The fourteenth in the Marvel’s sprawling cinematic universe, Dr. Strange stands heads above its predecessors in both beauty and brains. The film’s action sequences boggle the senses, the colors and costumes lap the camera warmly, and the distinct takes on the fascinating faces of Benedict Cumberbatch and a shorn Tilda Swinton mesmerize the viewer more than any exploits of CGI. But it is in how the film poses its metaphysical questions that Dr. Strange outshines any other superhero movie to date.
When we first meet him, Dr. Stephen Strange is as smug and as smart as they come. His knowledge of medicine dazzling, his precision in surgery exacting, Strange performs medical miracles that outshine all his co-workers on the hospital floor, producing in turns envy and exasperation. But Strange’s life of genius, fame, and wealth abruptly crashes and burns in the wake of an accident occasioned by texting and driving (a not-so-subtle message from the film producers). Strange loses function in his hands and thereby forfeits his career and his identity. And when all Western medicine fails to find him healing, Strange turns East—to Nepal, where he will meet “The Ancient One” (Tilda Swinton). The Ancient One is a master of magical arts who, after much hesitation, decides to initiate Strange into the arts which will allow him to heal his body not through Western science, but through the Eastern practice of mastering the body through mastering the spirit.
In these scenes we find the most philosophically satisfying—and topically provocative—feature of the film: it throws down the gauntlet to all forms of scientific and materialist reductionism of the human body and of human experience. Dr. Strange, initially and brutishly skeptical of any learning outside his sphere of competence, literally falls to his knees in humility after Swinton’s character unveils for him the vast multiverse in which we all exist, whose secrets and depths not even she can hope to ever completely mine. Astral body projection, “mirror dimensions,” portals between Hong Kong and London: all these are just a part of the new world(s) to which Dr. Strange is invited when he is told by friend-and-future series villain Mordo (played with convincing earnestness by Chiwetel Ejiofor) to “forget everything that you think you know.” This is the sort of film to make Richard Dawkins squirm.
Yet the film’s adumbration of greater realms only serves to heighten the peculiarity and wonder of our world. There is no crass dualism here replacing an equally unsensing materialism. The astral body and the physical body depend on each other for life; kill the one and you destroy the other. The internet, symbolized through the Kamar-Taj Wi-Fi password “Shamballa,” appears in its regular juxtaposition to the magical arts as mystical as anything the Ancient One can conjure. And the nearly endless eye-candy of the “bending” of space and time in the film’s action sequences transforms city streets and skyscrapers into so many gears in the massive clock that is our finite world.
In these sequences the film visually indicates its preoccupying concern with time. Dr. Strange’s material wealth is signified not so much by his speeding sports car as by his vast collection of wristwatches. His relational wealth (basically squandered fifteen minutes into the film) physically appears in the form of a watch given him by his erstwhile lover, Dr. Christine Palmer, who had engraved on the back of the timepiece; “Time will tell how much I love you.” (Strange’s inability to give her time in their past relationship suggests in turn how much he truly loved her.) And it is ultimately time which saves the day in the film, when Dr. Strange, with his time-manipulating magical relic, takes finitude into the Void and holds emptiness captive in a ghastly Groundhog Day until he has his way. By repeating the same event over and over, Dr. Strange discloses finitude as a gift of alternate possibilities: each moment contains its own multiverse, and it is in our human ability to “try again another day” that lies the miracle of our own existence and the beauty of this world.
Yet not every character in the movie agrees with this way of seeing things. Dr. Strange finds his character double in Kaecilius (“the blind one”; played by Mads Mikkelsen), the greatest-disciple-turned-deserter who trained under The Ancient One, but who now seeks to destroy this world. His reason? Finitude and finality exist as perpetual “insults” to our human experience, and it is only the dark god Dormammu (a name that sounds not a little like the Latin for “sleep”) who can bring an end to this cycle of birth, death, and frailty by allowing the world to be absorbed into the Void.
While at first it may appear that Strange and Kaecilius do not have much in common—the former has spent his entire life rejecting belief in anything beyond the empirical while the latter has given himself completely to the magical arts—multiple similarities suggest themselves. First, there is their shared brokenness which led them to the Ancient One, as well as their natural abilities with the magical arts. Both, furthermore, are consummate technocrats. Whether it is Kaecilius’ manipulation of the dark arts—outside of the “natural law,” as the disciples of the Ancient One remind viewers repeatedly—or Strange’s fixation with knowledge as a tool to advance his career and to keep his own personal suffering at bay, both characters subject their gifts to the logic of technique, all in order to transcend the crushing limitations of their own finitude. One line they both utter (in one form or another) draws our attention to the central problem of the film: “You’re just another tiny, momentary speck within an indifferent universe.” For Strange, this belief arises from his scientific materialism (“We are made of matter, and nothing more”); for Kaecilius, it is the inevitability of death which calls his allegiance to this way of viewing the world—and his attendant rage.
What, then, is the value of the finite? This is the central question the film poses insistently and repeatedly. Does the specter of death damn every moment to insignificance in the face of our coming, cosmic heat death? Or why go so far out in time—does not the ever-present possibility and inevitability of our personal deaths render the finite, as Kaecilius sharply puts it, an insult? Only if the human spirit longs for the eternal. But how to achieve this eternality is precisely at issue in the film, for it turns out that Kaecilius’ solution to the problem entails his own dissolution into the Void. As Dr. Strange warns Kaecilius about his final fate: “I don’t think you’re going to like it.” Within the film, however, there is no break-through of a true transcendence that could account for the finite in an eternal register; Strange ultimately reduces transcendence to our immanent frame, making self-transcendence through personal sacrifice the highest goal, good, and possibility for the human spirit.
This sacrifice comes in various orders, and they are not all equal. The most obvious is that demanded of Dr. Strange by the Ancient One: give up your self-absorption and submit yourself to forces beyond your rational control, especially death. For Strange that moment of sacrifice comes in giving up control in the operating room to a doctor whom he had previously and often belittled. For the Ancient One the consummate sacrifice was the calm acceptance of her own death, even after aeons of life. But it is in Swinton’s character that the sacrifices bleed a darker red. It is revealed halfway through the film that the Ancient One has been drawing power from Dormammu, the very essence of evil, in order to prolong her life on earth in order to protect the earth from countless threats. This, of course, is “outside the natural law,” and the sacrifice it demanded was one of the moral order: to sacrifice her ideals in order to serve the greater good. It is a lesson that the Ancient One will impart to Strange, who is “flexible enough,” she claims, to understand its necessity.
Personal implication in evil is the necessary sacrifice that keeps the gods of death at bay: an economy of sacrifice in which good can never triumph without some measure of evil. And that means the real, bloody sacrifice of those who must be killed in the process of keeping the peace (the myth of redemptive violence ubiquitous in comic book lore). The psychological cost of such a sacrifice is what produces a sense of nobility in the characters who are aware of its weight, like the Ancient One and her faithful disciple Mordo. Dr. Strange resists this logic at first, horrified that he has killed in self-defense and demanding that there be another way of dealing with evil. Yet, Dr. Strange eventually accepts the tragic vision of the Ancient One, killing when necessary, and becoming the Ancient One’s true successor when Mordo cannot bear the repeated breaking of natural law and the inevitable cosmic reckoning coming in its wake. “The bill comes due,” Mordo reminds us, and his defection from Dr. Strange reveals that cosmic peace was bought at the price of the Ancient One and Strange breaking their own moral code. Mordo and Dr. Strange’s divergent ‘eulogies’ on the Ancient One upon her death—from the former that she was a hypocrite and from the latter that “she was complicated”—highlight this moral diving line running through this film.
For its implacable attack on the metaphysics of reductive materialism, Christians can be grateful. It matters not that the broadened horizon of the possible comes from both quantum mechanics and Eastern esotericism; when cultural frustrations with our reductive metaphysics will not seek answers in Christianity, largely considered discredited, perhaps only the cultural “other” of the East, alongside the ever-growing strangeness of particle physics, can open the mind enough to for some to give a Christian vision of the world a hearing again. And the film’s trenchant critique of technique, whether in science and the mystical arts, and the egomania that so often accompanies this manipulative attitude towards the given is commendable. This film raises questions which will be asked with greater insistence as our rapidly progressing scientific knowledge continues to outstrip our moral preparedness to deal with the technologies soon to be thrust upon us, with all their terrible possibilities. The words of Dr. Christine Palmer, the film’s consistent voice of reason (precisely because her concerns transcends bare rationality) continue to resonate after the credits roll: “What you’re doing isn’t medicine—it’s mania.”
Yet the film also subjects to this same critique of technological egomania the desire to achieve eternal life, as represented by Kaecilius. Here a Christian moral vision must part ways with the film, for Christianity cannot but view death as an ultimate enemy (1 Cor. 15:26). As David Bentley Hart writes in The Doors of the Sea: “Our faith is in a God who has come to rescue His creation from the absurdity of sin and the emptiness of death, and so we are permitted to hate these things with a perfect hatred.” There is, in fact, something commendable in Kaecilius’ “rage against the dying of the light” which he spies on the horizon for himself and for all beings; in light of this, we must cast some suspicion on the Ancient One’s calm acceptance of death. For, after all, if death were not some sort of evil, why would the Ancient One have compromised herself in order to prevent for aeons the end of our world? If there is not some truth in Kaecilius’ vision, would there be any difference between the world’s immediate union with Dormammu’s “Void” and its distant but eventual heat death?
The life of Jesus Christ shows us that that there is to be no bargaining with sin and death. When Christ descends to Hades, he does not strike a deal with the devil; instead, he liberates captives and crushes death through death. Christ need kill no one on his march to Golgotha; instead, he bears the crushing weight of finality and finitude to its end, and then, in the lightness of the resurrection, raises the myriad configurations of finitude to their final home. The path to self-transcendence is indeed self-sacrifice, but that self-sacrifice is grounded and supported by the fullness of life and love that simply is the fabric of our universe. Unlike Dr. Strange, who levitates in to deceive the infinite Void with the wiles of finitude, Christians looks to Christ grounded on the cross, staring down death with eyes behind which shines Infinity itself. In this strange union of the temporal and the eternal, of the finite and the infinite, the finite is transfigured while remaining itself, and no commerce with evil or any breaking of the limits of nature is required to get us there.
From this perspective Marvel’s Dr. Strange appears as a stupendous artifact of Christian moral vision divorced from a Christian metaphysical framework. In its denunciation of technocratic egoism and in its valuation of finitude and love above all technical attempts to overcome the natural law, it sounds a salutary warning. But in its joining of good and evil in an endless metaphysical dance, and in its inability to free finitude from the constraints of death, the movie’s vision of sacrifice as self-transcendence turns our gaze to the same Void that it spends so much of its time warning us against. Dr. Strange is right: if we end up there, we won’t like it.