Faced with the prospect of his own death, all Kaecilius wanted was to live. We all have an innate aversion to death, though experience or philosophy might teach us to try to embrace death rather than to run from it. Most of us, if we believed such things were possible, would choose life. Thus, many have enshrined myths regarding a quest for immortality, whether through the discovery of the Fountain of Youth, the cup of the Holy Grail, etc. Most religions, too, offer transcendence beyond our temporal frame, the promise that there will be some kind of afterlife once our bodies are in the ground. For Kaecilius, the path to eternal life lay behind a book of dark spells which would summon a powerful supernatural being who would liberate him from his mortal frame.
In the Doctor Strange films, we have a pair of the most sympathetic villains in the Marvel Cinematic Universe: they’re not out for power, for world domination or for revenge. One (Kaecilius) wants to escape from death, and the other (Wanda) wants to be a mother. Of course, they’re both willing to murder to achieve these goals, but their ultimate aspirations are good – praiseworthy, even. Yet their designs come crumbling down spectacularly, and – interestingly enough – they both self-destruct more than they are truly defeated by our hero. This theme of natural consequences reveals much about the nature of evil and has profound ramifications for our pursuit of our own desires as well. After all, what is it that you most deeply desire? Are you sure that the path you’re on is leading you towards the satisfaction of your goal?
The story of Doctor Strange himself begins with an almost providential set of natural consequences. This brilliant surgeon has displayed not only astute abilities in the operating theater, but an astounding attitude of arrogance and avarice when it comes to his pursuit of greatness and his pride in his work. When the very hands which have won him renown are damaged beyond repair in an accident attributable to his careless texting while driving at the end of a callous discussion of potential patients, Stephen Strange is forced to humble himself in search of his own healing. His wounded pride has pushed away the woman he loves and left him on the edge of desperation, begging for help on the doorstep of a purported healer in Nepal. Yet he repents of his old ways and – by humbling himself – is able to learn from the Ancient One not only the secret to mastering his shaking hands, but also to unlocking powers far deeper than he had ever imagined possible.
In the world of Doctor Strange, some knowledge is perilous. The piercing questions which draw Strange to become the Ancient One’s apprentice may also very well have driven his enemies mad with poisonous curiosity. Trying to reframe his naturalistic philosophy of medicine – and life – the Ancient One inquires: “You think you know how the world works? You think that this material universe is all there is? What is real? What mysteries lie beyond the reach of your senses?” Yet while Doctor Strange is renewed by adopting an attitude of humility and submission, both Kaecilius and Wanda transgress prohibitions warning of the dangers of the magic spells they require for their plans, corrupting themselves in the process.
Again, we see natural consequences at work: to gain immortality, Kaecilius must surrender his personhood and be absorbed into the One supernatural power upon which he has called (Dormammu). Investigating his plans, Doctor Strange confronts Kaecilius and tries to reason with him. When Kaecilius speaks of escaping from the decay of time and entering a glorious, eternal kingdom, Doctor Strange observes the dark decay around Kaecilius’ eyes and replies, “Look at your face. Dormammu made you a murderer. Just how good can his kingdom be?” One may live (in a sense) forever, but if you have merely been absorbed into some cosmic consciousness, eternal life would not mean all that much to you. You would not be around to enjoy it.
Similarly, to gain motherhood – to be with the children who are truly hers in a parallel universe – Wanda must literally destroy her alternate self. The attempt to do so terrifies her children (in that parallel world) and reveals to Wanda just how far she has fallen from the hero and Avenger we once knew. Having succumbed to a book of spells that corrupts her soul, Wanda has become a horror to the very people she was so desperate to love. When he discovers she has used the Book of the Damned, Doctor Strange warns Wanda that the path she’s on will “[violate] every natural law,” confessing that he fears what the book has already done to her. Yet she, too, persists on a path that leads many to devastation.
God confronts the evil of our own hearts in much the same way: warnings, revelations of truth, and ultimately surrender of the individual over to natural consequences. Nowhere is this more obvious than in the beginning of the apostle Paul’s letter to the Romans. He declares:
“The wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against all the godlessness and wickedness of people, who suppress the truth by their wickedness… for although they knew God, they neither glorified him as God nor gave thanks to him, but their thinking became futile and their foolish hearts were darkened. Although they claimed to be wise, they became fools… Therefore, God gave them over to the sinful desires of their hearts… They exchanged the truth about God for a lie, and worshiped and served created things rather than the Creator.” – Romans 1:18-27
How is the wrath of God revealed? Not through thunderous bolts of lightning, nor purifying plagues, nor the earth swallowing up the wicked where they stand – at least not most of the time (see: tales of Israel in the desert for notable exceptions). He often allows people to continue in their pursuit of exactly what they want – and because of their foolishness, their suppression of the truth, and their sinful desires, it leads them to their own destruction. As Doctor Strange explains to Kaecilius while he struggles, bewildered, to comprehend his doom, “It’s everything you’ve ever wanted… You’re not gonna like it.”
We may be tempted to revile those who have sown the seeds of their own fate and are now reaping their just rewards. But this would be a mistake. In C.S. Lewis’ Til We Have Faces, the princess Psyche shows us a better path: “Have you forgotten what we are to say to ourselves every morning? Today I shall meet cruel men, cowards and liars, the envious and the drunken. They will be like that because they do not know what is good from what is bad. This is an evil which has fallen upon them not upon me. They are to be pitied…” Pity is the proper response to such wickedness. Pity for the darkness of their hearts in which they cannot tell right from wrong and therefore stumble about as they search in vain for their fleeting treasures. And compassion to show forgiveness as we have been forgiven. Jesus did not die full of bitter hatred or mocking scorn for those who had done him so wrong. Rather, he cries out from the cross on behalf of the mob who crucified him, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they are doing” (Luke 23:34).
Thankfully, God has not merely diagnosed our self-destructive sickness, revealing what will happen to us through the vicious cycle of our foolish, sinful pursuits. He has also prescribed for us the remedy: “Take delight in the Lord and he will give you the desires of your heart” (Psalm 37:4). However noble we may think our desires, if they are not rooted in the character of God, then they will lead us astray. We will end up worshiping and serving created things rather than the Creator. The prophet Jeremiah expresses God’s broken-hearted bewilderment over our human tendency to run ourselves ragged in pursuit of things that won’t satisfy in particularly poignant words: “Do not run until your feet are bare and your throat is dry. But you said, ‘It is no use! I love foreign gods and I must go after them.’”
This is exactly what comes to mind when Wanda, resisting Doctor Strange’s appeals to reason and virtue, responds, “If you knew… there was a universe where you were happy, wouldn’t you want to go there?” She has suppressed the truth about the Book of the Damned in favor of her own schemes, and all she can see is the happiness promised by the potential of being mother to the children that she might have had in another life. In an age that is obsessed with personal fulfillment, this biblical truth is tremendously liberating. We seek first God’s kingdom and his righteousness, we trust that God will provide what we need, and we find that our hearts are delighted and satisfied in Him (Matthew 6:25-33).
In the original Doctor Strange film, Strange’s friend and ally, Mordo, becomes disillusioned when both the Ancient One and Doctor Strange bend the rules to achieve a greater good. His biting criticism: “The bill comes due. Always!” And though he’s portrayed in the films as irrationally inflexible with respect to his moral standards, he’s not wrong about this fundamental natural law of the universe. You reap what you sow. In the words of the apostle Paul, “Whoever sows to please their flesh, from the flesh will reap destruction; whoever sows to please the Spirit, from the Spirit will reap eternal life. Let us not become weary in doing good, for at the proper time, we will reap a harvest if we do not give up. Therefore, as we have opportunity, let us do good to all people” (Galatians 6:8-10). All Kaecilius wanted was to live, but in order to reap eternal life he sowed the seeds of his own destruction. All Wanda wanted was to love her children, but in seeking first her own pleasure of giving that love, her love becomes twisted, possessive, and unworthy of the name of love. Conversely, in the Multiverse of Madness, we see Doctor Strange prevailing over the temptation to kill someone in order to use her powers for the greater good. Choosing to honor her life as sacred rather than a means to an end, Doctor Strange does not weary of doing good. He does not give up. He does not follow the wayward desires of his heart in pursuit of happiness. And neither can we.