By Leander Harding
There are signs of hope in the culture and one of the them is the courageous cultural critique that is carried by the immensely entertaining and successful movies based on the characters of Marvel Comics. Dr. Strange in the Multiverse of Madness is a visually beautiful, masterfully made film with star-worthy performances by Benedict Cumberbatch and Elizabeth Olsen among others. The plot is both clever and convoluted. I am going to focus on the broad outlines of the story. There is an epic battle between good and evil, and Dr. Strange finds himself in the position of savior of a multiverse of realities.
Strange is an interesting character about whom I have written in a previous post. He was a brilliant (and arrogant) surgeon whose hands are ruined in an automobile accident. In his quest for healing he turns in desperation to Eastern wisdom and has his scientistic and rationalistic hubris humbled. He becomes an accomplished practitioner of magic and sorcery and part of a group of sorcerers who keep the world safe. He represents someone thoroughly formed in rationalist, materialist scientism who has had their eyes opened to the spiritual dimension of life. It is with the weapons that he develops in this realm, spiritual weapons, that he engages and defeats the demons bent on destroying the world.
In this film he becomes the protector of a teenage girl, America Chavez, who is being chased by a demon. America is from another universe, and she is being hunted down because she has the ability to move between universes. She does not know how to control the power. It simply happens to her when she becomes anxious or afraid. We learn that she is being pursued through the multiverse by Wanda Maximoff, once a member of the Avengers, but now secretly the Scarlet Witch. Reeling from the trauma of the events of Avengers: Infinity War, Wanda had created a false reality in which she had children (all chronicled in the series WandaVision — the Marvel Universe has become sprawling indeed!). Now she wants to take control of America Chavez so that she can use her power to travel to a location in the multiverse where her doppelganger is a happy mother of two. The whole venture may well destroy all of reality, and if she is successful, she will have to replace the real mother of those children in that node of the multiverse.
The drama of this movie is driven by the quest for happiness. All of reality is in danger of being destroyed by an obsessive pursuit of happiness. Dr. Strange is tempted to turn aside from the role of protector by the repeated question, “Stephen, are you happy?” The woman Strange loves has married someone else in his universe, but there exists a universe out there where he can live happily ever after, as long as he doesn’t contemplate the appalling cost of his happiness. Wanda has given herself completely to this quest for happiness which is worth any cost and any risk, even the total destruction of reality.
America is a neat stand-in for the generation coming of age as digital natives. These are children who are easily frightened and have great power — power they do not completely understand, and cannot control on their own — to flee that which is frightening and anxiety-provoking by retreating into a multiverse of virtual realities. If this power becomes wedded to an obsessive quest for happiness, then our universe begins to fall apart, and a universe of other possibilities as well.
Strange is asked if he is happy in order to tempt him to give up what he regards as his responsibility to be protector and savior. The question stops him. It is clear that he is not altogether happy, but he has enough wisdom to know that meaning and purpose are more permanent and capable of generating deep satisfaction and joy than any chimerical search for happiness. Had he turned aside for this apparent happiness, all would have been lost.
This story line represents a poignant and courageous critique of our cultural moment. We are engaged in a self-destructive quest for happiness at all costs. Aristotle, Jesus, Thomas Aquinas, and C.S. Lewis could all be called as witnesses that happiness is not something that can be achieved by aiming directly for it: the good life is a life that engages the real world courageously with an orientation to the true, the good, and the beautiful. To beware of the flight from reality and responsibility through the pursuit of pleasure or retreat into fantasies is part of the now rejected wisdom of our moral and spiritual legacy. The addictive character of the virtual realities now possible, and especially possible for our children, makes the elevation of happiness as the chief purpose of human life especially pernicious, even world-destroying.
Dr. Strange resists temptation, fulfills his purpose, and comes through the great battle. At the end of the film he receives an unmistakable sign that he has risen to a new level of wisdom. If Dr. Strange can learn as new these old lessons about the nature of happiness and wisdom, then perhaps so can others. This movie is a little bit of cultural dynamite wrapped up in a beautifully made production which leaves dangerous questions hanging in the air. What is happiness? What happens when the quest for happiness is made the supreme value? What happens when you manipulate and distort reality in the quest for happiness?
That a movie with this kind of sophisticated philosophical reflection could make it out of Hollywood is very hopeful. That it is doing so well at the box office is even more hopeful. If it causes members of the audience, especially younger members, to think hard about any of these things, then Dr. Strange will have done his work as a protector of young America.