The Complex Faith of 'Doctor Strange' Director Scott Derrickson
The Marvel Cinematic Universe film franchise is making a major change.
When MCU went big-budget with the blockbuster Iron Man in 2008, the decision was made to keep the stories grounded in science fiction, and to steer them away from the realm of fantasy. This is why every Marvel character carries a decidedly modernist, scientific explanation for their powers. Even Thor and the other Asgardians represent technologically advanced aliens rather than gods.
In 2011's Thor, Thor tells Jane Foster, “Your ancestors called it magic, but you call it science. I come from a land where they are one and the same.”
That’s all about to change. The newest addition to the MCU, Doctor Strange, will introduce an essential element intentionally absent from previous films: magic. And at the helm as both writer and director is Scott Derrickson, the acclaimed horror filmmaker—and Christian.
Since the early 1960s, comic book fans have known Dr. Strange as “Sorcerer Supreme” and the “Master of the Mystic Arts.” His skills are firmly rooted in the arcane, which is what initially drew Derrickson to the character. Unlike the Avengers' Scarlet Witch whose powers the MCU attributes to “cosmic energy,” Strange’s powers will simply be magical. “We’re not explaining magic scientifically,” Derrickson remarks. “Magic is magic.”
“My interest in the comic goes back a long time,” the director says, “because I grew up reading comics, mostly Marvel Comics, and I always loved Doctor Strange uniquely. It was the presence of the fantastical, the presence of the supernatural that was in it. The idea of magic. Seeing a component that was very unique to more scientifically or biologically weird superpowers. ... I thought that character in the middle of a magical, mystical, psychedelic world—which is what you get in the comics—was just amazing material for a fresh kind of superhero movie.”
"The more frightening and sort of dark and oppressive a movie is, the more free you are to explore the supernatural and explore faith."
But it’s not just his magical nature that makes Strange unique to the MCU. He has a very particular character arc that resonated with Derrickson. As he explains it, “I also was really just taken with the Dr. Strange character himself—a character who had been on top of the world with everything, was kind of a jerk and through a gauntlet of pain and suffering really learned to grow spiritually and overcome himself.”
Unlike other superheroes, Dr. Stephen Strange doesn’t get bit by a radioactive spider, injected with super serum or create some advanced technology. The doctor is a pretentious, world-renowned surgeon whose hands are completely destroyed in a car accident, and with them, everything that gave him meaning and power. In his search to find a way to restore them, he discovers the Ancient One and starts down a road that will forever change his destiny.
In Derrickson’s words, Doctor Strange is “one man’s journey from being this soulless, but self-satisfied, ego-maniacal, high-level New York neurosurgeon to being brought down to the deepest valley and losing everything. Losing his identity, his sense of self, his personal relationships, and then having to go on a journey that takes him up and out of himself and into something much, much greater and much, much bigger than he ever knew he could be.”
It’s this journey that sets Strange apart from his Marvel movie peers. Unlike many other MCU champions, he isn’t already a heroic personality who just needs a special power in order to shine. Before he can be a hero, Strange is forced to evolve beyond his arrogant and ego-driven character and embrace humility. He doesn’t start out as a lovable scoundrel like Ant-Man’s Scott Lang or Guardians of the Galaxy’s Star-Lord; he’s a genuinely self-absorbed and unlikable fellow. His growth is hard-won through study, practice and character development.
“He starts in such a place of egocentric, stunted human development, in spite of the fact that he’s so smart and so successful,” Derrickson tells us. “He is so dwarfed in his character in his soul that he has great room to travel and he travels that great distance into a world of discovery. Of discovering selflessness, of discovering soulfulness, of discovering surrender and discovering these big things that humanize us when we grow as people.”
"It's a movie about moral complexities. And I think I also changed a lot of things about myself and the way I was living and trying to evolve more as a person - evolve more spiritually."
As a writer and director, Derrickson has focused much of his career on the horror genre with movies like The Exorcism of Emily Rose, Sinister, and Deliver Us from Evil. This interest in movies with a strong good vs. evil motif piques Derrickson’s interest because of his Christian faith.
“I love the horror genre for how cinematic it is,” Derrickson told RELEVANT in a 2007 interview. “I gravitated, I think, initially, toward the horror genre because, of all the genres, I think it is the genre that is most friendly to the subject matter of faith and belief in religion. The more frightening and sort of dark and oppressive a movie is, the more free you are to explore the supernatural and explore faith.”
Doctor Strange shared much of the same appeal for Derrickson. But instead of just being a film about simply vanquishing an ancient evil, it is a film about the internal battle that we all fight. This idea of Strange’s personal and spiritual development seems to spark something in Derrickson as a Christian. A year ago he tweeted an image of the Sorcerer Supreme with a quote by Thomas à Kempis, the author of The Imitation of Christ: “Who has a harder fight than he who is striving to overcome himself?”
“It’s about the circumstances they’re having to overcome and what they’re having to learn,” he explains. “There have been a lot of good boxing movies in the history of cinema and there’s always the top contender that your hero’s got to fight at the end, but no good boxing movie is about that conflict. It’s really always about an individual finding out who they are, what they’re capable of, are they strong enough to build themselves up to be able to accomplish something like that. I think in this case it’s great because it’s not about physical achievement, it’s not about a character manifesting himself in physical strength, it really is about getting past one’s ego and coming to recognize that true growth and true power come from a sense of surrender to something greater than yourself and service to something greater than yourself.”
When pressed to consider how his Christian faith influenced his work on Doctor Strange, Derrickson observed that he’s gotten away from the impulsive need to express his own point of view as he’s matured as a filmmaker.
“In this age where the word ‘Christian’ conjures up angry, vocal, closed-minded Christians and the word ‘atheist’ conjures up images of angry, closed-minded atheists and all of these terms just become fighting words,” Derrickson says, “I really liked the idea that the comics and the movie therefore could just be a third thing where we’re talking about magic and we’re talking about mysticism and we’re talking about possibilities and other realities and places where we all know religious ideas and scientific ideas overlap, even though we’re not really playing with either in this movie.”
To Derrickson, the allure of Doctor Strange doesn’t spring from a desire to conform the story to his perspective, but rather comes from the places the source material’s view of the universe syncs up with his own mindset. “I can’t help but view the world mystically,” he reflects. “It’s how I see it. I’m not a strict materialist. I think there’s much more to the world than what we see with our five senses. I think I’m a good choice for this material because I see the world that way.”
But he’s quick to point out that, even if you see the world differently, there’s still plenty in this film that will resonate with you. “I certainly made the movie for everyone to try to make that jump and enjoy the ride of possibilities of what could be out there and to do it in a way that wasn’t presenting a point of view, or even challenging someone else’s point of view, but rather articulating what we all know—which is that we all need to grow.
“We all have to get past ourselves. We’re all capable of being more than we presently are and the effort that it takes and the will that it takes and sometimes the trauma and tragedy that it takes to force us into that kind of growth is the story of our lives. And to do something that's that spiritual and that personal and that meaningful in the context of a gigantic, entertaining, mind-trip psychedelic action film—that’s the kind of movie I want to see.”
The big question is how to pull off this kind of internal struggle in a way that will appeal to the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s target audience. When push comes to shove, they’re still buying tickets to see a blockbuster. And you might think Derrickson would worry about the need to sacrifice story elements in order to craft a big-budget blockbuster with mind-bending cinematography.
“No. I felt just the opposite,” Derrickson says. “I felt like the extremity of one gave permission for the extremity of the other. It’s very easy when you’re making movies of this size, these kind of giant tentpole Hollywood movies and we’ve all seen it happen over and over again, but it’s really easy for a filmmaker or a studio to kind of lose control or track of what target they were trying to hit in the first place. And going into this it was very clear to me what target we were trying to hit.”
In the end, even the best director relies on his cast to carry the vision across the finish line. No decision was more important than who was going to be chosen to play Dr. Strange. A choice that went to English actor Benedict Cumberbatch.
Derrickson remembers, “He was my first choice and he was [producer] Kevin Feige’s first choice. We wanted him right away. I think Kevin was the first one to bring him up and it was probably within minutes I was like, ‘It’s just not going to get better than that.’ I’d seen all the Sherlock episodes, I’d seen The Imitation Game, and I flew to London and offered him the role.
“He wanted to do it. I had a summer release date and there was just no way to make it work practically because he had committed to Hamlet in London. When I came back, Marvel and Disney were like, ‘We’ve got a great date in the summer.’ So I met with a bunch of other actors, and came back to Kevin and said, ‘It’s just got to be Benedict. He is Dr. Strange.’ Kevin, to his credit, pushed the release date for Benedict.”
The hype surrounding Doctor Strange hasn’t been without controversy. Many considered the casting of actress Tilda Swinton as The Ancient One to be another example of Hollywood’s “whitewashing” issue. Because the Ancient One was originally a Tibetan-born male, critics accused Marvel Studios of erasing Asian characters.
In the midst of the rumpus, Marvel released the following statement: “The Ancient One is a title that is not exclusively held by any one character, but rather a moniker passed down through time, and in this particular film the embodiment is Celtic,” adding that the studio routinely casts diverse talent for its projects and “regularly departs from stereotypes and source material to bring its MCU to life.”
Derrickson himself tweeted, “Raw anger/hurt from Asian-Americans over Hollywood whitewashing, stereotyping & erasure of Asians in cinema. I’m listening and learning.”
Spend any time talking to Derrickson and you’ll find this sentiment to be indicative of his thoughtful and introspective nature.
It’s no wonder that Doctor Strange would play a dramatic part in his own personal growth. In a contemplative moment he says, “It’s not a movie about simplistic moral perspective. It’s a movie about complexities—moral complexities. And I think I also changed a lot of things about myself and the way that I was living and trying to evolve more as a person—evolve more spiritually—as I was making a movie about a character who’s self-centered and successful and quite oblivious to the areas in which his life was meaningless and soulless.
“It was a really beautiful growing process for me as an individual to go through this whole arduous journey of making a movie this size about a character of growth. It was psychedelic and invigorating and traumatic and extremely fun. And I certainly have come out the other side a different person as a result of it. And that’s what you hope for when you invest two years into a creative project.”
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