Film & TV

Doctor Strange: Time and the Meaning of Life

Last week we looked at Gemini myths which gave me the perfect excuse to watch Doctor Strange again. The film deals with various Gemini/Mercury themes including magic, healing, the confrontation with the shadow, and the shamanic journey between dimensions. It’s another superhero origins story – a classic hero’s journey with an added dash of ‘Hollywood metaphysics’ plus kaleidoscopic visuals based on fractal geometry and Escher. It looks fantastic and is best seen on the big screen (and in 3D, if you can stomach it – I can’t!).

When it came out there was a lot of excitement that psychedelics and Eastern mysticism were finally going mainstream, but I thought it was strangely unimaginative for a film about magic. Despite the emphasis on alternative perspectives, the subtext is the same as every other blockbuster. Doctor Strange learns magic and then uses it in a series of fights that cause massive destruction – all familiar territory. It’s still a bunch of blokes (and a few ladies) hitting each other, only this time with shiny magical mandalas on their hands.

Here’s the basic story: Dr Stephen Strange is an arrogant but brilliant neurosurgeon, but a car crash destroys his hands leaving him with untreatable nerve damage that ends his career. Desperate for a cure, he travels to Nepal and meets the Ancient One who opens his third eye and reveals there’s more to reality than he previously thought. He becomes her student and learns the mystic arts, but then a former student returns to destroy the Sanctums that protect the Earth from the Dark Dimension…

**Expect Spoilers from now on!**

Stephen Strange starts out with a scientific reductionist perspective on life. He’s an empiricist and materialist who doesn’t believe in the soul or spirit. His sense of meaning comes from his ability as a neurosurgeon, although he doesn’t seem to care much about the lives he saves. He’s arrogant and only interested in cases that will further his career or increase his fame.

His house is all polished surfaces and glass – cold and empty. It doesn’t even look like a human being lives there. He has a large display case filled with trophies and awards for his work, and a draw full of luxury watches. His only friend appears to be Dr Christine Palmer, his ex-lover (barely), who works in the Emergency Room.

It’s not clear why Christine puts up with Strange. He’s egotistical, vain, and conceited, but perhaps he has some charm. He gets away with being an asshole because he’s brilliant at his job. This is a classic set-up for a fall from grace and it comes when his reckless driving causes an accident that crushes his hands beyond repair.

After the accident, he can’t work and becomes increasingly desperate as he searches for a cure. He tries everything, but nothing works and he’s furious that nobody can help him. He’s even turned down by another surgeon for the same reasons he had given in the past – to protect his reputation against failure.

Strange sinks into destructive anger and lashes out at Christine when she tells him there are other things that can give his life meaning. But he doesn’t want to change. His hands are broken – he literally can’t hold on to his old identity, but he can’t imagine his life without being a neurosurgeon.

A dishevelled beard is Hollywood shorthand for losing your shit

He goes to see a man who received a cure for a spinal injury and sets out to meet the person responsible. When he arrives in Nepal, Strange is robbed and his watch is broken. (Watches are an important symbol in the film, as we’ll see later.) He manages to run into Mordo who takes him to meet the Ancient One at Kamar-Taj. But he’s still an egotistical asshole and it doesn’t go well.

The Ancient One shows him pictures of the body’s energy system and chakras and explains that she can teach him to “reorient the spirit to better heal the body.” He’s incredulous that she appears to be talking about healing through the power of belief. She replies:

“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.”

He’s having none of it and says:

“There’s no such thing as spirit. We are made of matter and nothing more. You’re just another tiny, momentary speck within an indifferent universe.”

She tells him he thinks too little of himself – surprising considering he’s such an egotist, but she means his true Self. He’s so stuck in his narrow perspective that he’ll only believe something if he sees it directly, so the Ancient One pushes him over the edge into inner space:

Strange is initiated into a new way of seeing reality and his old worldview starts to breakdown – slowly. He’s a doctor, but not a healer, and he can’t heal himself because it’s not a mechanical problem. His nerve damage can only be fixed by going deeper into the soul and spirit and by learning to use his energy in a different way.

This is similar to real practices like Reiki and Qigong which involve moving the chi around the body, releasing blockages and keeping the energy flowing. The chakras, or energy centres of the body, circulate energy through the bodies that make your being: physical, astral, etheric, causal, and bliss. There are various ways of describing the subtle bodies, depending on tradition, but generally speaking they refer to different rates of vibration or frequency. You’re really a seething mass of energy and light.

The film focuses on the astral which is the level of emotion where you find a lot of psychic phenomena, like ghosts, spirits, and visions. It’s pretty low on the spiritual totem pole and many of the experiences you have there are just your consciousness playing with itself. It’s fun but ultimately you’re only going in circles. If you want to heal, especially something like nerve damage, you have to go higher (and deeper).

But this is the Hollywood version of magic so Strange reads a lot of magical texts – or rather, his astral body reads the texts while he sleeps – and he uses a Sling Ring to open a portal into other locations on the planet. He struggles at first because he needs to learn to surrender and silence his ego. He can’t understand how you can control the mind by surrendering control – something any meditator will sympathise with.

For the fights, Strange learns to create shields and project energy. The shields use patterns from sacred geometry similar to yantras. Yantra is a Sanskrit word that means a device for holding or fastening. Yantras are mystical diagrams from the Tantric tradition of Tibetan Buddhism, used for meditation, psychic protection, and developing powers, and they use the five basic patterns from which all life is formed: tetrahedron, hexahedron (or cube), octahedron, dodecahedron, and icosahedron – the five Platonic solids.

Despite all the magical training, Strange is still clinging to his old identity. He breaks the rules and reads books he shouldn’t. He’s accumulating knowledge about magic in the same way he did with medicine – filling his head with techniques and facts and then using them to get what he wants for himself – a cure for his broken hands.

But then shit gets real and he has to use magic to defend himself. In the New York Sanctum, Strange runs into Kaecilius, an ex-student of the Ancient One who has gone over to the dark side. During the fight, Strange acquires the Cloak of Levitation, which is pretty nifty. The cloak chooses him and protects him during the magical fisticuffs, even doing some fighting of its own.

Kaecilius is a nihilist and believes that life is meaningless because it doesn’t last forever. He wants to let the Dark Dimension into this universe because it exists beyond time, and then, he believes, everyone would have eternal life. But it’s not clear what he would do with eternal life if he had it. Perhaps he hasn’t thought it through that far. He wants to live forever but doesn’t value life any more than Strange.

Kaecilius – when your eyes look like this, you’re doing something wrong

The two egomaniacs have a chat and Kaecilius tries to recruit Strange to his cause. But when Strange challenges him over the people he has killed, Kaecilius replies using the same words Strange used earlier: “Tiny, momentary specks within an indifferent universe.”

Strange realises he’s confronting his old self and has a mini epiphany. But the real change doesn’t come until later. During the fight at the Sanctum, Strange kills one of the henchmen and betrays his Hippocratic oath as a doctor. Now he has taken a life he starts to think about what life means. He says he became a doctor to save lives, not to kill people, but the Ancient One points out that he’s lying to himself – he became a doctor to save himself.

That pesky ego has to go. Strange could leave Kamar-Taj now and cure himself with the magic he has learned and return to his old life. But if he did, he would still be in denial about the real meaning of his life. By choosing to stay and fight alongside his fellow sorcerers, he’s starting to serve a higher value than his own ego.

The real turning point for Strange comes when the Ancient One is injured in another fight and he takes her to Christine at the hospital. Doctor Strange and the Ancient One chat in the astral as her body dies. She explains that he craved success as a doctor because he feared failure, but arrogance and fear kept him from learning the most important lesson of all:

“It’s not about you.”

Meanwhile in Hong Kong, Kaecilius has destroyed the final Sanctum and the Dark Dimension starts to bleed through into this dimension. An extra-dimensional being called Dormammu, who dwells in the Dark Dimension, begins to feed on the city and everything starts to disintegrate.

Doctor Strange uses a convenient plot device otherwise known as the Eye of Agamotto to manipulate time, creating a Groundhog Day style time loop. Basically, he brings time into eternity and forces Dormammu to relive the same moment over and over again. Unfortunately for Doctor Strange, this means he has to die over and over again, until Dormammu gets fed up and demands to be set free.

“Dormammu, I’ve come to bargain.”

Doctor Strange beats the bad guy through his willingness to experience the pain and suffering of mortality – potentially forever. He sacrifices himself in order to save the world. He then uses the Eye thing to put the city back the way it was before – restoring people to life in the process. This makes a refreshing change from the usual Hollywood destruction-fest that happens at the end of these superhero movies.

At the end of the film, Doctor Strange puts on his broken watch and his hands are still shaking. He has chosen not to heal himself, but to serve a higher purpose. Why doesn’t he heal his hands? He could, easily, and still serve as a sorcerer protecting the world.

He keeps the broken watch because it was given to him by Christine: the message on the back says, “Time will tell how much I love you.” His broken hands are a reminder of his past and everything he has learned and sacrificed. They’re a way to remember the suffering of life and maintain a connection with his humanity.

He has accepted his new situation and new identity. Both his broken hands and the broken watch are reminders of death and that time is limited. His hands don’t work the way they used to, but he has learned a higher use for them. He has mastered time by accepting the present moment. It may be fleeting, but it’s the only time that exists – the Eternal Now.

Images: film stills

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