From the moment Tony Stark was mortally wounded by weaponry he designed in the first Iron Man film, the Marvel movies have signaled that individual choices have consequences in this universe. Choices and their consequences have been an especially fundamental theme of Doctor Strange’s journey, ever since we first met the character back in 2016. Steven Strange’s choice to drive recklessly cost him the stability of his hands and subsequently cost him his job as one of the world’s leading surgeons. This led Strange to pursue any method to get his former life back, ultimately resulting in him taking up the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s version of sorcery (a magic explained more as supercharged science in his first film), then using that power to become a hero.
Even with his new power, however, Strange maintained his flippant outlook towards rules and restrictions. This rebellious attitude led to him stealing a powerful artifact and using it to break time itself. While this resulted in the defeat of an evil from another dimension, many around Strange questioned this decision and even left his side. “We broke our rules,” Steven’s friend-turned-enemy, Mordo, said at the end of the first film. “The bill comes due, always.” By the time we catch up with him in this film, Strange has broken many other rules as well. He has gambled the fate of the universe by giving an infinity stone to the villain Thanos and tried to help Spider-Man rewrite reality, against the advice of many closest to him. In spite of these questionable actions, the magic man’s main goal has always been the greater good, and sometimes it has seemed to work out.
Strange is also not alone in this rule-breaking spirit. In this movie, we also spend time with Wanda Maximoff, the Scarlet Witch. She, too, is haunted by decisions she has made—especially that of being forced to kill the love of her life in hopes of stopping Thanos (a plan that failed miserably). The trauma of this grief leads her to making several troubling decisions, which we see in her show, WandaVision. Like Steven, she has good intentions, but she ends up hurting many other people while pursuing them. In this film, she is willing to go even further to get what she sees as a noble goal, resulting in her becoming the villain of this story. Strange cautions her against this “ends justify the means” approach, but she points out his hypocrisy in this: “You break the rules and become the hero. I do it and become the enemy. That doesn’t seem fair.”
All’s Well That Ends Well?
As far as we know, the MCU is a world that exists without a god to guide its existence toward a positive end. We have seen many characters try to take on this responsibility, from Iron Man attempting to build a “suit of armor around the world” in Avengers: Age of Ultron, to an authority set up outside of time itself to make sure time was going in the “right” direction in the show Loki. Even Thanos’s attempt to wipe out half the life in the universe during Infinity War was aimed at a brighter tomorrow for those left after the genocide. Yet in all of these stories, ethics like these are condemned as sacrificing too much in the name of a “greater good” and as such, the MCU has consistently condemned this sort of consequentialist or utilitarian morality.
This is not to say these movies condemn self-sacrifice, however. At this point, nearly every hero established in this universe has laid it all on the line on several occasions, in the hopes of saving lives and stopping the forces of evil. Some have even made the ultimate sacrifice by giving up their lives, which these movies take up as being noble and worthy of honor. For example, Vision begged Wanda to sacrifice him, knowing it was their only option at the time to save billions, if not trillions, of lives. Even in making this decision, Vision’s friends fought with everything they could to try and save him too, and their grief over his loss prompted them to seek justice in Endgame.
And yet there are times where the sacrifice necessary for a particular plan is weighed as being too great, especially if part of the cost is innocent life. In Captain America: The Winter Soldier, we see the government attempting to create a network to lethally eliminate all threats to itself without trial, but Steve Rogers does everything he can to stop them. In Black Panther, Kilmonger fights to elevate those who have been oppressed in the past, but he does so by trying to bury those who are currently on top, regardless of whether they have ever oppressed anyone personally. Decisions like these treat life as cheap and a glorious tomorrow as being worth any amount of bloodshed necessary. This mentality has been shown repeatedly to offend this world’s heroes, and we’ve watched time and again as they have done everything they can to defeat its proponents.
Running from Realities
Ultimately, Doctor Strange and Wanda are faced with the consequences of their pasts and their own personal “greater good” calculations. The existence of other realities leads them to tempting “what if?” possibilities, though. What if Wanda could escape to a reality where she still had the children and husband she cares about? What if Strange could go somewhere where he could marry the girl of his dreams—or even to a place where Thanos never shows up to begin with? The methods presented to get to these hypothetically better tomorrows are full of their own pitfalls and moral questions, though, and some include the need to sacrifice others or to dabble in the occult.
This is where the film takes a sharp turn from the morality established by all of the previous MCU movies. While some actions are still deemed too extreme if they involve the direct harm of others, many questionable methods are used by our hero to try to save the world. In fact, the very same dark magic that Wanda uses to attempt reshaping the world to her will (which is explicitly tied to the MCU’s version of infernal powers) is the same magic Doctor Strange taps into in order to defeat the Scarlet Witch. This is especially strange (no pun intended), as this dark magic is said to be corrupting Wanda and turning her towards evil, yet by the end of this film, we are left with the feeling that Strange’s darker dealings (which include raising corpses and bending demons to his will) have not tainted him in any significant way. Where this film was set up to continue Marvel’s criticism of utilitarian morality, it ends in praising this dangerous system of ethics by showing the hero escape the consequences of his actions as long as he intends to do good.
Perhaps in a world of infinite possibilities smaller bad decisions can be made up for by working toward noble ends. Maybe with enough universe-hopping and the right magic tome, these sorcerers can outrun their mistakes and justify the rules they have broken. But more likely, the nightmares that haunt Strange at the beginning of this film will continue to remind him that the bill for his actions will come due. After all, the only person able to redeem evil actions (or even intentions) and make good come from them is God himself (Genesis 50:20), and that is true in every possible universe.
By Keegan Brittain
*Please note this movie includes some dark and violent imagery.
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