Today’s essay is brought to us by Kyla Palmer, and features the excellent Marvel superhero Doctor Strange. Here’s some background about Kyla.
I am from here in Auckland, out west in Waimauku, and I am currently studying medicinal chemistry. I am not entirely sure what I want to do at the end of my degree, but I am looking into post graduate studies and potentially going into research. This was one of my General Education papers, and I chose it because although I am a Christian and have spent a year at a Bible college, I thought it would be really cool to study how the Bible and some of its specific themes are portrayed in pop culture.
I have really enjoyed how much THEOREL 101 has made me think about things in a different light, consider the way that people use the bible, and the implications that this can have on both our interpretation of it and also the way that society thinks about a whole range of issues.
It has challenged me a lot because I am used to science papers where the answers are right and wrong, black and white – but this has helped broaden my horizons and think more deeply, so thank you very much for that!
Enjoy the read!
A Strange New-Age Messiah?
We all need a hero, someone to look to for meaning and purpose. As secularisation increases, more people are turning away from religion (Statistics New Zealand, 2014), yet still have a sense of needing something greater than themselves, a hope in the midst of despair. Lawrence & Jewett (2002) comment on “supersaviour”/messiah figures in pop culture as “a replacement for the Christ Figure, whose credibility was eroded by scientific rationalism.” Although they may be a replacement, the figures we see and the values and abilities they have still “reflect a hope for divine, redemptive powers that science has never eradicated from the popular mind” (p. 7). Filmmakers draw upon this implicit human need of a saviour, and create characters that portray many of these ideals. This trope is referred to as the American Monomyth, the overarching story centering around the protagonist who is “…distinguished by disguised origins, pure motivations, a redemptive task, and extraordinary powers” (Lawrence & Jewett, 2002, p. 47). In this essay I will show how Dr Strange fits traditional monomythic standards, albeit in a flawed way. I will also explain how the film exemplifies a shift in the monomyth coinciding with current changes in the attitudes and beliefs of society today.
The American Monomyth is based on biblical messiahs – human political or military leaders in the Old Testament, chosen by God to defeat earthly enemies (1 Sam 16:1-13). The New Testament messiah was Jesus, chosen by God to bring spiritual, rather than physical salvation (Eph 6:12). Often the monomyth centres around physical salvation from an earthly enemy, however in the case of Dr Strange, the enemy is both physical and spiritual, evidenced by the focus on supernatural powers, other realms of reality, and death. Dormammu resides in the Dark Dimension and claims to have power over death, providing “life everlasting” (Feige & Derrickson, 2016). These dark powers come to earth and battle against Dr Strange in different dimensions. Through the common spiritual type of enemy being faced, we can see a link between Dr Strange and the New Testament messiah, Jesus. Although not strictly part of the monomyth, this can help frame Strange as having aspects of his character that can be compared to biblical messiahs in both the Old and New Testaments.
One of the main features of the traditional American monomyth is that the messiah is “vaguely defined as from ‘above’ or ‘beyond’… thus they are in the world, but not of the world” (Kozlovic, 2004, ). Dr Strange poses a contrast to this trope, he comes from normal beginnings and is 100% human, with failings and vulnerabilities. In this sense he does not fit with this aspect of the traditional monomyth. However, Sjö (2009) notes that changing worldviews move away from higher deities, resulting in “a mostly human messiah, who becomes a saviour through his own struggles” (p. 182). After a car crash off a cliff, Dr Strange damages his hands beyond repair, and when modern medicine fails, seeks other methods. Upon reaching Kamar-Taj, he learns to use powers which can be harnessed for good or evil.
Through his struggle he “meet[s] his destiny and become[s] who he was meant to be” (Sjö, 2009, p. 178). Mordo tells Strange that “what you just did takes more than a good memory. You were born for the mystic arts” (Feige & Derrickson, 2016). Thus Strange is not just talented, but seems to have a propensity for magic that surpasses other humans. The postmodern definition of a character becoming a saviour is represented by Dr Strange and exemplifies how cultural changes affect in film and media. However I argue that although this aspect fits a more contemporary monomyth, Dr Strange still encompasses traditional monomythic ideas, showing a period of transition in film, rather than the final result of postmodern change. One reason for this is because in addition to Strange developing his powers and reaching his potential through his own struggles, he is also anointed in the sense of a biblical messiah.
In the Old Testament, messiah translates to ‘anointed one’ – at their inauguration Kings and priests were anointed with oil (Porter, 2007). At one of the key defining moments in Dr Strange’s character development, the cloak of levitation saves him from death, therefore choosing him… ‘the cloak of levitation chose you?’ (Feige & Derrickson, 2016). The moment the relic chose Strange represents his ‘anointing’ as the people’s messiah. The anointing of Strange not only links back to the anointing of kings and priests in the Old Testament, it also reflects that of Jesus at his baptism (Matt 3:13- 17). The contrast between Jesus and Dr Strange is also seen in that Jesus had disguised origins, born of a virgin in a humble and unassuming place – a stable (Luke 1:26-38). The origins of his life and resurrection after death show that Jesus was both human and divine, which contrasts with the humanity of Dr Strange. These aspects show how the way in which Dr Strange fulfils the unusual origins contrasts with biblical messiahs, yet meets postmodern and traditional monomyth requirements.
Another aspect of the American Monomyth is that the super-saviour “withstands all temptations” (Lawrence & Jewett, 2002, p. 47). Dr Strange is fully human, and so just as we face temptations daily, Strange is tempted by career success, relationships, and victory over death. Kaecilius tempts Dr Strange in a way that emulates Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness. He speaks to Dr Strange about the Dark Dimension, attempting to recruit him by playing on human weakness; “humanity longs for the eternal, time is what enslaves us” (Feige & Derrickson, 2016). He tells Strange that if he draws power from the Dark Dimension he can escape death and live forever. Just as Jesus refused to yield to temptations in Luke 4:1- 13 (food, water, and power over all the earth), Dr Strange refuses to succumb to the allure of eternal life, instead fighting for what he knows is right. The temptation that Dr Strange faces and his response to it shows that he fulfils the monomyth aspect of withstanding temptation.
Sacrifice is an important aspect of the American Monomyth and appears in many messiah-figures, including Harry Potter, Frodo Baggins, Katniss Everdeen and Thor (Kozlovic, 2000). The motivation for this sacrifice is commonly a zeal for justice; the hero longs to see evil conquered and good prevail. Jesus Christ is this perfect saviour figure in the bible, who gave his life so that death would be destroyed (Mark 10:45, John 20). He wanted his Father’s will to be done so that evil would be overcome (John 17:4). Dr Strange does make sacrifices, but he is not a perfect saviour figure as he initially does not want to have anything to do with helping the greater good. Instead, he endeavours to further his abilities so that he can heal his hands and become a doctor again, “I’m out, I came here to heal my hands, not to fight in some mystical war” (Feige & Derrickson, 2016). Thus, at the beginning of his journey to becoming a true messiah, Strange is not a “selfless servant who impassively gives his life for others and the zealous crusader who destroys evil” (Lawrence & Jewett, 2002, p. 6). This changes as he talks to Christine Palmer, “You said losing my hands didn’t have to be the end. That it could be a beginning” (Feige & Derrickson, 2016). We see that this transition to sacrificial behaviour has become more complete as Strange speaks to Dormammu in the Dark Dimension and is prepared to face pain and dying for all eternity so that others can live.
Dormammu: Then you will spend eternity dying!
Dr. Strange: Yes, but everyone on Earth will live.
Dormammu: But you will suffer!
Dr. Strange: Pain’s an old friend.
(Feige & Derrickson, 2016).
Strange goes from initially only caring for himself and what would benefit him, to making choices based on the survival of the universe. The change in his attitudes signifies his transition from just another talented human, to a saviour and messiah figure. Although there are similarities between the sacrificial behaviour of Strange and Jesus as messiahs, there is a key difference. Consistency. Jesus remained the same, assured of his calling and his identity. Strange, however, undergoes a journey of not only saving the universe, but also of discovering himself.
Overall, Dr Strange has proved to display many of the characteristics of a messiah figure. He is anointed, chosen for the redemptive task of saving the universe. He also resists temptations and makes sacrifices for the greater good of his community, regardless of the cost to himself as he loses his old way of life so that others may live without fear. Although Strange is chosen, we still see a struggle and a change in his attitudes from self-service to that of true justice. This progression shows a shift in the traditional monomyth from a divinely righteous figure to a ‘postmodern’ messiah that understands struggles and uses them to become a saviour through their own strength. For these reasons I can conclude that Dr Strange is a true representation of our cultural change, and he is our Strange New-Age Messiah.
All References to the Biblical Text are from the NIV.
Feige, K. (Prod.), & Derrickson, S. (Dir.). (2016). Dr Strange [DVD]. USA: Marvel Studios.
Kozlovic, A. K. (2000). ‘The Bible is Alive and Well and Living in Popular Films!’: A Survey of Some Western Cinematic Transfigurations of Holy Writ. Australian Religion Studies Review, 13(1), 56-71.
Kozlovic, A. K. (2004). The Structural Characteristics of the Cinematic Christ-figure. Journal of Religion and Popular Culture, 8(1). Retrieved from https://web.archive.org/web/20050223221011/http://www.usask.ca/relst/jrpc/art8-cinematicchrist.html
Lawrence, S. L., & Jewett, R. (2002). The Myth of the American Superhero. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.
McAteer, J. (2016). Fighting Scientism with the Occult in Doctor Strange. Retrieved from http://www.equip.org/article/fighting-scientism-occult-doctor-strange/
Overstreet, J. (2016). The Broken Hands of Doctor Strange: What Marvel’s lastest hero movie teaches us about engaging suffering. Retrieved from https://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2016/november-web- only/broken-hands-of-doctor-strange.html
Porter, S. E. (2007) Introduction: The Messiah in the Old and New Testaments. In Porter, S. E. (Ed.), The Messiah in the Old and New Testaments (2007, pp. 1-7). Retrieved from https://books.google.co.nz/books?hl=en&lr=&id=bUdH7ZSgh0MC&oi=fnd&pg=PR7&dq=old+testament+messiah+anointed&ots=tZIfJD1N0b&sig=njOi1iH9Ge0mxuXXsaKsvCki0yw#v=onepage&q=old%20testament%20messiah%20anointed&f=false
Sjö, S. (2009). Postmodern Messiahs: The Changing Saviours of Contemporary Popular Culture. Scripta Instituti Donneriani Aboensis, 21(1), 196-212. doi: https://doi.org/10.30674/scripta.67351
Statistics New Zealand. (2014) People reporting no religion continues to increase. [Summary of 2001, 2006, 2013 census data]. Retrieved from http://archive.stats.govt.nz/Census/2013-census/profile-and-summary- reports/quickstats-culture-identity/religion.aspx