The Philosophy of Doctor Strange
This article assumes you have already watched Doctor Strange : Multiverse of Madness.
Hence, Warning : Spoilers Ahead
Have you been falling off a cliff , seeing flying fishes or getting action in your dreams ? Well congratulations, your alternate self in another Universe is enjoying life, and you get to experience it at night. That is, at least, what Doctor Strange : Multiverse of Madness proposes.
Doctor Strange : Multiverse of Madness is a film full of trippy visuals, CGI- filled wizard fights, and (at least a degree of ) moving emotional arcs. The movie revolves around two protagonists Doctor Strange and America Chavez, who attempt to thwart the antagonist, Wanda Maximoff’s, attempts to steal America’s powers to travel the Multiverse, by inadvertently killing America , to be with the children she could not have in her own Universe.
( source : Google free library)
Strange and Wanda are both characters with strong powers. Wanda is known as one of the most powerful magicians in her world. Strange, in previous MCU films, has saved the world. Yet both remain emotionally unsatisfied ; where Wanda cannot be a mother in her Universe, and Strange cannot be with the love of his life Christine Palmer in his Universe ( and many others).
Christine Palmer , tells Strange that “he always has to be the one holding the Knife”, and thus hse cannot be with him . Strange has a need for total Control which is a flaw he refuses to change about himself.
One of Strange’s versions in one of the Universes is willing to even kill America Chavez, in order to retrieve her powers that would aid him to defeat a demon , as he believes America “does not have control over her powers”. Throughout the entirety of the film, Strange desperately tries to control everything, by acting as America’s caretaker, fighting Wanda, stealing the book of Vishanti, and even attempting the dangerous act of Dreamwalking to control his own decaying corpse. Interestingly, Wanda also has the same flaws which make her the antagonist. She cannot cope with not having control over her life, and thus, must dreamwalk or traverse the Multiverse to find a way, and a Universe, where she can.
In contrast, America cannot control her powers , and maintains that she can only use them when she is scared. She is acutely aware that not all is, nor can be, in her control.
“ Life can only be understood backwards, but it must be lived forward.”- Søren Kierkegaard
In Søren Kierkegaard’s book Repetition, he writes of the comedic tale of a man who tries to recreate the trip he once took to Berlin because it made him very happy at the time. He goes back and stays at the same place, goes to the same theatres, drinks the same coffee, and yet, is unsatisfied. All the same activities do not hold the charm as they did the first time.
This is similar to Wanda’s desire to recreate the experience she had as a mother ( in her dreams, and at Westview) . She attempts to do this by dreamwalking, which is by occupying the body of one of the Wanda’s in another Universe where she has children. Yet the childless Wanda ( Who we would now refer to as ‘our Wanda’ for convenience), is unable to connect emotionally with the other Wanda and her children.
Repetition provides an explanation. Kierkegaard’s character, after all his attempts, realises that there is no such thing as a true repetition, and in attempting to recreate the experience, a contradiction arises : The idea of how his trip would feel, and how it feels in reality. The attempt at repetition left him with this feeling of impossibility. And we see this in the film when our Wanda literally comes face to face with the Wanda with children, and her kids themselves. All of her actions were motivated by her wanting to repeat the experience of loving her boys. But, when she finally sees them again, they are terrified of her. Thus, she experiences the contradiction between her ideal of being a mother, and the reality of being one.
Thus, Kierkegaard talks of the comic (and in Wanda’s case tragic) contradiction of repetition. In other words, in trying to control one’s past , present and future , one is confronted with the impossibility of time flowing how one wants it to. We cannot control everything in life.
Ultimately, Wanda stops trying to control everything around her, and instead destroys the Darkhold which gives her her powers, so that nobody may repeat her mistakes.
Our protagonist , Strange, also realises the same. Throughout the MCU, his defining trait has been his arrogance and need for control. And across the Multiverse, he is confronted with various versions of himself with the same flaw. This flaw has led to many versions of himself destroying their Universe , or being murdered by his friends who realiesed his flaws combined with his powers would lead to great destruction. What sets our Strange ( the one who is set against our Wanda in the film ) apart, is that he eventually cedes control , by handing it over to America, after realising that he cannot defeat Wanda.
The lack , thereof
America believes that she does not have control over her powers, her reality, or even whether she would ever reunite with her mothers again. When Strange hands her the proverbial knife of control, she realises she only can control herself. Existentialists believe that where we lack control over the larger aspects of the Universe, we still hold a degree of responsibility over ourselves and our decisions. For French philosopher Jean Paul Sartre, responsibility is a direct effect of our existential freedom. This contradiction between the small degree of self control, and the ideal of perfect control, thus creates the emotional disaffection in the hearts of Wanda and Strange.
A bit of the west
Descartes believed that math and God give existing a rational structure , where everything makes sense. You know you exist because you are thinking about existing. This made reality understandable to the level of mathematical certainty. David Hume on the other hand believed that what we physically experience is what makes up knowledge , and thus what we see is more important than what we think. Immanuel Kant coalesced the two to argue that reality does have a formal structure , and while we cannot see the causes for everything, we can acquire some limited information about how the world works, like morality and truth.
Kierkegaard was interested in how all these attempts at knowledge affect us at the individual level, in our actual existence. Thus, he argued that the contradiction between what we see the world in our ideas, and how the world in reality is, can cause despair.
This despair drives Wanda to become the Scarlet Witch.
The way out
Kierkegaard argued the way out of this despair was to make decisions, which involve elements of risk or faith, as you may never truly know whether your decisions would create the outcome you idealise or not.
Doctor Strange decides to give control over to America and places his faith on her. Thus at the risk of not having complete control over his surroundings, he is able to defeat Wanda.
Wanda decides that her ways are evil, and at the risk of not being the Scarlet Witch anymore, destroys the darkhold.
America decides that she can control her powers, by placing faith in her ability to do so.
Thus, the drive for repetition can be a prison, and the way out is to make the decision to cede control, and have faith that the future may work out.