Doctor Strange (Derrickson, 2016) is perhaps the most philosophically and religiously fertile Hollywood movie since The Matrix. Director Scott Derrickson is known for bringing a Christian perspective to his work which can, at times, be fairly obvious and (frankly) clumsy as in his early films like Hellraiser: Inferno and The Exorcism of Emily Rose. But Doctor Strange represents an artistic leap forward for Derrickson. Here he imbues his film with a Christian subtext much more subtle, complex and artistically mature than the straightforward messages of his early work, but Doctor Strange remains a theological artwork nonetheless. There is so much interesting stuff going on in this film, I can only scratch the surface in this brief review.
Philosophically Derrickson has at least three ideological opponents in view throughout Doctor Strange. He is fighting scientism on the one hand, but also New Age spirituality on the other, while at the same time warning us against Christian legalism.
The character arc of the film’s protagonist Dr. Stephen Strange is a conversion from scientism – the view that all that exists in the world is what can be proven by the scientific method – to the embrace of mystery and transcendent spiritual realities beyond human comprehension and control. At beginning of the film Strange is a convinced materialist. When he first meets the guru known as the Ancient One, from whom he will eventually learn to be a sorcerer, Strange tells her “there is no such thing as spirit. We are made of matter and nothing more.” Human beings are “just another tiny, momentary speck within an indifferent universe.”
The Ancient One sees this scientific perspective on the cosmos as, ironically, a way of focusing too narrowly on yourself. You may be small within the universe, but that doesn’t make you worthless if you can choose to serve something greater than yourself. And Dr. Strange’s life of pursuing medical science doesn’t count, because his underlying motivation was his own fame. She gives Strange a bit of advice straight out of Rick Warren’s Purpose Driven Life: “It is not about you.”
New Age Mysticism
Strange’s primary antagonist in the film is Kaecilius, a dark sorcerer whose worldview is similar to New Age mysticism. Kaecilius is seeking “eternal life” and power over death, even though that violates the “natural law” sorcerers learn to respect. He discovers a demonic otherworldly being called Dormammu can allow him to transcend space and time and enter a dimension of what New Age practitioners call cosmic consciousness and the movie describes as an experience of becoming “One” with all things in a kind of pantheistic monism.
Kaeciliuis knows that tampering with time will violate the laws of nature, but he rejects the idea of good and evil. He says that time itself is the enemy, not evil. “The world is not what it ought to be” and “death is an insult” that Dormammu has the power to set right. Here Dormammu plays the role of the Serpent in the Biblical story of Adam and Eve. His deceptive temptation is that he can make us “like God”, able to defeat death (Genesis 3:5). Dr. Strange, however, is not fooled. He sees that an unchanging world would be Hell, not Paradise or Nirvana. (It is telling that Dr. Strange is eating an apple – symbolic of Adam’s forbidden fruit – while he is reading a book about Dormammu. And the portal Kaecilius opens to draw power from Dormammu is underneath a Christian church, perhaps implying that the church had been built there to protect the world from him.)
Along the way Strange gradually begins to conflict more and more with his fellow sorcerer Mordo, who comic book readers will know is destined to become Dr. Strange’s archenemy. Here Derrickson imagines Mordo as someone with a rigid commitment to the rules, incapable of understanding that sometimes we must be flexible when breaking a rule can serve the greater good. In some ways Mordo resembles Derrickson’s own real life fellow Christians who don’t approve of his dabbling in depictions of the occult, even in service of the greater good of portraying Christian truths.
For Mordo any violation of natural law is a sin, a trespass against the Divine Order. But the Ancient One says sometimes we have to break the laws of nature for the greater good. To Mordo this is anarchy and relativism (or at best situational ethics), but why not instead see an exception to the general laws of nature as a miracle, God acting in ways that violate the normal operations of nature to bring about the Divine Purpose in a surprising way?
All three of these main characters share a desire for control. Dr. Strange seeks to control the world first through science and then through magic. Kaecilius seeks to control death through transcendence. And Mordo seeks to control his inner demons by strict adherence to the rules of the sorcerers. (“I wanted the power to defeat my enemies,” Mordo tells the Ancient One, “you gave me the power to defeat my demons.”) The Ancient One sees control as a manifestation of ego. Only Strange learns to surrender his ego to an unnamed power greater than himself, a lesson he learns from the Ancient One: “You cannot beat a river into submission. You have to surrender to its current and use its power as your own” Here we have the central Christian theme of the film. Stephen Strange learns to die to himself and that his “power is made perfect in weakness” (2 Corinthians 12:9).
At the film’s climax, Strange creates a time loop trapping Dormammu eternally in a single moment and thereby preventing him from destroying the world. Of course, there is nothing Strange can do within the time loop to prevent the vastly more powerful Dormammu from killing him. Thus Strange suffers eternally in one moment, so people on earth can live. Like Christ himself, Dr. Strange gives his life for the salvation of the world. “I can’t win”, he tells Dormammu, “but I can lose again and again.” Just as the Ancient One told him, surrender really does lead to victory.
A Higher Plane
The spiritual trajectory of Doctor Strange is not toward the kind of transcendence that makes all things One, but it is toward an elevated perspective that, while allowing the world to be complex, is able to integrate diverse viewpoints into a harmonious whole in service of a Greater Good.
When they first meet, the Ancient One tells Dr. Strange he needs to “elevate” his mind and “deepen” his spirit. Science is only a partial viewpoint. She says he is like “a man looking at the world through a keyhole.” She shows him various pictures of the human body, including a diagram of chakras and an MRI, implying that science, New Age mysticism, and other viewpoints are all partial truths. Only someone who elevates their mind to a higher plane can see the whole picture and knows how to put together all the partial viewpoints. Later we see why it is so important to have the whole picture.
The Ancient One’s library contains certain forbidden books, including the book that describes how to summon Dormammu, stolen by Kaeciliuis in the film’s opening scene. When Strange asks about these books, the library tells him, “No knowledge is forbidden, only certain practices.” But practice without knowledge can be deadly. At one point Strange starts performing a ritual described in a book without reading all the way to the end where the book describes the dangers of the ritual. Incomplete knowledge can be disastrous.
The Infinite Mystery
Another example of this theme is Mordo’s inflexibility about the natural law. Without the whole picture, he cannot see why there might be reason to break the laws of nature. From within those laws there could never be an exception. But to one who transcends those laws and sees reality as a whole, it becomes clear that breaking a particular law of nature can serve the greater good. The Divine Lawgiver can choose to forgive our trespasses against the law or choose to interrupt the natural system with a miracle or even command us to perform acts inexcusable from within our legalistic frameworks.
We can never fully understand the whole. And we can never be fully healed from our brokenness. We must be like Jonathan Pangborn, the paralyzed man who never learned enough magic to heal himself but learned to function normally in his life by drawing power from beyond this world, an ongoing miracle that comes from dying to himself moment by moment and surrendering to a Higher Power. As the Ancient One tells Mordo, “we never lose our demons, we only learn to live above them.” All we can do is seek the highest plane, try to glimpse a partial vision of the whole, and surrender our lives to the Infinite Mystery.