The latest Marvel offering about a doctor of medicine who, because of a horrible accident, seeks to replace his lost fame and power as a successful surgeon, but discovers the power of eastern occultism to transcend himself and fight the dark forces of evil seeking to take over the world.
Special Effects as Boring
This is the least of all Marvel movies, or TV shows for that matter. I have grown so weary of these superheroes as substitute gods, and special effects obsession with big vast environments of CGI with tiny little people in them running around avoiding mass destruction. It’s all quite boring and lacks humanity. It’s shallow spectacle over dramatic depth.
Don’t get me wrong, in general I like some of the Marvel universe. Captain America deals with some pretty transcendent values. The TV shows, Daredevil, Luke Cage and Jessica Jones are intensely human and personal with powerful themes that resonate. So it can be done right sometimes.
But Dr. Strange is unfortunately not one of those times.
I know that movies are visual and so they are the place for some real visual feasting to occur. But if that visual exploration is not accompanied by deep human meaning, it is like junk food or entertainment masturbation; empty thrills without satisfaction. Christopher Nolan sometimes does it right. Dr. Strange tries to mimic some of Inception’s mind-bending visuals, but without much interest beyond derivative homage. Chases and fight scenes occur in an endless litany of ever-changing Escher-like environmental metamorphosis with little purpose.
To be fair, writer-director Scott Derrickson does try to make this story about something bigger, about the recognition of spiritual reality and the purpose of life found in something bigger than ones’ self. Dr. Strange begins a narcissistic individual but ends up giving himself to a cause greater than himself. He begins a selfish glory hound, and ends up a guard dog for the world.
The problem is that the story’s well-intended meaning becomes a shallow generic self-righteousness that ends up drowning in an irrational and unbiblical occultic worldview.
Occultism as Worldview
The story traces the journey of Dr. Strange, a brilliant and arrogant surgeon who doesn’t believe in the spiritual realm. He is the quintessential man of atheist science, a materialist. And he doesn’t really care about those he helps, he uses them as a means to his ends of pride, fame and glory. When he gets in an accident and loses the full use of his hands, he seeks a way through science to mend himself (the West). But when he finds none, he finally goes to Nepal (the East), where he seeks out the power of healing he saw in another man. He’s desperate, he’ll try anything. This leads him to a “master” called the ancient one.
But when confronted with the Eastern occultic notion of the human mind as the creator of reality, Dr. Strange balks with his materialist notions that there is no reality beyond the senses. It is the classic “Science vs. Spirit” debate. Okay, this is not bad in and of itself. In fact, I think Derrickson is partly right in this issue. I think soulless materialistic science leads to death, and not just of the imagination.
So the movie shows the folly of materialism. But the spiritual world here is not really supernatural, but rather occultic energy, and Dr. Strange’s redemption lies in him becoming a master of Eastern occultic technique that is really just another form of materialism. The ancient master tells him they call upon energy from other universes in the multiverse of infinite universes to harness it for their ends. They use their spells and incantations as formulas to control the forces. They engage in astral projection, ritual magic, sorcery and explore their “chakras”. These are the same basic notions embodied in pagan ritual magic and occultism.
Some may appeal to Tolkien and Lewis as Christian examples of this kind of use of magic in storytelling. On the surface, I wouldn’t disagree. In fact, I’m not dead set against it entirely. I’m leery of it, but not on a crusade.
But the problem comes in the context (as always).
In Tolkien, the world is so unreal in its fantasy, that it is pure analogy in my perspective. And that analogy is about the “disenchantment of modernity.” Much like the deadliness of materialism that denies the spirit.
In Lewis, I see the same approach. The magic of Narnia is about control and power, but the “Deep Magic” subverts that magic because it is about the cosmic providence and transcendence of the Creator. It’s a way of saying that when man seeks life without Aslan, he becomes enchanted with that magic, but the deeper truth will free him from that shallow world of power.
Lewis wrote: “There is something which unites magic and applied science (technology) while separating them from the ‘wisdom’ of earlier ages. For the wise men of old, the cardinal problem of human life was how to conform the soul to objective reality, and the solution was wisdom, self-discipline, and virtue. For the modern, the cardinal problem is how to conform reality to the wishes of man, and the solution is a technique.”
Here is an example of how the occultism of Dr. Strange is based upon some very real occultic practices, sans SFX.
That is one reason why I don’t see Dr. Strange as in the same ballpark as Lewis or Tolkien. Because in Dr. Strange, both the good and the bad seek technique over virtue in a godless universe, conforming reality to man’s will, thus reinforcing the modern delusion of power. Good vs. bad magic, rather than evil vs. repentant surrender. The only redemptive surrender in the movie is to death. But true spirituality is not the same thing as occultic manipulation of forces.
In both Old and New Testaments, sorcery, “magic” and the occult are forbidden upon pain of death or damnation (Deuteronomy 18:9-12; Galatians 5:19-21). In the New Testament, Jesus was confronted with magical incantation by a demoniac. The phrase “I adjure you,” used by the demoniac against Jesus was a commonly understood incantation phrase (Mark 5:7). Jesus did not fight incantation with incantation, he cast out the demon by the authority of God. The apostolic approach was the same (Acts 16:18), they did not engage in ritual magic like modern Roman exorcists do. In the Bible, those Jews who did use magic against the spirits were overcome by them (Acts 19:13-16), because ritual magic does not bind the supernatural demonic. I write about this in my book When Giants Were Upon the Earth.
When you are dealing with fictional worlds, analogy is king, not realism. So we should not be too quick or absolute to condemn on the surface, as Lewis and Tolkien warn us. But there comes a point where the SFX-enhanced adaptation of real pagan occult practices of Dr. Strange is simply not the same thing as the fictional fantasy magic of Narnia and Middle Earth.
And what concerns me most is the meaning and worldview that is being serviced by the fiction.
In Dr. Strange’s case, I fear that is not a healthy worldview.
Multiverse – Say what?
This notion of the multiverse of infinite universes, as referenced in the movie, is a current faddish notion that has absolutely no empirical evidence whatsoever and remains a purely philosophical speculation that some modern scientists are fond of believing in with the faith of religious fanatics. It’s origin and purpose lies in the attempt to avoid a creator.
Why? Because the anthropic principle proves that the universe is so finely tuned that it requires a transcendent intelligent designer in order to account for it.
The atheist panics. He must come up with a way to avoid such rational and scientific conclusions. So from his rationalizing imagination, he asserts that there are infinite universes that carry out infinite possibilities. Therefore we live in the one universe where all the right things occurred for us to exist.
Oila, no need for a creator to explain all those annoying inconvenient natural impossibilities. In a flying leap of irrational faith, infinity just magically exists instead of God (“It’s just so”). And these are so-called scientists who posit this “theory” as if it had legitimacy. The Multiverse is an irrational atheistic fairy tale.
The Villainy of Eternal Life?
Another serious flaw of the movie is that I think it posits an anti-biblical worldview of redemption. I don’t believe this is intentional, but misguided.
If you want to know what the movie is condemning, listen to the villain. It is the villain whose ideas lead to destruction according to the storytellers. In Dr. Strange, the villain keeps referencing the pursuit of eternal life. He talks about seeking the eternal beyond time, of living forever, of life everlasting (sounds like Jesus). And in a key scene, the villains are gathered in a church!
This pursuit of eternal life is countered by the good guys who seek to embrace death as part of reality, of facing the fact that you cannot control death, that you must surrender to it like surrendering to the current of a river. This is again part of the Eastern view that death is a part of the great circle of being, but it is one of those half-truths that are all lies.
While it is certainly true that all of us will die in this fallen world, and we cannot control that, and that there is a humility required in facing our mortality, nevertheless, death is NOT a natural part of life. Death is unnatural within the Judeo-Christian worldview. It is the enemy. Jesus wept bitterly over his friend Lazarus’ death because it is not “natural.” It may be inescapable, but it is not to be embraced. It is the one thing that reminds us of the truth of God’s Word, that we are fallen from our Creator and long for the eternal for which we were created. This is why the last enemy that Jesus destroys is death. It is the reminder that the world is bent and needs resurrection.
In contrast, Jesus emphasized the pursuit of eternal life, of life everlasting in his teaching. Obsession with this world as the means of utopia is a liberal delusion. Of course, in Christ we have the perfect balance of both eternal life AND healing of the nations. But that is in the Gospel, not in self-righteous occultic manipulation of forces. The created world is good and we cultivate the Garden, but we long for the redemption of our bodies in eternal life everlasting. They are not at odds.
It is one thing to be accused of being so heavenly-minded that one is no earthly good, but it is quite another thing altogether to eschew the desire for eternal life and heaven as villainous.
Knowing that the director professes Christian faith, I can’t imagine that he intends to promote such thinking. But I would argue that his story nevertheless embodies it in an unhealthy way. If he would have wanted to communicate the modern transhuman pursuit of living forever without God through technology, then the usage of religious language known to come from Jesus was not a wise choice. Perhaps this is a lesson in the danger of serving established narratives without subverting them effectively. They end up changing you instead of you changing them.
4 comments on “Doctor Strange: Strangely Boring Magic”
Got to agree. Went to DS out of curiosity; found myself bored. I EXPECTED an LSD trip on screen; that’s pretty much what the original comic was all about (which I never liked). But didn’t like the message (now, if the villain had wanted eternal life JUST AS HE WAS AS ALIVE, that might be a different message. We’ll be perfected in Heaven; we are definitely NOT on earth.) But we got another Eastern preach.
Yeah, it would have been quite easy to use transhumanist language, like say, “We will become transhuman” or “posthuman” to emphasize eternal physical life, not just eternal life. But as it is, the villain uses religious language like Jesus, rather than like Transhumanism.
A film I found an interesting if flawed musing on “do you really WANT physical immortality?” is the british horror film, THE ASPHYX. For those who have not seen it,
That should do it.
The movie is about Sir Hugo Cunningham, a wealthy man in the 1800s who is kindly, full of noblesse oblige, possesses a loving family….and has more than a bit of an unheathly interest in the occult; i.e.: photographing dead bodies and seeing if a smudge he has located on several different photographs is the soul leaving the body. Hugo has lost his wife at an early age, and is very proud of his lineage. So when he loses his new fiancee and his firstborn son in an accident, he is horrified; particularly that his bloodline might end.
Then he discovers the same smudge on his last photo of his son, going TOWARD the body–not away. Theorizing this is a greek spirit of death called an “Asphyx”, he and his stepson become obsessed with trapping their own and locking them away so that they will never die. They succeed all too well, and it leads Sir Hugo to ruin and agony in an immortal life. He finds that just because you’re immortal doesn’t mean you can’t feel pain, and if someone you love gets a deathly, non-healing wound and CAN’T DIE……
well, you get the drift. The movie isn’t great and the theme isn’t fully played out, but it is there. Interestingly, Sir Hugo apparently also thinks of himself as a God-fearing man (“I’ve prayed for guidance”) when it’s clear he isn’t, really. All he can see is physical immortality as he is (he also learns at the end of the film immortality-as-is doesn’t mean you don’t age, as well….)
I remember that movie! Yeah, that was quite fascinating.