a low moment, he says that they’re “not friends” and were “barely lovers”). She nurses him back to health after his car accident, even though she’s the head of E.R. and almost definitely has better things to do than feed him soup. Later, when he stumbles into the E.R. with a supernatural stab wound, Strange demands that Christine treat him — and then astral-projects outside of his body so that he can explain to her how to do the procedure. (So much for those years of medical school!) Not for a single moment is there evidence that Christine has a life, or a thought, outside of Strange.
This problem isn’t exclusive to Marvel movies (remember any of the Dark Knight girlfriends, if you can), or even superhero movies. But in a cinematic world built on the premise that every character could appear in subsequent films, why waste time with these useless love-interest roles? If you’re going to get an Oscar-nominated actress, make her character worthy of a solo film. Doctor Strange actually does accomplish this with most of its supporting characters. The Ancient One, a mysterious sorcerer played by Tilda Swinton (based on a male character in the comics); her star student Mordo, played by Chiwetel Ejiofor; and warrior-scholar Wong, played by Benedict Wong, are all compelling characters who arrive with intriguing backstories, strong personalities, and many unanswered questions that could provide fodder for subsequent films. McAdams’s character is the glaring exception, as she seems to exist only to be at the receiving end of Strange’s astral mansplaining.
McAdams deserves better, and Marvel can do better. All the studio needs to do is look to the comics for inspiration: Over the years, countless superhero girlfriends have evolved from uninspired love interests into characters worthy of their own fandoms. Take Jane Foster, so forgettable in the films and created by writer Stan Lee in 1962 to bring some romance to Thor’s life. In a 2014 comic, Jane picked up Mjolnir and became the Goddess of Thunder: the first female Thor. Yes, it took 50 years for the comics to get there — but that’s 50 years the films can build on. Christine Palmer too has been a Marvel comics character for decades, making her debut in the 1972 medical-drama series Night Nurse and reappearing as a nurse who treats the X-Men in a 2004 Nightcrawler series. There’s no reason a character who’s been hanging around the Marvel universe for over 40 years should be deprived of her own story in the films.
Hopefully, Doctor Strange marks the last time that a Marvel movie gives one of its highest-billed stars the generic “girl” role. For the most part, the state of women in the Marvel universe is looking up, with more women in hero roles than ever before: The Avengers have added Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen), the Guardians of the Galaxy have Gamora (Zoe Saldana), and the Wasp (Evangeline Lilly) will co-headline the next Ant-Man film. We don’t know much yet about the female characters of Black Panther, except that they’re warriors played by Lupita Nyong’o and The Walking Dead’s Danai Gurira, which seems to bode well. Of course, we still have Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson), an increasingly important and complex character in the Avengers storyline, who is long overdue for her own movie. And in 2019, Captain Marvel (Brie Larson) will become the first Marvel heroine to have her own solo film. Maybe, instead of waiting for Dr. Strange to come back to her, Christine Palmer could team up with one of these women in a future Marvel film. Maybe Jane Foster and Pepper Potts could join her, and they could fight bad guys with their unstoppable combo of business acumen, medical expertise, and astrophysics knowledge. If Marvel Studios can make a movie starring a talking raccoon and a tree, then surely they can find some richer parts for women.
Watch Benedict Cumberbatch talk about the magic in Doctor Strange: