Like many a comic fan I was counting the days to opening night and excitedly saw Dr. Strange on Thursday! My intrigue couldn’t have been higher for a film that a) opened the door to the mystical in the MCU and b) was based on a character I only ever read when he’d guest-star in a comic I already liked. THEN I went to see it again this afternoon. I had to! I couldn’t get it out of my head! The movie I found was so much better than I was prepared for. So here are my SPOILER-FREE thoughts on why I found the themes in Dr. Strange to be so captivating!
Before I go any further, a word about the visual feel of them film. The mind-bending images of warped, moving scenery from the trailers only get crazier in the actual movie! Visually it was as if Hogwarts’ moving staircases and the dreamscape from Inception had a baby…and that child grew up thinking its parents were way too conservative. Then it decided to rebel by pushing the visual boundaries of what it means to be trippy and far out. The visual effects gurus behind Dr. Strange deserve all the praise they’re getting. I didn’t see the movie in 3D (in fact, I doubt I could handle it; I’d get sick) but for those of you who love the medium I’d suggest, like Gravity before it, this film is well worth the more expensive ticket. As vivid and unforgettable an impression as all of that left, there is so much more to Dr. Strange than just mind-blowing visuals.
Dr. Strange is the story of Stephen Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch), an exceptionally talented and exceedingly arrogant neurosurgeon who is injured in a car accident. The resulting nerve damage is so severe it causes Strange to lose a large degree of mobility in his hands. As his world crumbles, he seeks any potential cure, no matter how obscure or experimental it may be. Again and again he’s met with failure and his desperation leads him to the Karma-taj monastery in Nepal’s capital, Kathmandu. There he meets the Ancient One (Tilda Swinton) who opens his eyes to the reality of a universe far larger than he ever imagined. Devoting himself to his training with instructors Mordo (Chiwetel Ejiofor) and Wong (Benedict Wong), Strange seeks the ability to heal his hands and reclaim his life. But his peaceful expansion of mind and spirit is halted as the Ancient One’s former pupil Kaecilius (Mads Mikkelsen) begins a crusade leading a band of dark wizards to conquer death and achieve immortality.
Like all entries into the Marvel Cinematic Universe before it, the film is visually rich, entertaining, fun, and fast-paced. Traditionally a cinematic hero’s origin story can be entertaining (Spider-Man, Batman Begins, X-Men, etc) but it’s the sequel that takes fans where they’ve never been before (Spider-Man 2, The Dark Knight, X-2: X-Men United, etc.). But time and again the MCU creates AMAZING origin stories that hit the ground running, never feeling like stage-setting. Dr. Strange joins that very illustrious list including the likes of Iron Man, Thor, Captain America: The First Avenger, Guardians of the Galaxy, and Ant-Man. However Dr. Strange runs far deeper than the Marvel movies preceding it, asking direct (and important!) questions of philosophy, ontology, and reality.
As it explores the mystical realm, this is the most overtly religious/spiritual of all the MCU films so far. Dr. Strange doesn’t explore any one religion specifically of course but, in presenting the mystical world of the Sorcerer Supreme and the true nature of the cosmos, it touches on themes that are central to all the world’s enduring religions. It begins with Modernity’s manufactured problem of science being at odds with religion.
We live in a world where we sometimes see “science” and “religion” as being an either/or decision. Science and religion shouldn’t be at odds!! They should be complimentary disciplines!! I am fortunate enough to see this first hand every day by teaching in a school where the Science and Theology departments are best friends. For real! We hang out together all the time. It’s only natural. If you love God then you should love (and want to know as much as you can) about what God’s created. And if you’re fascinated by creation, you should naturally want to understand all you can about the Creator. But, as a culture, we struggle with this.
Stephen Strange comes to Karma-taj personifying this false-divide. Upon entering the monastery he is warned by Mordo not to be “disrespectful” and to “forget everything you think you know.” Of course he can’t. He can’t even recognize the Ancient One because of his preconceived notions. Yet, in a brilliant depiction of spiritual leadership, she comes to him first in service, taking his coat and offering him tea. Her very first words to her soon-to-be-student are, “You’re very welcome.” This is what spiritual wisdom looks like – gracious service to others.
I want to take a moment to say that Tilda Swinton is mesmerizing as the Ancient One! She’s an ethereal vision of strength, wisdom, and grace. I know there was some grouchy internet rumbling over her casting as, in the comics, the Ancient One was an old Tibetan man. But, as one of the film’s screenwriters C. Robert Cargill points out, the Ancient One was “a racist stereotype” to begin with. Yes, some comic fans would be upset by changing the character’s race but the other option was embracing an offensive idea that, while par for the course in the early 60’s, (thankfully!) doesn’t fit in 2016. They made the right call. Watching the film it was a non-issue. I can’t imagine anyone having done a better job in the role. I couldn’t have been more captivated by Tilda Swinton’s performance! She was one of my absolute favorite parts of the film.
As the Ancient One begins to explain the truth of reality to Strange he rejects it outright. “There is no such thing as spirit,” he spits at her. “We are made of matter and nothing more! We are just a tiny, little, insignificant speck in an indifferent universe.” While Tony Stark is an ass, at least he’s a charming one. Stephen Strange’s assitude on the other hand is so arrogant and so condescending…and then the Ancient One begins to open his eyes. Shocked, he asks, “Why are you doing this to me?” She replies, “To show you just how much you don’t know. Open your eye.” As all spiritual teachers try to do with their students, she shows the truth of reality. And, as all spiritual teachers do, in the face of the transcendent nature of creation she asks him, “Who are you in this vast multiverse Mr. Strange?” All manner of religious instruction should take us to this point – examining who we truly are and discerning what our place in the universe should be.
There are two more incredibly important spiritual themes illustrated in Dr. Strange’s time at Karma-taj. First there is the issue of how it is our own egos, our own arrogance, that keep us from seeing the mystical and encountering the Divine. This is illustrated by Strange’s struggles in his lessons. He asks the Ancient One, “I control it by surrendering control? That doesn’t make any sense!” Yet, this is exactly what we must do when we approach the Divine, let go of our ego and surrender our control. The Ancient One explains, “Not everything does. Not everything has to.” How like the end of the Book of Job is this? Job, plagued by his unjust suffering, demands an answer of God. God essentially tells him there are things he will never understand, limited by a finite mind.
Second, even when Dr. Strange is presenting visions or explanations of the INFINITE, its totality is still beyond us. That’s how it should be!!! If we are truly glimpsing the INFINITE then, by nature, it’s transcendent and our finite minds can’t comprehend it.
In regard to comprehension of a sacred message, the film also explores the idea of those who pervert a religion’s true message to suit their own ends. Kaecilius and his followers are called “zealots” on more than one occasion. Like those who claim to be Christian and demonize homosexuals or bomb abortion clinics as well as people who join ISIS or Al-Qaeda in the name of a corrupted understanding of Islam, they have taken the mystical message the Ancient One tried to impart and changed it to suit their own ends. Kaecilius seeks not to safeguard the natural order but to defeat death. This zealotry is brilliantly illustrated in the film by the creepy eyes that he and all his followers gain from pledging themselves to the dark magic. Their eyes are literally perverted symbolizing that they are not seeing the truth correctly.
Most important of all, for me, was how the film dares to challenge the Myth of Redemptive Violence. This, the idea that violence can ever be used to bring about a positive result, has been one of my biggest issues with comic books since my return to reading them. Yes, as a child, I didn’t think anything of it. But, as an adult, I see not just the fallacious nature of this idea but the dangerous lessons it teaches as well. So often (in the MCU specifically and comic books in general) the heroes solve their problems with some version of the standard plan: punch-the-villain-until-he-stops-doing-bad-things. Life Spoiler Alert: That will NEVER actually create lasting solutions in REAL LIFE. Violence only creates more violence. Period. This film has the courage to wrestle with this point.
As the battle with Kaecilius begins to intensify Dr. Strange objects, “Okay, I’m…I’m out. I came here to heal my hands not to fight in some mystical war.” He experiences deep, inner turmoil at the idea of taking a human life. Angrily Mordo says, “You’re a coward.” Strange asks, “Because I’m not a killer?” Mordo insists that killing Kaecilius and his zealots is the only way to protect the world, assuring Strange he would kill them “without hesitation.”
Strange – “Even if there’s another way?”
Mordo – “There is no other way.”
Strange – “You lack imagination.”
Mordo – “No Stephen, you lack a spine.”
How often do we see some version of this debate play out in our world? The ideas of respecting all life (especially those we consider our enemies), of nonviolent resistance, of civil disobedience are rejected as being naive at best and dangerous at worst. But here, in a film with a doctor – a man who’s sworn to “do no harm” – as the protagonist, director Scott Derricksen and his screenwriting collaborators Jon Spaihts and C. Robert Cargill have the courage to let the character challenge those cultural assumptions. In so doing, they created one of the most culturally important superhero movies ever made.
At the end of the day, Dr. Strange is filled with world-saving-peril, rich characters, and is visually unlike anything I’ve ever seen before. That, of course, can all be enjoyed at the surface level of the film. But, going just a little bit deeper in a film about a sassy doctor-turned sorcerer, you find these spiritual and philosophical themes, as challenging as they are important. As a result of all of this, while Dr. Strange didn’t end up becoming my all-time favorite film in the MCU, it has certainly become the one I respect the most.