The Gospel According to Dr Strange Part I: Marvel’s Doctor Strange
Of the tales of superheroism in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, none have thus far explored the possibilities of spiritual or metaphysical realities more than those involving Doctor Stephen Strange. This should perhaps be no surprise, for in his position as Sorcerer Supreme and master of the mystic arts, Doctor Strange serves as the MCU’s strongest link to the supernatural.
This series will explore the religious overtones inherent to Doctor Strange’s presence and role in the MCU, specifically those familiar to Christianity, in order to highlight the Christian themes and lessons one can glean from Doctor Strange’s own journey into the metaphysical.
Part I will center around Doctor Strange’s origin story in the eponymous Doctor Strange to show how his primary lessons in the film reflect the Christian teachings summed up in Jesus’ commands to love both God and neighbor, as well as how his final battle with Dormammu offers an allegorical reflection of Christ imprisoning Satan through his sacrifice on the cross.
Part II of this series will look at Doctor Strange’s actions in Avengers: Infinity War and Avengers: Endgame to demonstrate how his role in these films again employs allegory to present a very Christian answer to the philosophical problem of evil, again involving Christ’s sacrifice. Finally, Part III will examine Dr. Strange’s presence in the post-Endgame MCU, including in Marvel’s What If and Spider-Man: No Way Home, to highlight the importance of being careful what you wish for. If there are to be installments beyond these three they will have to wait for the release of future movies involving Doctor Strange. For now, this series begins with the lessons Stephen Strange must learn in his origin film Doctor Strange if he is to become the Sorcerer Supreme.
Lessons in Humility
In the first act of Marvel’s Doctor Strange, Stephen Strange is presented as a talented surgeon whose intelligence and success is matched only by his arrogance. After Strange saves an ER patient by removing a bullet from his brain, Strange’s colleague and former romantic partner, Doctor Christine Palmer, asks him to lend his talents to the Emergency Room on a regular basis,
“All the more reason why you should be my neurosurgeon on call, you could make such a difference” said Christine Palmer.
However, Strange makes it clear that whatever difference he would make in the ER is insignificant compared to the potential impact of his current work.
“I can’t work in your butcher shop… Look, I’m fusing transected spinal cords, I’m stimulating neurogenesis in the central nervous system, the work I’m doing is going to save thousands for years to come. In ER, you get to save one drunk idiot with a gun.” Said Stephen Strange.
Doctor Palmer immediately identifies the self-centered reason Strange refuses to work in the less glamorous ER,
“Yeah you’re right, in ER we’re only saving lives. There’s no fame, there’s no CNN interviews.” said Christine.
Their discussion ends with Doctor Palmer’s succinct articulation of Strange’s arrogance,
“Stephen, everything is about you.” Said Doctor Palmer.
Strange’s singular interest in his own glory
Strange’s singular interest in his own glory is made more apparent by his refusal to take on any case that will either not contribute to his fame, or has the potential to detract from his reputation. While driving at high speeds on a mountain road in the rain – an action which again highlights his disregard for others – Strange takes a phone call from his assistant to discuss potential patients. Strange responds to one case,
“I could help, but so could fifty other people, find me something worth my time.” Said Stephen Strange.
And to another:
“You want me to screw up my perfect record? Definitely not.”
The callousness of these responses, and his unwillingness to help others if doing so would either offer no benefit to himself, or even potentially harm his reputation, again displays Strange’s over-inflated sense of self-importance. Even after sustaining devastating injuries after crashing his Lamborghini – the consequence of driving recklessly while looking at x-rays on his phone – resulting in:
“11 stainless steel pins in the bones, multiple torn ligaments, severe nerve damage in both hands, you were on the table for 11 hours… No one could have done better.” Dr. Palmer described.
Strange still displays arrogance in his own abilities:
“I could have done better.” Said Dr. Strange defying the medical work which saved his life.
Here Strange begins a long and expensive process of trying to restore the nerve damage in his hands so that his life as a surgeon can continue, seeking out experimental treatments and selling his possessions to pay for them. Increasingly desperate, Strange tracks down a man named Jonthan Pangborn who his physical therapist claims recovered from the same level of nerve damage as Strange. Pangborn remembers Strange as one of the surgeons who refused to take his case because he was, as Strange puts it, untreatable. Recognizing that Strange’s interest in helping others extends only so far as he can help himself.
“No glory in that, right?” Pangborn responds.
Nevertheless, Pangborn is willing to help Strange, directing him to a place called Kamar-Taj. It is here that Strange is confronted with his first lesson.
Upon his arrival in Kamar-Taj, Strange is granted an audience with the Sorcerer Supreme – a woman known only as the Ancient One – who tells Strange that she taught Pangborn,
“How to reorient the spirit to better heal the body.” said the Ancient One.
Hesitant but desperate, Strange asks the Ancient One where to start. The Ancient One then produces a book containing charts for Chakras, acupuncture, and an MRI. With Strange’s frustration increasing with every page, the Ancient One suggests the possibility of bodily realities which extend beyond the physical:
“Each of those maps was drawn up by someone who could see in part, but not the whole.” Asserted the Ancient One.
In his incredulity at what he is hearing:
“I spent my last dollar getting here – one way ticket – and you’re talking to me about healing through belief?!” Stephen laments.
The Ancient One responds by confronting Strange’s intellectual arrogance and hypocrisy, stating:
“You’re a man looking at the world through a keyhole. You’ve spent your whole life trying to widen that keyhole – to see more, to know more – and now, on hearing that it can be widened – in ways you can’t imagine – you reject the possibility.”
His scientific sensibilities offended by the Ancient One’s suggestions.
The worldview of atheistic naturalism
“No, I reject it because I do not believe in fairy-tales about chakras, or energy, or the power of belief. There is no such thing as spirit! We are made of matter and nothing more. You’re just another tiny, momentary speck within an indifferent universe.” Strange counters in anger.
Here Strange presents what is essentially the worldview of atheistic naturalism, or the rejection of belief in anything that cannot be perceived through the empirical senses.
It is not surprising that a man as arrogant as Stephen Strange would hold this view, as it is arrogance which disallows him from admitting the possibility of the empirically imperceptible.
The Ancient One reveals the foolishness of Strange’s absolute certitude, first by pushing his astral form out of his physical form, and then by sending him hurtling through innumerable inter-dimensional realities.
Strange’s first lesson
“You think you know how the world works? You think that this material universe is all there is? What is real? What mysteries lie beyond the reach of your senses? … This universe is only one of an infinite number; worlds without end… Who are you in this vast multiverse, Mr. Strange?” The Ancient One asked.
In coming to an awareness that there may be realities beyond his perception, Strange takes his first step towards humility, recognizing that he has much to learn and begging the Ancient One to teach him.
This intellectual humility of being open to truths beyond what he initially thought possible is Strange’s first lesson, and a necessary one if he is to begin learning the mystic arts.
In order for anyone to fulfill the command to love God with all they have, they must first acknowledge the possibility that such a God exists. Indeed, love for God must originate in humility and openness to realities beyond the reach of one’s empirical senses, and without such humility and openness love of God is impossibleBrother Dan
Teachings of Christianity
However, intellectual humility and openness to greater realities is also a necessary first lesson for those who would follow the teachings of Christianity as summarized by Jesus in the two commandments he names in Matthew 22:36-40, specifically the greatest commandment,
“You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.” Matthew 22:37.
In order for anyone to fulfill the command to love God with all they have, they must first acknowledge the possibility that such a God exists. Indeed, love for God must originate in humility and openness to realities beyond the reach of one’s empirical senses, and without such humility and openness love of God is impossible. Love of God therefore begins with the widening of the keyhole through which we view the world, and the intellectual humility to admit there could exist something greater than ourselves.
A lesson to us all
Strange’s first lesson in humility can therefore be seen as a lesson to us all, reminding us there is much we don’t know, and keeping us humble in our metaphysical claims. At risk of drifting too far from the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Doctor Strange’s example to us regarding this humility in metaphysical matters is perhaps best displayed by his comic book counterpart in this panel from Marvel’s Infinity Gauntlet,
In order to love God we must first acquire the intellectual humility to be open to the existence of That which is greater than we, and to acknowledge we are not That. This is the beginning of love for God, and it is the first lesson Stephen Strange must learn before he can learn anything else.
Strange’s second lesson comes when he is already named master of the mystic arts, after a fight with Dormammu’s disciples which left the Ancient One critically wounded, and its simplicity requires very little elaboration. As the astral forms of Strange and the Ancient One converse in the moment before the Ancient One dies, the Sorcerer Supreme imparts a final word of wisdom to Strange, exposing the traits within him that undermine his own potential.
“Arrogance and fear still keep you from learning the simplest and most significant lesson of all… It’s not about you. “ said the Ancient One.
If his first lesson demanded intellectual humility concerning metaphysical realities, Strange’s second lesson demands personal humility regarding life’s purpose. Strange established a name for himself by helping others only if it would bring him fame, and turning others away if there was potential of hurting his reputation. His entire life up to this moment was spent in self-service,
“Stephen, everything is about you” summarized earlier by Doctor Palmer.
Where Strange’s first lesson presents the first step in fulfilling Christ’s command to love God, his second lesson regarding personal humility presents a similar first step in fulfilling the second command,
“You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” Matthew 22:39
The possibility of God’s existance
In living for himself and the glory of his own name, Strange turned away a lot of sick and injured people he could have helped, and thereby did not love them as his neighbors. Whereas love of God begins in the humility to acknowledge the possibility of God’s existence, love of neighbor begins in the humility to see the needs of others with greater importance than our own. As the apostle Paul writes in Philippians 2:3-4,
“Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others.” Philippians 2:3-4
Until we can internalize the Ancient One’s words to Strange, and in humility embrace the fact that this life is not about our individual selves, we will not be able to love our neighbors. The first step towards love of neighbor, then, is the humility with which we get over ourselves. Strange’s second lesson is, as the first, a lesson to us all.
Having effectively fulfilled the divine law of Christ by entering into a humility which acknowledges realities greater than himself, and which puts the needs of others before his own, Strange is ready to step into the role of Christ-figure as he sacrificially contends for the fate of the world against the forces of darkness.
The Binding of Dormammu
Up to this point a character has been named but not introduced, a cosmic being and the main threat and source of conflict in Doctor Strange, the powerful Dormammu.
“Dormammu dwells in the dark dimension. Beyond time. He is the cosmic conqueror, the destroyer of worlds. A being of infinite power and endless hunger on a quest to invade every universe and bring all worlds into his Dark Dimension. And he hungers for Earth most of all.” Kamar-Taj’s librarian Wong describes him.
In the film, Dormammu’s zealots; led by Kaecilius, a former student of Kamar-Taj; steal a ritual from the Book of Cagliostro – a book of spells pertaining to time – which, is “A ritual to contact Dormammu and draw power from the Dark Dimension.” according to Wong.
The zealots ultimately aim to give Earth to Dormammu so that he can, in their belief, bring all life into the Dark Dimension, beyond time, thereby ensuring eternal life for all creatures.
“You are a doctor?… A scientist. You understand the laws of nature. All things age. All things die. In the end our sun burns out, our universe grows cold and perishes. But the Dark Dimension – it’s a place beyond time…This world doesn’t have to die, Doctor. This world can take its rightful place alongside so many others as part of the One. The great and beautiful One. We can all live forever… Life. Eternal life. People think in terms of good and evil when really time is the true enemy of us all. Time kills everything.” Kaecilius puts it to strange.
Strange interjects to ask about the people Kaecilius killed, and Kaecilius responds with Strange’s own words:
“Tiny, momentary specks within an indifferent universe… You see what we’re doing. The world is not what it ought to be. Humanity longs for the eternal. For a world beyond time because time is what enslaves us. Time is an insult. Death is an insult. Doctor, we don’t seek to rule this world. We seek to save it. To hand it over to Dormammu who is the intent of all evolution, the why of all existence.”
Eternal death and dying
What Kaecilius and the rest of Dormammu’s zealots do not realize, however, is that Dormammu offers not eternal life but eternal death and dying. Strange must ultimately confront Dormammu to protect Earth from such a fate, using a spell from the Book of Cagliostro to create an infinite time loop with which he will use to defeat the timeless destroyer of worlds. Having constructed this time loop.
“Dormammu, I’ve come to bargain.” Strange confronts Dormammu.
Time loop starts over
Dormammu immediately destroys Strange and the time loop starts over, with Strange repeating that he has come to bargain. Caught off guard by the replaying of events, Dormammu nevertheless takes delight in annihilating Strange a second time, again restarting the loop. Clearly disoriented by Strange’s third attempt to bargain, Dormammu asks what is happening.
“Just as you gave Kaecilius powers from your dimension I’ve brought a little power from mine. This is time: endless, looped time.” Strange answers.
At which point Dormammu angrily smashes Strange, killing him, thereby restarting the loop. Strange again announces that he has come to bargain, and Dormammu tells him he cannot do this forever. Strange responds:
“Actually I can. This is how things are now. You and me, trapped in this moment, endlessly.”
To which Dormammu replies:
“Then you will spend eternity dying.”
Strange counters resolutely:
“Yes. But everyone on Earth will live.”
Dormammu, perhaps bewildered by such willing self-sacrifice, clarifies to Strange what he is inviting upon himself:
“But you will suffer.”
Strange simply replies:
“Pain’s an old friend.”
The Role of Christ Figure
Here Strange’s character development reaches a climax, as the man who once would not help others if it gave him no benefit is now willing to die over and over and over in order to spare the inhabitants of Earth. Having come to full faith in the metaphysical realities he previously eschewed, and having humbled himself to the point that he is willing to endure eternal suffering in sacrifice to others, Strange steps into the role of Christ figure, enduring eternal torment in mankind’s stead. Strange’s willingness to take this suffering on himself, embracing pain as an old friend, is reminiscent of the messianic prophecy in Isaiah 53:2-3,
“… a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief… Surely he has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows yet we esteemed him stricken, smitten by God, and afflicted. But he was pierced for our transgressions; he was crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace, and with his wounds we are healed.” Isaiah 53:2-3
In taking what would be the fate of the world – eternal death in the Dark Dimension – upon himself, Strange’s sacrifice resembles that of Jesus Christ, who, according to 1 John 2:2,
“…is the propitiation for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world.” 1 John 2:2
By sacrificially enduring never-ending death in order to save mankind from Dormammu, Strange acts as Christ and extends to the world what Jesus in John 15:13 says is the greatest act of love for one’s neighbor,
“Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends.” John 15:13
Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends.John 15:13
Just as Christ, out of love for the world, endured eternal torment on behalf of mankind, Strange displays a similar act of sacrificial love, repeatedly dying so that the world might live. However, this is not the only parallel between Strange and Christ in this scene.
By subjecting himself to an infinite loop of death, Strange’s strategy for defeating Dormammu reflects the way in which Christ’s sacrifice subdues Satan. Dormammu tells Strange,
“You will never win.”
Strange, rising defiantly, responds,
“No, but I can lose again and again and again and again forever. And that makes you my prisoner.”
In his willingness to endure eternal death at the hands of Dormammu, Strange has imprisoned the destroyer of worlds in an everlasting moment. In Matthew 12:29, Jesus suggests a similar approach to freeing those held captive by Satan,
Doctor Strange binds Dormammu and Jesus binds Satan
“Or again, how can anyone enter a strong man’s house and carry off his possessions unless he first ties up the strong man?” Matthew 12:29
The means by which Doctor Strange binds Dormammu and Jesus binds Satan are the same, as both willingly surrender their very lives to the point of destruction in order to ensnare their enemy. According to church father Augustine in his 130th sermon,
“And what did our Redeemer do to him who held us captive? For our ransom he held out His Cross as a trap; he placed in it as a bait His Blood.” Augustine, Sermon 130.2
Doctor Strange’s binding of Dormammu by luring him into a temporal trap baited with his own life can be seen as an allegorical depiction of Christ’s binding Satan through his atoning work on the cross. With their enemies subdued, the bargain can be struck. In the case of Doctor Strange, Dormammu demands release.
“No! Stop! Make this stop! Set me Free!”
Strange repeats his refrain for a final time,
“No, I’ve come to bargain.”
Dormammu then asks Strange his demands, which Strange enumerates:
“Take your zealots from the earth, end your assault on my world, never come back. Do it, and I’ll break the loop. “
Here again the intended results of Strange’s trap – driving away the enemy so that he renounces his claim to those he intends to destroy – allegorically reflect those of Christ’s. As Augustine continues,
“He came, He bound the strong one with the bonds of His Passion; He entered into his house, into the hearts, that is, of those where he did dwell, and took away his vessels.” Augustine, Sermons 130.2
Doctor Strange’s ensnaring Dormammu for the purpose of freeing the Earth from his assault reflects the way in which Christ’s sacrifice frees the world from Satan’s oppression, binding the strong man and plundering his possessions. This kind of christological viewing of Doctor Strange’s showdown with Dormammu most certainly casts Strange in the role of Christ figure, as he sets a trap for the evil one with his life in order to save the world.
The first part of this series exploring the Christian themes associated with the character of Doctor Strange demonstrated how his two main lessons in Doctor Strange concerning intellectual humility in metaphysical matters and personal humility concerning the needs of others are related to Jesus’ commands to love God and neighbor, as well as the ways in which his final battle with Dormammu presents an allegorical representation of Christ’s binding of Satan through his sacrifice on the cross.
Part II of this series will analyze Strange’s role in Avengers: Infinity War and End Game to discuss how he offers a Christian answer to the philosophical problem of evil. For now, it is enough to say that Doctor Strange presents the viewer with very important lessons in humility, and I encourage my reader to learn from Stephen Strange by opening yourself up to the possibilities of realities far greater than yourself, and to remember that those realities are not about you. In doing this, we may all grow in love for God and neighbor, and find victory over the forces of darkness.
The Gospel According to Dr Strange Part I
Augustine, Sermon 130.
Jim Starlin, George Perez, and Ron Lim, The Infinity Gauntlet, 1991.
Holy Bible, ESV.
All other quotations and images from Marvel’s Doctor Strange.
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The Gospel According to Dr. Strange