Doctor Strange, the newest offering from Marvel Studios, breaks new ground on several fronts and looks set to maintain Marvel’s streak of critically well-received superhero movies. We have a fresh character and a different aspect of the Marvel Cinematic Universe in the mystic and magical realms. And while a lot will be written about that aspect of the movie, it’s actually the movie’s theme and message which I think bear the most attention, since it deals with themes which were really only dealt with in a couple other Marvel movies, namely those of sacrifice. This naturally contains spoilers, so only read further once you are ready to read about the movie in-depth.
Doctor Strange is a Marvel movie of a different stripe, even though it shares many of the superficial traits of the others. But any subverted aspect has the potential to subvert the entire genre, and that is what Doctor Strange often comes close to doing. For instance, the backdrop for the movie’s climax comes when destruction is literally reversed–compare this to Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015), where everything destructive must be destroyed–the old fight fire with fire analogy. Doctor Strange does not follow this reasoning, indeed, the moive has Christian philosophy at the centre of its conception.
First, and most apparent, Doctor Strange must lose everything that he has in order to be put on the path of Truth. He loses his skill, his job, his pride, and even his knowledge before he can enter the door toward enlightenment. Some may point out that this is also an Eastern, particularly Buddhist philosophy, but the movie contradicts that when The Ancient One states that Strange’s gifts and abilities “are not about you.” The endpoint of personal enlightenment and material disentanglement from a Buddhist point of view is for the individual soul to enter Nirvana, whereas with Strange it is the opposite. Strange learns that he must live to save others, and at the pivotal point in the movie he is only able to deliver mankind from spiritual subjugation by sacrificing himself over and over and over again. The bargain that he makes with Dormammu is: release your hold on the earth, or I will force you to kill me over and over and over again. He is willing to let himself die eternally so that all of humanity might live.
This is a willingness of sacrifice that we have really only seen twice in a Marvel movie: firstly in Thor (2011), and then in Avengers Assemble (2012), where both Thor and Iron Man were willing to sacrifice themselves to save the world. Whereas we have seen other superheroes willing to die for their beliefs, or die or their friends, or their principles, these are the two movies in which sacrifice is projected onto the absolute scale which Jesus talks about in John 15:13-15, and nothing like how it is amplified to Doctor Strange being martyred multiple times. This, I think, is a much deeper and philosophically profound area of development for superhero movies to examine. Every superhero movie addresses personal empowerment, the more responsible ones raise the statement that with great power comes great responsibility. The more intelligent movies try to follow that reasoning–a responsibility to, or for, what exactly. And it’s only the most satisfying movies, I find, that proffer an answer to that, and Doctor Strange has stated it best: to be given great power is to serve greatly, ultimately to the extent of making the ultimate sacrifice.