Monday, April 16, 2018

Doctor Strange, Violet Baudelaire, and the "Greater Good"

My family watched the movie Doctor Strange last Friday. It was an...interesting movie for sure, and Dr. Strange did have a positive character arc of transformation from a self-centered jerk into a defender of the earth, but I can't say that I liked it. There was quite a bit about it that bothered me, like the Eastern mysticism and occultish magic that most certainly didn't fall into an acceptable category of fantasy magic. I'm not against all fantasy magic—I love Narnia and Tangled and Frozen, after all—but the magic in Doctor Strange really seemed to cross the line. I'm not going to go into it too deeply as that's not the main point of this post, but I think it was pretty clear that it was supernatural, spiritual power that didn't come from God. And because of that, the bit where Dr. Strange had to surrender completely to the powers in order to use it treads into very dangerous territory. Surrender completely to God, absolutely, but if you're surrendering completely to anything else, you're in big trouble.

Aside from all that though, one thing that really stood out to me was the overall message of the movie. The idea that you can do anything, break any rule, so long as it's for the "greater good."

Do evil that good may come.

Use whatever means necessary to save the world, even if it's wrong.

Early on in Dr. Strange's use of magic, he's warned by another sorcerer named Mordo about manipulating time. It can destroy the space/time continuum, which obviously can have catastrophic consequences. According to Doc Brown, after all, it could destroy the entire universe. Because of that, tampering with natural laws is forbidden. In the climax of the movie, Dr. Strange turns back time to reverse the destruction of the bad guys and traps himself in a time loop with the ultimate bad guy to wear him down and get him to agree to leave. Despite Mordo's warning that such actions always have consequences, this is presented as a noble and heroic action. 

In and of itself, time travel and time loops don't bother me. I liked Doctor Who up until the last season and still like earlier seasons, and I enjoy watching Back to the Future and Groundhog Day. The problem comes when the writers create a scenario where breaking good rules is considered the right thing to do. A scenario where doing evil for the sake of the supposed "greater good" is upheld and applauded.

And they take it a step further in the end credits scene by showing that by trying to prevent sorcerers from breaking the rules, Mordo has become a villain. 
These sorcerers are trained in the use of magic by a woman known as the Ancient One. She is a supposed good character, a trusted mentor, one who does right. I can't recall any of her actions that the writers of the movie appeared to consider wrong. Yet she is drawing power from the Dark Dimension to extend her life. This is supposedly acceptable because she has been able to teach others for a longer period of time. Using evil power to extend her life is okay because it helps the "greater good."

Perhaps the reason this aspect of the message was so prominent to me was because earlier that same day I had been listening to The Slippery Slope by Lemony Snicket while sewing. In that installment of A Series of Unfortunate Events, Count Olaf and Esmè Squallor are constantly harping on the "greater good" mantra, which to them is the successful theft of the Baudelaire fortune. It doesn't take much to realize that that is no true greater good, but that's not where the book stops exploring the theme.

Sunny was kidnapped by Count Olaf apart from her siblings at the end of the last book, after they'd all set fire to the Caligari Carnival. Violet, Klaus, and a spoilery character are desperate to get her back, and so they hatch a scheme. They dig a pit in which to trap Esmè, and lure her to it, so they can exchange prisoners. Sure, it's not really a good thing to do, but that's okay because they're only doing it to rescue Sunny. It doesn't really matter if it's wrong because their purpose is good.

But then as Esmè is about to fall into the trap, Violet has a revelation. They're acting like villains. They're behaving just like Count Olaf and that isn't okay. It doesn't matter how right your cause is if you do wrong things to accomplish it. Two wrongs don't make a right. So instead of allowing Esmè to fall into the pit, they warn her, help her get back to Count Olaf, and find another way to rescue Sunny. The "greater good" argument is invalid.

I had this rattling around in my brain as I watched Doctor Strange, and I couldn't help comparing the two messages.  

Doctor Strange: anything is acceptable as long as you justify it by claiming it's for the greater good.

The Slippery Slope: villainous behavior is never acceptable, even if it's for the greater good.

And I'll take the message of The Slippery Slope any day over Doctor Strange.


  1. The words 'the greater good' make me cringe these days. More than half the time people don't know what good even is, and it's usually just a lesser evil.
    I've got a story that deals with this question, though it has questionable actions rather than questionable powers. But. It still applies the same. Some things are just wrong.

    1. Me too. People don't know right from wrong.

      ASoUE was about actions, not powers, and Doctor Strange was kind of both, but you're right. It's still the same issue. Not to say that characters should never grapple with that question, or even choose to do wrong, but it should be portrayed as wrong. That's where the problem comes in: subverted morals where evil is good and good is evil. (One reason why I'm not a big fan of Pirates of the Caribbean, though the music is fabulous.) Wrong is always wrong, no matter the motive.


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