Arrival and Doctor Strange and The Knowledge of Death



Sometimes, I feel like we’ve taken the sting out of death.

I love serialized and comic book storytelling, but there’s something about it that so often takes any narrative weight out of a character dying.

Sometimes it’s the refusal to let a character die or stay dead. When a story needs to go on, it needs all the resources it can get. The permanence of any decision is subject to the whims of higher-ups, who don’t want to remove their chances at using a character just yet, or want to leave it in the sandbox for another writer/director/showrunner/what have you. So we have character coming back against all narrative logic, meaning death is not the end, just a time to negotiate contracts. It doesn’t matter how many times the Black Canary character comes back on Arrow, the promise that this is the final one loses all meaning.

Vice versa, it can also be the use of death as a cheap tactic to move the narrative along. In both shows I am charitable towards (Game of Thrones) and ones I’m significantly less charitable towards (The Walking Dead), death becomes another plot point, a brief gasp followed by a desensitized numbness. In The Walking Dead (because why not be mean?), Glenn and Abraham have a weight to their death. But because the show treated it as a cheap telegraph, building up to the promise of bloody and brutal death. Death has no reverence here, no respect. It’s just for the ratings. How do we make it mean anything as a sideshow?

To be honest, I have no idea how to actually fix this. I’m not here to prescribe. But I want to point towards two examples of works that help to understand how death can feel, the power that it still can hold. That make the weight and decision of death sink in.

Doctor Strange seems weird to hold up here, given how I’ve already brought up the issue with comic book and serialized storytelling. But thematically, Doctor Strange is a different beast, centered all in one single and powerful scene.

Doctor Strange on its whole is about seeking the denial of death. Kaecilius (Mads Mikkelsen) offers him and the whole of Earth to Dormammu to be able to move beyond death. Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) was given the power to reverse time and reverse death, we see him do it.  The Ancient One (Tilda Swinton) turns to dark forces to prolong her life.

But death cannot be denied forever. When it finally comes for The Ancient One, we are there for her final moment. She slows time to a crawl to take in the natural world around her, to see the snow fall. She tells Strange that though she could see hundreds of possible futures, she could never see past that moment. What it must be to know the moment you will die.

What gives this such weight is what we know about the character so far. We know her power, we know the lengths she has gone to stave off her end, and we know what she knows about the whole of the multiverse. Yet in that final moment, she becomes just like everyone else. Vulnerable and unsure of what comes next.

But moreover what gave it weight is that brief little detail. Knowing that death is coming at that moment gives power to when it does come, because she’s chosen to accept it. Doctor Strange approaches death by understanding its inevitability and giving us what people will do to overcome it. But it also makes us understand that as personal as it is, it’s a small part of a very large universe. It turns death into something that makes us feel small. It doesn’t shatter the Earth, it comes for everyone and is just another passing moment. It’s a fear because it reduces us, and that’s the weight Doctor Strange gives it.

Going from that personal aspect of death, Arrival takes it and puts it on someone whose name we never learn. Louise Banks (Amy Adams) is plagued by memories of her daughter, thoughts of good times and bad. She divorced the daughter’s father at a young age. Her daughter dies young, of an unknown disease.

What we learn is that these are not memories, but premonitions, visions from the future to come. The alien language has unlocked her ability to perceive time as non-linear, and she’s been given a look at the future she will have. She can pull from it, making the decisions in the past based on what she knows from the future.

In other words, she makes the decision to have a child knowing that she will have to bury her. Banks makes the decision to give her daughter life knowing death will come. She chooses that the joy she will be given and that her daughter will have will be worth the pain. She chooses a life with Ian (Jeremy Renner) knowing one day he will leave, and knowing why he will leave.

In other words, the knowledge of death gives weight to life. Ultimately, life’s purpose means more than death’s final sting. Seeing it coming may be terrifying, but there’s so much joy and wonder up until then. Banks knows it will be worth the pain one day, a pain that can’t be avoided, but that had so much good to make it okay.

Both of these posit that death essentially helps us know what life meant. Our place in the universe and how valuable it is. Death doesn’t have weight because it happens or because it shocks us. Death has weight because it’s what ultimately tells us who we were and why we were here. Death gives life meaning.