I just got back from seeing Doctor Strange 2, and this is the first Marvel movie that made me feel spiritually uncomfortable. This post contains spoilers for the climax of the film, so don’t read it if you want to be surprised. I loved 90% of this film, but the 10% left a sour taste in my mouth. When it went “full-blown demonic,” I started getting a knot in my stomach. I haven’t read the comic books, so maybe this just emulating them, but I wasn’t expecting necromancy from the hero.
Just to set the stage – I have no problem with magic in movies, and I love a ton of series that involve magic (Merlin, The Vampire Diaries, Harry Potter, etc) but seem to have strong reactions to demonic activities and/or “dark magic” that resembles the occult. I had to stop reading one YA book series because the girls involved slaughtered a deer, bathed themselves in its blood, and performed a satanic ritual. I liked most of The House with a Clock in its Walls… until the necromancy and dark magic. I don’t mind that in the villain, but I especially do not want the hero to be using demonic forces, because I want them to be Different from the villain. In most fantasy series, it’s the evil characters who harness demons to do their will—and now it’s Doctor Strange. And that made me deeply uncomfortable.
At the climax, Strange gets stranded in a different dimension from Wanda / The Scarlet Witch, who wants to kill a character who can travel between dimensions to steal her powers. Wanda has been possessing alternate versions of herself in various universes in an attempt to find this character, by using an evil spell-book full of forbidden occult rituals. Strange wants to save this girl from Wanda, so he decides to also use the dark book and to reanimate his corpse in another reality to do battle with her. When demons attack him for necromancy (forbidden magic), he binds them all to his will, draws on their strength, and uses them to fight Wanda—all as a zombified version of himself. And I did not like it. It gave me the same creepy feeling that reading about killing a deer and rubbing its blood all over their faces gave me when I put down that book series.
When Strange decided to do this, I immediately thought about when the Pharisees tried to discredit Jesus and accused him of demonic activity; and he retorted that you cannot use demons to cast out another demon. You need a balance between good and evil; for goodness to be actual goodness, for the light to chase out the darkness. Possession in Biblical times was seen as evil—demons had to flee in the presence of Jesus and the disciples who had been given the authority to cast out demons. They were also told to avoid those who had anything to do with the “dead” (mediums, necromancers, etc), with the implication that they were in communication with ‘demons’/evil.
Whether you believe in actual demonic possession or not, scriptural and secular lore associates demons with the Dark Side / Evil Magic. Most “good” sorcerer / witches do not use them. But by making Strange into a Necromancer, the Marvel universe is blurring the lines between Good and Evil. It’s suggesting you can use evil to do good, and I don’t think that’s possible—evil is always evil, because it’s incapable of ‘being good.’ An evil person can be redeemed, and God can make the most out of an evil situation, but evil is still irredeemably evil. “The end justifies the means” is just an excuse to do wrong; I believe the method is just as important as the result. I wanted to see Strange find the good book (which possessed the magic that would have helped him defeat Wanda) and use that—not to watch his half-decayed zombie stagger into a pagan temple with demon heads and arms sticking out of his back. Maybe I expected too much, because I like Harry Potter. Rowling understands the distinction between good and evil, and how it’s necessary to fight the darkness with the light (using happy memories to defeat the dementors, and associating actual occult behaviors like blood rituals with evil). The only two characters to use necromancy in her franchises are Voldemort and Grindelwald, two villains. Harry is always good (though flawed). He doesn’t reanimate the dead, he doesn’t possess people, and he doesn’t use evil magic to defeat evil magic; he uses the power of love and mercy. That is what I want from a hero—for him to use goodness and light.
I don’t believe the end justifies the means; I believe the means should be as moral as the end. I don’t think you can take something evil and make it do good; it’s still evil. Evil corrupts and destroys, it does not redeem and build. So it disappointed me that Strange would use evil to defeat evil, because it’s not possible. If you do that, you are simply becoming a new form of evil. Marvel has always had dubious characters, but I think this is the first time the hero has ever used ‘evil’ to ‘do good.’ (I can’t be sure, since I have not seen all the movies.) It has ‘bad’ characters who are heroes (like the violent ‘scum’ that make up the Guardians of the Galaxy crew, all of whom are criminals), the flawed arrogant playboy Tony Stark, and the pompous Thor, but that’s different. Those are heroes’ journeys.
Maybe Strange is also on a hero’s journey; it’s worrying that he realizes midway through this film that many other multi-verse versions of himself have fallen prone to corruption or gone to the dark side. One version of himself spent so much time possessing other versions of himself, he created an Incident that caused the destruction of two words. Another has used the dark magic so much, he has a third eye (possibly a symbol of his evil). Another version was willing to kill a young woman “for the greater good.” So the moral ambiguity of Strange is apparent throughout, with the suggestion that he is just one step away from becoming a villain himself. If that’s true, and the evil repercussions of this incident are going to carry him through into the next film, that’s one thing… but it still won’t erase the spiritual aftertaste of this installment.