Editor’s note: This article is presented as part of the limited article series There Was An Idea…, where every week, the Lewton Bus crew dive into the Marvel Cinematic Universe in the run-up to Marvel’s Avengers: Infinity War.
Let me describe to you a man. Unquestionably brilliant, by far the top of his field, one which has afforded him wealth, fame, and power — his credentials unimpeachable. This is a man deeply assured of his superiority over almost all he encounters, and utterly dismissive of that which falls outside his personal experience. You see, for all his wealth, brilliance, fame, and power, he is not a good man. Then if you can, imagine this man being brought low at the height of his power, but by embracing a power far beyond his understanding he takes on the mantle of a grand new mission to save his fellow man. Now this could easily be the plot of any of the enormous number of cheap (and often poorly messaged) faith based films that we see hitting theaters on a regular basis these days, but it’s not. It’s the plot of Doctor Strange, a film that, for this Christian’s money, did a better job illustrating the journey of faith than any “faith based” film to come out in quite some time.
You see, for all of its bells and whistles, its spectacular effects, psychedelic imagery, and insane superheroics, Doctor Strange is at its core a journey of self-discovery and faith. It is the story of a man who, in his lowest moment, embraces and surrenders to something far beyond himself or his understanding and in that surrender finds himself transformed. It’s about finding strength in that which we cannot explain, and finding peace in the understanding that, in the grand scheme of things, it’s not about us; It is about a journey from success to sacrifice and the fulfillment found along the way.
Now, I know what you’re thinking. “Allen” you say, “isn’t it possible that you are allowing your personal experience to color your interpretation of the film and as a result are finding connections and patterns where there are none?” And you could be right, but the body of evidence, when we parse director Scott Derrickson’s background, as well as the themes of the film and the parallels to that background, points to these connections and patterns being almost undoubtedly intentional. Derrickson has never been shy about talking about his faith. A devout catholic, he has on more than one occasion said that it is his faith, and the belief in evil that comes with that faith, that lead him to the horror genre in which he first made his name before being hired by Marvel Studios. This is a man who is incredibly intentional about connecting his experiences, fears, and beliefs with his work in deeply thematic ways. He does not always hit his mark, but his influences are laid bare in his work and his faith is a major influence.
When I first watched Doctor Strange I knew nothing about Derrickson other than a few titles in his filmography and certainly nothing about his faith, so when I came away thinking about Bible verses and historical church figures (the specific verses and figures we will get into later) I was left wondering if I was in fact just seeing connections where there were none. Imagine my surprise when I began to speak with other people of faith to find them drawing the same conclusions, and my excitement on learning Derrickson’s background. You see, in making this film, Derrickson is taking Christian themes and ideas and merging them with the ideas and iconography of several Eastern religions to create a unique mythology and theology to serve as the backbone of Stephen Strange’s insane mystical world, and in this decision to focus on theme instead of text, he is able to craft something that maintains the spirit of Derrickson’s faith, while maintaining a universality that will allow it to connect to viewers from all perspectives and walks of life.
To understand exactly what Derrickson is doing, we have to, on some level, dig into the specifics of the themes that he is using to tell this story and the elements he appears to be drawing on. Perhaps the strongest jumping off part to be found is the striking similarity between the journeys of Stephen Strange and the apostle Paul. You see, in many ways the lives of these two characters are mirror images of each other. Both were, before their conversions, giants in their respective communities. Strange a brilliant man in a field of brilliant men, the most renowned neurosurgeon in the world, Paul (then Saul) a greatly respected teacher and follower of the Hebrew law, a self-proclaimed “Hebrew of Hebrews”1. Both men found in themselves plenty of reason for pride and boasting. Both viewed their fame and power as an end unto itself, using it to punch down on those beneath them. Strange did so by humiliating doctors he deemed inferior and by often refusing care to those whose healing would be too risky or would not further his career, Paul (still Saul) used the law as a bludgeon to beat down those he deemed unworthy or blasphemous, becoming renowned for his persecution of the early church. Then, for both men, right as they were at the height of their power, fate (if you believe in such a thing) intervened, coincidentally while both were on the road. Strange suffers a disastrous car accident that ruins his hands and robs him of his surgical career, Paul (believe it or not still Saul), as the story goes, sees a vision while on the road to Damascus that quite literally strikes him blind2. It is from the brokenness of these two events that transformation then takes place.
It is in their respective lowest points when both feel lost that they are told to seek out assistance from what basically amount to faith leaders, individuals who will metaphorically and (in Saul/Paul’s case literally) open their eyes and introduce them to a way of life that they previously could never have comprehended. Stephen Strange is brought before The Ancient One, a devotee to an ancient order of mystics and guardians of the world. She, by merely touching him, opens his mind to possibilities and realms beyond comprehension, sending him upon a path of self-discovery that culminates in him becoming perhaps the greatest amongst this order. This too mirrors the journey of Paul (Saul for just a bit longer), who after three days without sight is touched by the disciple Ananias, and in that moment sees once more, and with his regained sight finds a zeal for the very faith that he once persecuted3. There is a reason that the phrase “a Damascus moment” has often been used to signal a turning point in the life of an individual, especially a believer. And for Stephen Strange, his accident and his subsequent encounter with The Ancient One amount to a very clear and obvious “Damascus moment.”
From these conversion points we see both individuals taking to their new calling with a newfound passion unlike anything they have shown before. The experience is utterly transformative, and in it they find a purpose that will guide them from then onward. For Strange, however, his journey is not over. While transformation did come, it was not overnight, as he still had to learn to look beyond himself. It is that slow and arduous journey that leads to perhaps the most poignant moment in the entire film, and perhaps the moment where the parallel between Paul and Strange first cemented in my mind. In the climax of the film, after Strange and his allies fail to stop the villainous Kaecilius from destroying a barrier protecting Earth from the dreaded Dormammu and his Dark Dimension, Strange is faced with the prospect of Dormammu instituting what, for all intents and purposes, would amount to hell on Earth. Strange makes a choice. Using magic that he had mastered earlier in the film, Strange confronts Dormammu and enters into a time loop in which he is killed over and over again. When confronted with the prospect of spending an eternity dying repeatedly in horrific fashion, Strange simply replies “yes, but everyone on Earth will live”. This line triggered something in my brain, and if you’ve been following this piece closely, and have a similar background to my own, perhaps it triggered a recollection in yours too. The scene did something that a blockbuster had never done before, it sent me to my Bible (well, my Bible app, but close enough), and sure enough, in Paul’s own words, there it was, plain as day: Romans 9:3 (NIV) “For I could wish that I myself were cursed and cut off from Christ for the sake of my people..”. You see, the culmination of Strange’s arc is found in the moment when he, like Paul, decides that his own life and existence is relatively meaningless, and that his own suffering is an easy price to pay if it means the salvation of others. He finds meaning in self-sacrifice, and in trusting in that which is beyond him.
In many ways Doctor Strange is a very personal film for me. For while it may not necessarily be the best or most complex film Marvel has made to date, it is easily one of the ones that most connected with who I am as a person. The themes it deals with are themes that I have mulled over and struggled with my whole life. The idea of self-sacrifice, of believing in things beyond what one can understand, of duty to one’s fellow man, and in finding purpose and comfort in the idea that there is more to this life and this universe than my own narrow existence; that at the end of the day, it’s not about me. It’s about letting go of ego, letting go of fear, and in some ways letting go of self in order to enrich the lives of others.
I don’t know about you, but for me, there’s beauty to be found in that.