Post #41: Heroes of Magic, Heroes of Science
KAECILIUS: How long have you been at Kamar-Taj, Mister...?
KAECILIUS: Just “Doctor”?
STRANGE: It's “Strange.”
KAECILIUS: Maybe. Who am I to judge?
--Doctor Strange (Derrickson 2016)
The above exchange happens when Dr. Stephen Strange, a former neurosurgeon and present student of “the mystic arts,” defends against an attack by rogue sorcerer Kaecilius and his zealot followers. It perfectly represents the tension in Strange’s character between the scientific (he’s an accomplished practitioner of the medical arts) and the mystical (he’s becoming an accomplished practitioner of the mystical arts). Derrickson’s film gleefully exploits this tension for comic effect, as this back-and-forth between Strange and Kaecilius demonstrates, but it’s also a serious reflection on a modern American worldview that’s profoundly divided between the scientific and the mystic.
I’ll be using the terms “scientific (frame)” and “mystical (frame)” to describe the worldviews that inform the ways in which stories are told. “Scientific (frame)” indicates that the story is told with a worldview premised on the insights provided by empirical observation of “reality.” This does not mean that such stories can actually be explained by science, however. For instance, although in the Ant-Man films that happen in the same narrative universe as Doctor Strange, Hank Pym is a scientist who discovers the means to shrink and enlarge molecules, that discovery is not necessarily possible through “actual” science. We might more properly call such stories science fiction. By contrast, “mystical (frame)” indicates that the story is told with a worldview premised on the mythic, AKA the non-cognitive. Both frameworks are valid ways to understand the world, as William G. Doty says in his book Mythography: the Study of Myths and Rituals (The University of Alabama Press 1986): “But scientific observation and experimentation, and mythopoetic creation and belief, are approached most fruitfully as different planes of thought, not as a wrong and right plane of thought” (p. 61).
The origins of superheroes published by Marvel Comics in the 1960s were often told in a scientific framework. Peter Parker becomes Spiderman after being bitten by a spider that had been exposed to radioactivity, Bruce Banner becomes the Hulk after being exposed to gamma radiation (see figure 1), and so on. As has often been observed, the post-World War II science-obsessed culture of the United States at that time was behind this. The creation of nuclear weapons in 1945 and Russia’s launch of the satellite Sputnik in 1957 in particular generated fear and optimism about what science could do. So we see both a fear of atomic energy (e.g., radiation can result in monsters like the Hulk) as well as the good that technology could bring about e.g., Tony Stark/Iron Man’s debut in 1968).
When Marvel began rolling out the film versions of these characters in 2008 (collectively called the Marvel Cinematic Universe, or MCU), the company had the chance to reimagine the 1960s characters’ origins for early twenty-first century audiences. In most cases stories that had a mystic framework were reimagined with a scientific one. MCU films released from the first entry (Iron Man in 2008) through Captain America: Civil War in 2016 featured protagonists whose origins stories were scientific: Captain America (injected with a serum), Winter Soldier (ditto), Hulk (experimentation with gamma radiation gone awry), Thor (alien), Iron Man (“billionaire playboy philanthropist” in a self-designed “suit of armor”), Scarlet Witch (experimentation with the Mind Stone), Quicksilver (ditto; see figure 2), Ant-Man (manipulation of Pym particles), and Vision (artificial intelligence).
Dr. Stephen Strange is a notable exception. His character’s story combines the scientific and mystic frameworks: he is a talented surgeon before he becomes the “Sorcerer Supreme” by studying magic in the Nepalese monastery Kamar-Taj. Strange appeared in the comic book Strange Tales #110 (1963), around the same time as many of the other characters mentioned in the previous paragraph. His story, though, was told in a mystic framework, as was the MCU debut of the character, Doctor Strange (Derrickson 2016), which will be the subject of the rest of this post.
Dr. Strange’s, ahem, strange name is apt. His personality is basically Tony Stark’s: an arrogant but extremely capable and skilled scientist. But whereas Stark’s transformation into a slightly-less-arrogant superhero comes at the hands of a terrorist group who ambushes his military escort and tries to force him to make more weapons for their cause, Strange’s transformation is mystic rather than scientific (see figure 3). As in his comic-book backstory, Strange is a prominent neurosurgeon, until a car accident leaves him with unsteady hands. Hitting rock bottom and finding no solution in the field that he knows so well, western medicine, he seeks a remedy in eastern mysticism. He finds that his new path is in some ways similar to his old one.. Explaining his skill at learning spells quickly, he tells Wong: “I've got a photographic memory. It's how I got my M.D. and Ph.D. at the same time.”
Strange learns from the Ancient One, a 500-year-old sorcerer who runs Kamar-Taj. She describes “the mystic arts” to her skeptical disciple. Strange is going to be difficult to persuade--he’s gone through medical school and has a reputation as a skilled doctor (one of my favorite tie-ins this movie has with the larger MCU is Strange being offered and refusing to treat James Rhodes, who suffered a traumatic spine injury in 2016’s Captain America: Civil War). Strange is a stand-in for a skeptical audience, who’s been primed by MCU films up to this point to embrace the scientific. Knowing this, the Ancient One skillfully connects the scientific and the mystic:
The language of the mystic arts is as old as civilization. The sorcerers of antiquity called the use of this language "spells," but if that word offends your modern sensibilities, you can call it "program," the source code that shapes reality. We harness energy drawn from other dimensions of the multiverse to cast spells, conjure shields and weapons to make magic.
The Ancient One equates “modern sensibilities” with the scientific; she uses the terms “source code” and “program,” which are taken from the language of computing (I thought of The Matrix films here, which is perhaps not accidental). The Ancient One looks directly into the camera when she speaks these words (see figure 4), and so her words become an appeal to Strange as much as to the audience.
Strange doesn’t reject one framework in favor of the other. Instead, he embraces both the scientific and mystic in a subsequent scene. In the course of defending against an attack by Kaecilius and his zealots, Strange suffers a chest wound from a mystical weapon. He teleports himself to the New York City hospital where he used to practice medicine and insists that his former colleague Christine Palmer operate on him. As Palmer works to revive Strange’s physical body on the operating table, the zealot’s astral form fights Strange’s astral form. It looks as if the zealot will prevail, but Palmer uses an EKG machine on Strange when he flatlines, and the resulting energy surge destroys the zealot. The scientific and the mystic must co-exist to assure success.
In a subsequent scene, the Ancient One is stabbed by Kaecilius with the same kind of weapon used against Strange. Strange takes her to the hospital, and he and Palmer operate on her. Their initial back-and-forth about the Ancient One’s condition sounds an episode of ER:
STRANGE: It’s not fibrillation. She’s got a stunned myocardium.
This medical jargon puts us in a scientific framework, but in the end medical science fails to revive the Ancient One. Strange has one last chat with her via their astral projections (see figure 5). Whereas the Ancient One has flatlined in the hospital without ever regaining consciousness, magic allows her to communicate one final time. In this conversation, the Ancient One and Strange switch places: she speaks in terms of science, he in terms of magic.
ANCIENT ONE: When you first came to me, you asked me how I was able to heal Jonathan Pangborn. I didn't. He channels dimensional energy directly into his own body.
STRANGE: He uses magic to walk.
ANCIENT ONE: Constantly.
Doctor Strange’s mix of scientific and mystical frameworks could be understood as humor, pure and simple. The collision of these two ways of understanding the world is, after all, quite funny. But there is also a serious aspect to this. Strange could have rejected the scientific in favor of the mystic, but the film shows that using both is necessary. The humor comes from the tension between two worldviews that are, at least on the surface, incompatible with one another. As Tony Stark’s snide commentary in Avengers: Infinity War shows, though, the scientific needs the mystic: “Dude, you’re embarrassing me in front of the wizards.” (see figure 6).
* I credit the idea for this post to a conversation that I had with Dr. Michael Heyes of Lycoming College. In our discussion about scientific vs. mystical frameworks, he pointed out that Dr. Strange situates mystical subject-matter in a scientific framework.