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Strange Things We Ignore About Stephen Strange & Christine Palmer's Relationship

The relationship between Stephen Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) and Christine Palmer (Rachel McAdams) from the "Doctor Strange" movies is something of an anomaly in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. In many ways, it feels like one of the most complex romances in any of the Marvel films.

When the first movie begins, the pair are colleagues who were a couple. Strange is still enamored with Palmer when the film begins, even if there seems to be little hope for the pairing, a reality that makes their still-evolving relationship more complicated — and, well, strange — than others in the MCU. Then, in the "What if..." animated series, a tragic tale is explored, one that imagines a Strange whose love for Palmer tears his reality apart — and may or may not eventually factor into the multiverse.

As comic book fans know, the pair's continued entanglement (Rachel McAdams as Palmer can be seen in trailers for "Dr. Strange in the Multiverse of Madness") is head-scratching because the characters had nothing to do with each other in the comics. Palmer is one of three protagonists in the "Night Nurse" comics, while Strange is too busy being Sorcerer Supreme in his own books to pay her much attention. While their shared medical backgrounds may have been enough to bring them together in the MCU, it's just another reason why their relationship in the franchise is unconventional. Diving deeper, here are some additional strange things we ignore about Strange and Palmer.

They're so different

When we initially meet Strange in the first "Doctor Strange" film, he is cocky beyond belief. Sure, he's an accomplished neurosurgeon with an impeccable track record of successful surgeries, so he can back it up. But his devil-may-care attitude in the operating room reaches the point of extreme hubris; as he works on one vulnerable patient, his colleagues quiz him on music trivia, potentially taking his attention away from work. It's a way for Strange to show off just how exceptional his surgical skills are.

Yet, while Strange may have good reason to trust his abilities as a surgeon, a wise person wouldn't let success go to their heads to such a degree. Palmer, by comparison, is compassionate and humble, not self-important and egotistical. 

The pair may have already broken up when we meet them in "Doctor Strange," but since he focuses primarily on himself and she focuses primarily on the well-being of others, it's a head-scratcher that they ever got together in the first place. Even though Palmer's deep well of empathy might have been attractive to Strange, and she might have been intrigued by his surface charms, it seems Palmer, in particular, would quickly get frustrated with Strange's arrogance.

They have opposite priorities

Given how different Strange and Palmer's personalities are, it's no surprise they have very different priorities as well. Sure, they're both doctors and have saved lives, but they've nevertheless used their careers to pursue competing agendas. This is demonstrated by Palmer's chosen career path in the emergency room, assisting anyone who comes in, a mission that Strange dismisses as helping "one drunk idiot with a gun."

Meanwhile, Strange sees himself as the luxury car equivalent of physicians, performing the most complicated, cutting-edge surgeries on those with the clout and finances to afford his attention. As we see when he's talking with his assistant on the way to a speaking engagement, he turns away any patient whose surgery would be too easy, or who might ruin his perfect record because they're too sick to operate on successfully. Although he argues that the discoveries he makes through his work could save thousands of lives, the only reason he pursues those discoveries is because they would increase his fame and accolades. 

These are concerns that never cross Palmer's mind, as she's doing her best to bring as much good to as many people as she can without concern for recognition. Taking all this into consideration, it's hard to even understand how this pair could maintain a cordial relationship following their breakup.

He's judgmental, she's more diplomatic

Early in the first "Doctor Strange" movie, Palmer seeks Strange out for a second opinion. A fellow physician, Dr. West (Michael Stuhlberg), has decided her patient is a lost cause — perhaps not an entirely unreasonable call given the man has a bullet lodged in his brain — but Palmer doesn't agree. Strange quickly realizes she's right and performs a life-saving surgery. As he's operating, he takes the opportunity to publicly disparage West for making the wrong call, an action he claims was justified when Palmer calls him on his judgmental behavior afterwards.

Even though Palmer frequently shows her preference for giving people the benefit of the doubt, when she defends West, Strange is so convinced of his colleague's inferiority that he asks Palmer if she's sleeping with him. He can't seem to understand why she would defend West unless there was something more to it than professional courtesy.

Strange often demonstrates this judgmental streak. Even after a car accident badly damages his hands, he claims he could have done a better job than the doctors who fixed him up. Meanwhile, Palmer much more diplomatically says no one could have done better. Palmer's ability to see the good in everyone is probably at least part of the reason she and Strange got together in the first place, but Strange's inability to do the same would likely be a constant point of tension between them. 

She takes care of him after his accident

One of the strangest things about Strange and Palmer's relationship is the fact that, even though they're no longer together romantically, she goes out of her way to take care of Strange during his lengthy recovery. It seems that Palmer stepped up because there was no one else; we don't see anyone outside of her, Strange's surgical team, and his physical therapist interacting with the fallen man. Although Palmer has a time-consuming, exhausting job as a doctor already, her choice to spend her free moments helping Strange shave and running errands for him while he searches for someone who can fix his hands seems above and beyond what anyone would expect from an ex, even an ex who has become a friend.

Early in the film, it is established that Strange still holds a torch for Palmer, however the feeling doesn't appear to be mutual, so it seems that she decides to help him out of the goodness of her heart. Still, no matter how selfless she is, Palmer's willingness to take on so much of Strange's care from the earliest moments of his accident, to the point where she's there when he wakes up, is pretty odd.

He lashes out at her

While it's odd that Palmer helps Strange following his car accident, it's less odd that Strange accepts her help. After all, if he doesn't have any other friends or family willing to lend a hand and he's still in love with her, Palmer's constant presence would be the only thing easing his grief over his injured hands and the inherent career implications. 

Still, after months without finding a physician who can properly address the extensive damage, Strange snaps at Palmer. His despair and frustration are understandable, but Strange makes it personal, claiming Palmer doesn't bring any meaning to his life and ridiculing how much she cares about people. He's horrible to her — and when he refuses to apologize, she cuts off contact with him.

Their interaction demonstrates just how awful Strange can be when things aren't going his way. When things are good, he can be brash, charming, and even friendly, yet depending on how long he and Palmer were a couple it seems possible that he may have lashed out at her other times when he was suffering from professional stress. The movie seems to want viewers to believe that the characters still have potential as a couple, even though this aspect of their dynamic seems concerning.

He lets her operate on him without scrubbing in

Both Strange and Palmer are proficient doctors, seen successfully performing surgery during "Doctor Strange." So, when Strange is badly hurt during a battle with the villainous sorcerer Kaecilius (Mads Mikkelsen) and his zealots and magically portals into the hospital, it makes sense that he would want Palmer, someone he trusts to do a good job, to operate on him.

The surgery itself, however, makes a lot less sense. It's weird enough that Palmer agrees to operate on Strange without the assistance of other doctors or nurses, but even more bizarre that she does so without scrubbing in first. If there's one thing we've learned from TV and movies, it's that before any member of a medical team assists with a surgery, they need to vigorously wash their hands, so the operating room stays as germ-free as possible. 

In this case, Strange needs help quickly and Palmer's driving a ginormous syringe into his chest, not cutting him open; still, under any other circumstances Palmer would insist on taking the precaution of washing her hands first. Given Strange's background as a surgeon and his desire to save his own life, it seems like he would also be pro-scrubbing. 

The fact is, if Rachel McAdams spent a minute of screentime washing her hands and singing the Birthday Song to herself, that would ruin the momentum of the scene. Nonetheless, watching that scene — particularly after endless months of COVID precautions — is enough to bring out the germaphobe in anyone.

He asks her to do something that could get her in trouble

There are many reasons why Strange asking for Palmer (and only Palmer) to perform emergency surgery on him is selfish. When he shows up at the hospital in a bizarre costume with a stab wound — something his former medical colleagues would have questions about — he's likely convinced that she will do what needs to be done to save him, and that he can evade her follow-up questions. But at this point, he's no longer a physician — and by making such demands, he risks making her lose her job as well.

Palmer may be the only one Strange feels comfortable revealing his newfound magical abilities to, making it possible for him to appear to Palmer in his astral body after he loses consciousness. This enables him to tell her what to do, including instructing her to shock him with a defibrillator when he's fighting one a Kaecilius zealot in the astral plane.

Although his request might make sense if his heart wasn't beating, Palmer just shocked him and restarted his heart. Shocking him a second time with the higher voltage Strange demands might ensure he wins his fight on the astral plane, but it could have a fatal impact on his physical body. 

This is just one of several reasons that, if anything went wrong, Strange could have ended up dead and Palmer could have been left holding the bag. Both of them should know Strange's request has the potential to become a professional problem for Palmer, making it odd that he asks her to do it and that such a normally by-the-book surgeon complies.

He looks to her for comfort but isn't sympathetic to her

One of the many reasons Strange doesn't protest when Palmer steps in to help him after his car accident is that her presence is comforting to him at a time when he needs that. Palmer is sympathetic to what he's going through and supports him as he attempts to find a fix for the nerve damage in his hands. Whether it's another surgery or a call with a faraway surgeon, Palmer is always there to oversee Strange's care and offer a compassionate ear.

However, it doesn't appear that the reverse is true. Early in the film, Strange invites Palmer to a dinner where he's speaking, and when she balks at the idea, he claims that she used to have fun at his speaking engagements. She corrects him — he had fun because his speaking engagements were all about celebrating him, she was just along for the ride. This indicates that Strange never really figured out what makes Palmer happy. 

Even after they've broken up, he's still too selfish to realize that if he wants to get back together with her some things would have to change. It's yet another aspect of their relationship that indicates they could never last as a couple, even if their flirtatious banter occasionally masks that reality.

Strange sees her as a supporting player in his story

Palmer may fulfill the role of love interest in "Doctor Strange," but she's nonetheless still very much a supporting character. Her screen time is minimal and she's relegated to the hospital that represents Strange's past. She knows nothing about the magical Kamar-Taj where Strange trains to become a sorcerer, or the Sanctum Sanctorum in New York where he resides once he becomes Sorcerer Supreme. While her constant presence in the early part of the movie and Strange's reliance on her later when both he and the Ancient One need medical help suggest there may still be the potential to rekindle the romance between them, that's only because the movie is told from Strange's perspective.

Strange would still be open to getting back together with Palmer, but it seems unlikely that Palmer feels the same way. That's because Strange sees Palmer as a supporting player in his story, not a co-star, and Palmer knows it. As she tells him early in the film, "everything is about you." While Strange doesn't realize it, and consequently viewers largely overlook it, Strange tends to only seek Palmer out if he needs her or wants her there to support him. This not only makes for a lopsided relationship, but also a potentially unhealthy one if they ever did get back together, one where Palmer would never come first. When you consider such things, it makes it even weirder that the Doctor Strange" films make us want these two to be together.

At the end of the movie, he never returns to tell her what's going on

After Strange leaves New York and becomes a Master of the Mystic Arts, he sees Palmer twice more, but only because he needs a doctor. Otherwise, he seems likely to have ghosted the woman who helped mend him back to health. 

When he does appear to her, he shows her both his astral body and the portal from the Sanctum Sanctorum he used to get to the hospital. Given all that, and the fact that the Ancient One (Tilda Swinton) dies on her operating table later that same day, it can't be lost on Palmer that Strange is part of a strange mystical battle of some kind. Consequently, he at least owes her an explanation when he has a free moment.

Yet, strangely, the movie never indicates he even considers doing this. Instead, his choice to become Sorcerer Supreme suggests he's put the magical fate of the world over the possibility of a romance with Palmer. However, given everything that's happened between them, a relationship with Palmer was unlikely anyway. This makes Strange's choice a lot less selfless, and his decision to only reveal the magic he's discovered to her when it's convenient for him is a lot more puzzling. Even though "Doctor Strange" positions Palmer as Strange's love interest, in the end, their behavior subvert that possibility, and his choice not to fill her in on his new life indicates they're not — and maybe never were — even friends.