Ina 2018 opinion piece for the New York Times titled “The Fourth Great Awakening,” David Brooks contrasts the “competitive virtues” of myths with the “cooperative virtues” of parables. The former, he argues, derive from Athens and celebrate strength, righteous indignation and “the ability to smite your enemies and gain eternal fame”. The latter, from Jerusalem, emphasize humility, love and forgiveness. Myths usually take place in some sort of “perilous realm” with a special set of rules and superpowers bequeathed to different characters. They channel our heroic impulse, the desire to undertake a quest and destroy evil on the battlefield. Parables, on the other hand, inhabit the everyday world and normally deal with inner states of being, not outer conflicts. They capture the moral dilemma of human existence and provide their characters with opportunities to act with charity, mercy, and selflessness.
Brooks argues that the mythical ethos has saturated contemporary culture to the exclusion of parabular one. Among video games, sporting events and superhero movies, he says, competitive virtues are now supplanting cooperative virtues in the minds of millions. This development bodes ill for our politics, as the myths “see life as an eternal competition between warring tribes”, he says. “They tend to see the line between good and evil as running between groups, and not, as in the parable, through the middle of each human heart.” He’s onto something real – certainly since the advent of the star wars franchise, American films have been dominated by blockbusters and commercial pop. Nowhere is this development more evident than in the dizzying iterations of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, with its endless sequels, spinoffs, and crossover films. This comic book engine started in earnest with director Sam Raimi’s 2002 Spider Man, with Tobey Maguire and Kirsten Dunst. Over the past 20 years, that image has spawned a veritable cottage industry of superhero movies, with Marvel and DC trading blows with icons such as the former’s X-Men and Avengers and the latter’s Batman and Superman.
But Brooks’ thesis crumbles when you realize that the line between myth and parable often blurs. The two genres merge in the Western imagination more than it admits. Moses and Jesus, for example, are parable figures, but both have mythical traits: a prophetic birth, a period of desert, a triumphant return to confront evil. Harry Potter, on the other hand, is a hero out of myth, but his stories involve the misuse of his gifts and the learning of cooperative virtues, including, ultimately, self-sacrifice. In our ideal world, we want leaders who embody both sets of characteristics: strength and charity, justice and mercy, fight external enemies and inner demons.
It is this precious alchemy that made the years 2016 strange doctor memorable. In Scott Derrickson’s pic, Dr. Stephen Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) begins as an arrogant, passionate neurosurgeon who suffers in wisdom after a car accident destroys his hands. When his obsessive attempts to repair his body fail, he becomes a neophyte under the tutelage of the Elder (Tilda Swinton), a witch who (echoing Buddhist initiation) puts him through various ordeals to reveal that his problem is indeed the his. oversized ego, not his hands. She confronts him with a choice straight out of a parable: regain the use of his hands and return to his old life or never fully recover but join his company in their defense of the cosmic order. As he struggles with this decision, the machinations of the traitor Kaecilius (Mads Mikkelsen) intervene. A former protege of the Ancient One, Kaecilius wishes to entrust Earth to the power of Dormammu – an interdimensional entity that seeks to absorb all other universes into its dark dimension. As Strange battles these villains, he combines his wits, powers, and newfound selflessness to save the planet. He wins by being defeated. He not only becomes a great hero but a good man, worthy of Christine Palmer (Rachel McAdams), his former surgical colleague and lover.
You would think that Raimi, who directs the new sequel Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness, would like to build on this solid foundation. After all, he did it to wonderful effect with Spiderman 2 (2004), which transfigured its hero into a kind of Christ figure. When Peter Parker saves a runaway subway car by strapping himself on the outside, he gives his body for the sake of the passengers. They respond in kind and rescue his broken body, lifting him up and passing him among them in an empathetic, mute crowd surf. The pathos of the scene elevates the film beyond its genre – pop begets art. Instead, Raimi and his team ruin Strange’s latest installment in a concept maze. The image opens with a young woman named America Chavez (Xochitl Gomez) and a version of Strange being chased by a demon (similar to Balrog from The Fellowship of the Ring) across several universes. When Strange realizes he can only survive by harnessing Chavez’s power to jump universes, he begins to suck his essence. But the demon destroys it and Chavez opens a portal to our universe, taking Strange’s corpse with it.
Once in our universe, Chavez encounters the first film’s version of Strange. He’s just gotten out of Christine’s marriage to another man, and you think the story might be about how he goes on a quest to a different world to win her back, and in the process comes to terms with lose. Instead, the creators insert a completely different narrative into the story: that of Wanda Maximoff (Elizabeth Olsen), a witch who combines telekinesis and “chaos magic.” (Viewers here will benefit from watching the Avengers movies, as well as Wanda Vision on Disney+.) Long story short, Maximoff had to kill the love of her life and then construct an alternate reality in which the two are raising a pair of boys in a suburban home. After this fantasy crumbles, Maximoff sees in a dream that her children do exist, albeit in another universe. Determined to reach them, she hunts Chavez in order to take the power to jump universes for herself.
What follows is a plotless medley of absurdities in which Strange and Chavez jump from one alternate reality to another to escape Wanda. The filmmakers regurgitate every magical trope available, and you lose track of the many convoluted, contrived twists around the same time you stop caring. The hard-but-tender weirdness of the first film is reduced to mind-numbing exposition and silly one-liners. “This time it’s going to take more than killing me to kill me,” he intones at one point. Chavez has no character and Gomez is rather colorless in the role. Chiwetel Ejiofor, with his soulful face and classic looks, returns from the previous film. Like the others, he is lost here. Same thing with McAdams, who is stripped of all personality.
Michael Waldron wrote the mindless screenplay, and he throws a sci-fi dreck medley at you. Lacking interesting ideas, he even casts Dr. Charles Xavier (Patrick Stewart) and various heroes from other tales. It only leads to more silly battles in which the main fun is seeing John Krasinski (as Mister Fantastic) liquidated, relieving you of the burden of believing he’s the “smartest man” alive. . The creators concoct theories about the multiverse, but nothing is based on a central conflict you care about. Along the way, you’re treated to such clever lines as “Go back to hell,” “Get out of my universe,” and “You’re gonna kick that witch’s ass.”
If you can endure two hours of this inanity, you get a perverse reward. In the final 20 minutes, Raimi leans heavily into the camp style of his horror movies. Suddenly, you’re treated to skeletal demons, body snatches, and a Doctor Strange zombie. With its Grand Guignol effects, the sequence takes on such a scandalous character that it reduces you to drunken giggles. That might not be enough to redeem the movie, and I’m not sure it makes up for ignoring Strange’s character development, one of the most interesting in the Marvel Legion, but at least it provides some sort of catharsis. There’s no virtue to be learned from this latest Marvel movie, whether it’s a parable or a myth. But its sheer uselessness can sharpen your appreciation for the virtues of taste.
Nick Coccoma is a Boston writer and critic who has been published in New policy, Reviews in generaland Full stop. Follow him on Substack at Similarity and @NickCoccoma.