Friday, November 18, 2016

Doctor Strange

Doctor Strange has been crushing it at the box office, and rightly so. It’s gorgeous and smart, and it offers a compelling (albeit common) superhero narrative: ordinary people become extraordinary, and in the process they realize that with their great power comes great responsibility. This will require what we think of as virtues: bravery, wisdom, self-control, altruism, moral goodness, and a willingness to sacrifice self for the sake of others. There are plenty of places to read plot summaries and discussion of the movie as a movie. I would like to highlight several things that stood out to me.


I really like how the narrative moves Dr. Strange from a cold, rational, self-centered egoist to a man who realizes that he must be willing to give up himself for the sake of the world. What began as a myopic quest to gain enough power to heal himself becomes a calling to save the world even if he can never get what he wanted personally. By the end of the movie, he has even gone back and sought to mend the trail of broken relationships he was leaving when we first met him. 

Evil as presented in the movie is strong and mesmerizing early on - but isn't that the case with most things that tempt us? By the end, that same evil has lost its luster. The really cool people in this movie are the ones who are not only fighting for good but who are good. It's nice to have a movie that shows the rise in Dr. Strange's virtue as desirable and compelling.


Some are arguing that Dr. Strange is actually a villain because he taps into the evil side of this power to bring about good. I didn't see that happening. Strange’s mentor, the Ancient One, is shown to be wrong for making the kind of moral compromise ‘for the greater good’ that actually draws the evil to this universe. Dr. Strange rejects this (though he does later describe her as ‘complicated’, which may be setting up a scenario in which he is drawn to the same flawed justification). 

Mordo flatly rejects the Ancient One because he believes all the power into which they tap is evil. That does not appear to be true, but his opinion makes sense considering his experience. We see his start on a path to villainy: he is willing to kill anyone who has that kind of power - once again, for the sake of the greater good. Sound familiar? In the process of fighting the kind of moral compromise he saw in the Ancient One, he has given in to the same siren song of "the end justifies the means." His concern is legitimate; his methods are not. He has the potential of becoming perhaps the most sympathetic of the Marvel villains, one whose means we cannot justify but whose ends may well be more important than we realize.


The movie suggests there is magic and power in the universe that can be accessed by tapping into the multiverse - a plot device that makes all of us sci-fi geeks immensely happy. However, that appears to make Dr. Strange's magic a form of science we don’t yet understand. Either way, it’s cool, and it offers a worldview that demands we be open to the reality of mystery. I've been reading recently about the importance of 're-enchanting' the world; that is, finding the awe, mystery and marvel in a world that is often coldly logical or rational. Doctor Strange does this well.

I know there are concerns about this movie moving beyond magic and mystery and dabbling into the occult. I didn’t see it. Perhaps this is a reflection of how far the Dr. Strange story arc has changed since its inception. It started with a clear focus on Eastern religion, moved to a connection with occultism, and finally morphed into what one fan called "a growing disenchantment in American culture, which over-emphasizes the importance of secular-scientific knowledge at the expense of knowledge passed down through other cultures.” In other words, you could get a very different kind of Dr. Strange depending on who was writing the comic. My sense is that the movie acknowledged its roots without proselytizing for Eastern religion. In the sense it felt more like the Matrix to me: it appropriated what it needed to in order to tell the story. 

However, I do think it is important that there be what some have called ‘hedges’ in stories about magic. In other words, if the supernatural world is real, and there is a good and bad aspect to it, it’s important that our stories put hedges of safety between the fictional narrative and real life. 

Tolkein and Lewis did this well. In Tolkein’s work, magic users are born that way. None are human (Aragorn has elven lineage), and most who use it are a Middle Earth equivalent of angelic. When those who are not born into it try to meddle, bad things happen (think of the hobbits looking into the palantir). In Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia, there are witches – but no one wants to be one, and there is no way in which the book gives any clues about how one might go about become one. These two are often contrasted with the Harry Potter series, in which actual occult books and people are named, and spell casting has similarities to what one sees done in modern wiccan rituals. That wasn’t Rowling’s intention to be sure, but some hedges went down that authors like Tolkein and Lewis were careful to leave in place. Perhaps it's because these hedges are gone that the Wiccan community likes her series a lot, even if the perceived Wiccan elements are projected into it.  Please don't post an angry defense of Harry Potter. I'm just noting that her series was different in that aspect.

I give that background to make the case that Dr. Strange has plenty of hedges around the portrayal and use of magic.

  • His spells do not teach about the pursuit of magic in the real world. Whatever connection there was to an Eastern approach to religion very quickly morphs into sci-fi. No one can go anywhere in our world and learn to do what he does. 
  • There is not a blanket endorsement of using this type of magical power. Mordo warns that "the bill comes due" whenever magic is used, suggesting we may find out that Dr. Strange's time loops have come at a cost.  In addition, there is a strong message that only those who are virtuous should pursue magic because of the potential for evil. 
  • By pulling the power from the multiverse, which is simply material reality expanded, one could argue it’s not actually a use of magic at all. It’s tapping into scientific principles that only appear magical because they are mysterious.

* * * * *

I liked Dr. Strange a lot. It meets my criteria for entertainment: It was good (done with excellence); it was true (it was honest about life and morality); and it was noble (it made me want to be a better person). I sense that, like Iron Man, Dr. Strange is going to struggle with his own inner demons, and I would expect that he will be drawn toward compromise. But that's what makes a story compelling, right? Being good is hard; compromise can be compelling. Hopefully his strangeness does not refer simply to his unusual ability to wield magic; hopefully it applies to his ability to remain virtuous and good in a multiverse full of evil.

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