I’ll make no secret of it: I am a die-hard Marvel Cinematic Universe fan. So when Movieguide gave Marvel’s latest flick, Doctor Strange, a negative four in their review (which, in Movieguide-speak equals irredeemably bad/un-Christian) I had to raise an eyebrow. Movieguide is an amazing service, rating movies based not only on their quality but their morality. When you’re trying to be a discerning Christian moviegoer, this is super helpful. But sometimes, especially when looking at worldview, they can go a bit too far. This happened to me once before with a film called Tomorrow Land, which I ended up loving for precisely the reasons that Movieguide condemned it (I know that sounds strange, but it’s true. Read more about that in part of this post here). So my dad and I went to see the Doctor anyway, deciding to take it with a grain of salt.
I was completely shocked by this film, and for all the right reasons. Stunning visuals, a strong story, powerful acting, and, surprisingly enough, wonderful Christian imagery that Movieguide seems to have missed entirely. It’s time to look beneath the magic and discover some of the real messages of Doctor Strange. WARNING: Lots and lots of spoilers ahead. If you haven’t watched the movie, I recommend you go do that before continuing. It’ll be worth it. Hopefully. If I do my job right.
Doctor Steven Strange is an arrogant, wealthy neurosurgeon with more fancy watches than are really necessary and a penthouse apartment that Tony Stark would be proud of. When his hands are rendered almost useless by a horrible car accident, he loses the center of his life and everything he does: his career. He tries everything possible to get the use of his hands back, but every one of his seven procedures fail. He is left completely hopeless, until he discovers a man who was permanently paralyzed, and then suddenly was able to walk again. Steven follows the man’s clues to a strange building in Nepal, where he meets the Ancient One, a woman who has the power to bend time and space, and stay young for thousands of years. Steven must humble himself and learn these powers to ultimately confront Dormammu, a Satan-like being who seeks to conquer the multiverse and torture its inhabitants forever.
There is a strand of humility running through this entire movie, and it’s something I picked up on right away. While Movieguide touched on it very briefly, I see this idea as a very central one to the story, and to the message. Steven Strange starts off as an extraordinarily self-centered man. His greatest pride is his perfect track record. He won’t take a case if its ‘not treatable’, or the procedure will certainly fail. He would never do anything to ruin his reputation. He is the opposite of humble. But the injury of his hands pulls him down from his high tower. Suddenly, he can do nothing. He has lost his career, which meant everything to him. He has become obsolete. At first he tries every procedure he can, grasping for anything which might return him to his previous life. But nothing can help him.
That is, until he meets the Ancient One. Life has tried to bring him low, but he is still holding on to his pride. It is all he has. The Ancient One sees this, and knows he must become humbler still before she can help him.
Humility is despised in our culture. It is often connected with a Uriah Heap-like attitude, where we are ‘umble, sir, so very ‘umble, and pretend that we are worthless and grovel and scrape before everyone else in a way which only brings more attention to us. This kind of humility is a breed of egotism: we are worse than everyone else, and therefore better for admitting it, and we are the center of attention with all our bowing and scraping and ‘umbleness. The Christian kind of humility is a recognition that we are not in control, that we are not little gods. Steven Strange has an unconscious idea that he is the little god of his world, that he could, if he tried, really do anything. But he is pulled out of that fanciful throne by real life, and the brought lower still, until he is willing to sacrifice himself for the good of the world because he knows that he is not, and never was, the real Number One.
It is this sacrifice which reveals itself to me as true Christian imagery, as Steven confronts Dormammu, really something like the Devil, and just as terrifying and ruthless, and offers himself over and over to keep this monster from destroying the world. He wins in the end, of course, but he has undergone a great journey to come to the point where he ever could win. The Steven Strange at the beginning of the movie could not have defeated this Devil, not even with all the relics and magic in the world. He needed to be humble, and to be willing to sacrifice himself, to beat the bad guy.
Jesus was the most humble of all. He was God, but sank to the level of man and sacrificed himself to defeat the Devil. Yes, there is the magic and the mystical and the fantastical, but there is a parallel between Jesus’ story and that of Steven Strange, if I may say so without offending anyone’s sensibilities. And not only that, but Steven Strange also reflects the Christian life: we must be brought low and made humble in order to accept Jesus’ great gift to us. When we think we are on top of the world, we are sure that we need nothing but ourselves. But something, anything, may bring us to the realization that we are in need of something else.
I think that sometimes we do not look at the subtext. Doctor Strange is not a perfect film. There is not and never will be a ‘perfect’ film. It’s fun, fascinating, hilarious, magical. It’s got all the fantasy trimmings and beautiful images and tense plot that make a film fun to watch. It is not a precise, perfect allegory for the entire story of Jesus, or the entire Christian life. But last time I checked, no one said it had to be.