[Note: This article contains spoilers.]
This past weekend, two notable movies opened that are very different, but share a few things in common.
Both are highly entertaining, visually stunning action movies that achieve significant or even groundbreaking imaginative originality.
Both films deal in different ways with faith themes. One is a fact-based film with a protagonist who is a devout believer; the other is escapist fare about a scientifically minded materialist who learns that his world is more mysterious than he previously believed.
Both films are by directors who are Christians: one Catholic, one Protestant. Both filmmakers have dealt in past films with questions of faith, the divine, and the demonic from an explicitly Christian point of view.
Mel Gibson, director of the WWII movie “Hacksaw Ridge,” is perhaps best known today as the director of “The Passion of the Christ.” Scott Derrickson, who directed Benedict Cumberbatch in the latest Marvel superhero origin story, “Doctor Strange,” also made the exorcism-themed horror films “The Exorcism of Emily Rose” and “Deliver Us From Evil.”
In each of their latest films, the battle against a threatening power raises questions about which principles the protagonist should or shouldn’t compromise in order to protect his world — questions that aren’t necessarily clearly answered by the end of the film.
Oh, and both feature ritualized decapitations. (These occur in the last scene of “Hacksaw Ridge” and the first scene of “Doctor Strange.”)
“Hacksaw Ridge” stars Andrew Garfield as Desmond Doss, a real-life WWII medic who served heroically in the Pacific theater, on one occasion singlehandedly saving scores of lives on the battlefield in Okinawa.
A devout Seventh-Day Adventist, Doss refused to carry or even touch a weapon. He became the first conscientious objector to be awarded the Medal of Honor.
Although “Hacksaw Ridge” has been described as an “anti-war” film, that’s probably a misnomer. For one thing, Desmond himself, who volunteers for military service, resists being labeled a “conscientious objector,” preferring to describe himself as a “conscientious cooperator.”
Desmond doesn’t condemn the war effort; he never criticizes his fellow soldiers for carrying guns, and denies thinking that he’s better than they are. While his nonviolent service saves many of their lives, his life is also saved by their violent efforts — and he knows it.
Late in the film, when one of Desmond’s fellow soldiers asks him what his beliefs say one should do when one’s world is under attack, Desmond replies that he has no answers for “questions that big.” Desmond’s commitment is to his own nonviolence; he doesn’t have a normative rule for everyone to follow in every situation, and certainly the movie doesn’t impose Desmond’s ethic as normative.
Then there’s a late revelation that suggests that his absolute refusal to touch a gun, even to pass basic training, may not necessarily reflect Desmond’s beliefs about moral absolutes; instead, it may represent his own individual response to an incident in his past.
An experience of violence and hatred led Desmond to vow before God never to touch a gun, and it’s not clear whether he believes that this vow reflects what God expects of everyone or whether it’s his own form of obedience.
Notably, though Doss never compromises his principles, he does break his own rules, after a fashion. Late in the film he does grab a gun — though for his purposes at the moment it didn’t need to be a gun; any similarly shaped object would have served.
More significantly, for the final assault on Hacksaw, since he’s the only medic left, he serves in the attack even though it’s Saturday, his Sabbath.
While sincere in its celebration of Desmond’s heroic nonviolence, his integrity, and his commitment to his beliefs despite the cost, “Hacksaw Ridge” also celebrates the more traditional military exploits of his comrades.
In the end, the film even links Desmond’s piety and the soldiers’ military triumph. In that Saturday assault on Hacksaw, Desmond’s unit, which have come to regard him as a kind of good-luck charm, wait respectfully for him while he prays prior to the attack — and this time the Japanese, who previously seemed unbeatable, collapse before the American onslaught.
The film couches the taking of Hacksaw as an answer to Desmond’s prayer.
What about “Doctor Strange”? The first notable indication of a spiritual subtext comes as Cumberbatch’s character, a brilliant but egocentric neurosurgeon named Dr. Stephen Strange, angrily rejects what he sees as unscientific woo-woo from a mystic played by Tilda Swinton.
“There is no such thing as spirit!” he snaps. “We are made of matter and nothing more. You’re just another tiny, momentary speck within an indifferent universe.” (Later on that last line is echoed by the villain, confronting Strange with the implications of his own earlier views.)
To Strange’s affirmation of atheistic nihilism Swinton replies merely, “You think too little of yourself.” It’s a line that obviously resonates with Derrickson’s own Christian belief, though “Doctor Strange” does not go on, like Derrickson’s exorcism films, to posit a Christian cosmology.
Instead, Swinton’s character — known only as the Ancient One — proposes a multi-layered worldview in which modern science and medicine, esoteric arts like yoga and acupuncture, and perhaps other approaches as well each reveal part of a larger picture.
It’s a variation on the parable of the elephant and the blind men, here used to create space for imaginative play without blatantly excluding either modern science or religious beliefs opposed to magic.
As Dr. Strange progresses in the mystic arts, he is warned, among other things, that “we do not tamper with natural law — we defend it.” Any hopes that the “natural law” referred to might converge with Christian moral philosophy appear to be in vain; the “natural law” in question seems to be that studied by physicists, not moral philosophers.
Which uses of the mystic arts constitute breaking “natural law” may not be entirely clear, but it’s possible to work out some relevant distinctions. There are different rules for different realms; in the “mirror dimension,” for example, you can bend reality with impunity in a way that is not supposed to happen in the ordinary world.
There is also a rule against interfering with the flow of time — a trick that Strange learns to do on his own, but which is apparently very dangerous.
Eventually it appears that some of these rules are general principles, not absolute laws, and sometimes one may “break the rules to serve the greater good,” as the Ancient One puts it. Strange, she says, has the flexibility to do this; another disciple, named Mordo (Chiwetel Ejiofor), is too rigid, and becomes disillusioned when he realizes just how far his master’s practice was from her teaching.
Even Strange is shocked, at least initially, when he realizes what the Ancient One has been doing: She has greatly prolonged her lifespan by drawing energy from a realm called the Dark Dimension — a timeless realm of “malice and hunger” governed by a malevolent, primordial entity called Dormammu, a “devourer of worlds” who wants to add Earth to the worlds he’s devoured.
Strange and Mordo are not the only disciples of the Ancient One to lose faith over her apparent hypocrisy. The first such disciple, a sorcerer named Kaecilius (Mads Mikkelsen), now actually serves Dormammu, whom he comes to believe is not a destroyer of worlds at all, but a preserver who can give to all the world what the Ancient One has taken for herself from his realm: immortality.
Now the leader of a group of “zealots,” Kaecilius seeks to facilitate Dormammu’s conquest of Earth. Making a twisted kind of sense, Kaecilius tells Strange, “The world is not what it should be. People long for immortality. Death is an insult. Time is an insult.”
The Ancient One, however, observes that “It’s our fear of death that gives Dormammu life,” she says, adding that “death is what gives life meaning”; our days are precious because we know they are limited.
In the end, Strange is able to save the Earth in part through his time-bending skills — a case of “breaking the laws of nature” for the greater good. Dormammu must settle for the lives of the “zealots” who were serving him.
“It’s everything you wanted,” Strange tells Kaecilius and his followers as the Dark Dimension claims them, “but I don’t think you’re going to like it.”
Dormammu isn’t exactly Satan, but he’s clearly a stand-in. Kaecilius and his followers are like Satan worshippers who believe the serpent’s lie in the Garden — “You shall not die…you shall be as gods” — and ultimately discover the emptiness of his promises. (Note the similarity between the Ancient One’s remark that “our fear of death” gives Dormammu life and Hebrews 2:14–15, which states that “through fear of death” mankind became subject to lifelong bondage to the devil.)
Yet what are we to make of the Ancient One drawing power from Dormammu’s Dark Dimension to prolong her life? Is this really another valid case of “breaking the rules to serve the greater good,” like Strange’s time-bending? Or is this more like trying to make good use of the Devil’s tools — like using black magic, in fact?
Mordo, who rigidly rejects all breaking of the rules, makes a powerful argument against this particular expedient: If not for the Ancient One trafficking in the power of Dormammu’s realm, he says, Kaecilius and his followers never would have been led to serve Dormammu.
The Ancient One was “complicated,” Strange acknowledges. How “complicated” was she? On this question hangs, for me, the meaning, such as it is, of the film.
The Ancient One embodies a kind of mentor archetype, like Gandalf, Obi-Wan Kenobi, Yoda, and Morpheus, that stories of the “hero’s journey” pattern have conditioned us to regard with boundless confidence.
Yet even Gandalf was fallible and made mistakes. Obi-Wan’s aura of unquestionable authority was undermined in “The Empire Strikes Back” and “Return of the Jedi” when we learned that he had misled Luke regarding his father’s fate and rationalized his story as true “from a certain point of view.”
Yoda’s aura of wisdom was badly damaged by the prequel trilogy, as was Morpheus’s in the “Matrix” sequels. While I’m no fan of the “Star Wars” prequels or the “Matrix” sequels, I do think there’s wisdom in recognizing that characters of the wise-mentor archetype can be more fallible than we initially took them to be.
My initial take on “Doctor Strange” is this: Some rules can be broken to serve the greater good. The rule against tampering with time is one of those rules. Mordo was wrong about that.
But Mordo, like most interesting villains (and Mordo could become the second interesting villain in Disney’s Marvel universe, after Loki), wasn’t wrong about everything. I think Mordo was right to condemn the Ancient One’s use of power from Dormammu’s Dark Dimension. You can’t use the powers of darkness to fight the powers of darkness. You can’t do good with black magic.
Even on the Ancient One’s own premises, her actions seem clearly suspect. If death is what gives life meaning, why was it so essential that her life be prolonged? To fight evil? Why was it so essential for her to do this? Why not simply pass on her knowledge to another generation?
Could it be that the Ancient One herself never fully learned the last and most essential lesson she imparted to Strange: “It’s not about you”?
Whether this interpretation holds in the long run may depend in part on subsequent developments. For instance, if in later films Dr. Strange follows the Ancient One in drawing power from the Dark Dimension or anything similar (or if he does so and it isn’t made clear that, like Tony Stark creating Ultron in “Avengers: Age of Ultron,” this is a terrible mistake), then Doctor Strange’s story will be compromised by something too close for my comfort to embracing black magic.
In any case, “Doctor Strange” has given a jolt of much-needed fresh energy to the Marvel universe. Perhaps “Hacksaw Ridge” has done something similar to Mel Gibson’s career. I’ll be watching both to see what comes next.