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Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness

Jason Friend hacks your identity algorithm.

In the 2022 superhero film Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness, Wanda Maximoff (played by Elizabeth Olsen) completes the frightening transformation from hero to villain that she began in the Disney+ show WandaVision (2021). Now possessed by the Darkhold, a mystical book that corrupts the mind of those who use it, Wanda is fully unleashed as the evil and incredibly powerful Scarlet Witch. She can alter reality with her mind, and she is willing to perform unspeakable acts for the sake of her imaginary (or alternative universe) children. Yet through the film’s depictions of its villain’s many gruesome deeds, it poses a philosophical question about personal identity: is the Scarlet Witch actually Wanda at all, or is she now a different being entirely?

In a previous film column here (on WandaVision, in Issue 152), I articulated a concept I call the ‘identity algorithm’. This is the idea that the key to anyone’s identity is the unique decision-making matrix encoded into his or her brain activity through the combined influences of their genetics and their vast web of personal experiences. These two influences interact in complex ways to produce an individual’s unique thoughts and actions when faced with new situations.

Since one’s identity algorithm (a.k.a. personality) is always evolving and changing due to the continual impact of new experiences, you might expect this theory to conclude that the Scarlet Witch is Wanda, simply with an updated version of her brain identity algorithm as a result of her exposure to the Darkhold. Yet I do not believe this to be the case. I want to argue that the Scarlet Witch is not in fact Wanda Maximoff.

To explain why, let’s take a look at a real case study discussed by neuroscientist David Eagleman in his article ‘The Brain on Trial’ (Atlantic magazine, 2011). In 1966 Charles Whitman, one of the first mass shooters in American history, murdered fourteen people in Texas before being shot dead by the police. In a suicide note found afterwards, Whitman revealed that he had previously sought psychiatric treatment, because he suddenly felt overcome by “overwhelming violent impulses” that he feared he could not control. Indeed, the psychiatrist herself noted in her account of the session “that something seemed to be happening to him and that he didn’t seem to be himself.”

Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness
Film Images © Marvel Studios 2022

As it turns out, the psychiatrist’s choice of words was exactly right, for Charles Whitman was not himself. His autopsy produced a startling discovery: he had a massive brain tumor. An external force had imposed itself upon his brain, causing it to produce thoughts and decisions radically different from those that would have occurred otherwise.

While Wanda’s situation is pure fiction, it parallels Whitman’s grim reality in a philosophical sense. Just as the brain tumor had taken hold of Whitman’s brain algorithm, so the Darkhold deforms Wanda’s algorithm in monstrous ways. While she is under its spell, she is literally not herself.

What about the Wanda we saw previously in WandaVision? While her actions are not yet murderous, as they become in Multiverse of Madness, she already commits immoral acts, including abducting a town full of people and forcing them to become puppets in her fantasy. (Ironically for these innocent citizens, Wanda is essentially an external force that corrupts and takes possession of their identity algorithms.) However, since this earlier version of Wanda is not yet under the spell of the Darkhold, it seems that the Wanda in WandaVision must truly be Wanda Maximoff. Yet I would argue that this is not the case either, for Wanda’s identity has already been hacked, by a force much more frightening than the Darkhold, since it is all too real: serious mental illness.

As WandaVision makes clear, Wanda has been seriously traumatized by the violent losses of her parents, her brother, and her husband. While no medical diagnosis is offered up by the show, it seems reasonable to surmise that Wanda is in the throes of PTSD, and that her use of magic to create a fantasy world is her attempt to self-medicate. Notably, Wanda never receives the psychiatric treatment she actually needs, and, at the very end of the series, when her fantasy world falls apart, she turns to the Darkhold. In this light the Darkhold seems more like metaphor than mysticism – a symbol of untreated mental illness run amok (this is nodded to in the ‘Madness’ of the film’s title).

My suggestion here is a controversial one: that in the grip of the severest forms of mental illness, such as untreated PTSD, or extreme cases of schizophrenia or Alzheimer’s, the victim of the disease actually loses her identity and effectively becomes another person entirely, since her hacked algorithm responds to the world in fundamentally different ways than her previous and actual self would.

While the loss of identity is frightening to contemplate, it does raise the question of whether it can ever be recovered after such severe psychological disruption. Is it possible for such a heavily afflicted individual to ever ‘become one’s old self again’? The good news is that this sometimes seems to be the case. Rather as malware can be removed from the code it infects and controls, so proper therapy, medication, and other treatment have the potential to restore a human being’s identity. Patients with wildly distorted identities have had their tumors removed, and then shown remarkable turnarounds in their thoughts and actions. While Wanda may have permanently lost her self as the Scarlet Witch (or may not have – Marvel loves resurrections), hope still remains for Doctor Strange.

Strange(r) to Himself

At the climax of Multiverse of Madness, Doctor Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) chooses to use the Darkhold himself to save the world from the Witch, reasoning that the noble end justifies the terrible means. Of course, as so often the case with such consequentialist thinking, there is a terrible price to be paid: at the end of the film it is revealed that Doctor Strange, newly equipped with a demonic third eye, is now himself possessed by the Darkhold. In defeating the Scarlet Witch he has transformed himself into a new threat to the world; a threat just as great as the one he has just extinguished. As Nietzsche put it in Beyond Good and Evil, “He who fights with monsters might take care lest he thereby become a monster.”

Just as a brain tumor can sometimes be successfully extricated, perhaps it’s also the case that the spell of the Darkhold can someday be broken? Yet even if this happy turn of events does take place in a future film, it is not quite true to suggest that Strange would then return to his ‘old self’, since the very experience of having temporarily lost his identity to the Darkhold would certainly cause his identity algorithm to change. Perhaps the next time he’s faced with an equivalent ethical dilemma, Strange’s algorithm will reach a different conclusion, deciding for instance not to meddle with dark magic no matter how high the stakes. Yet, while the experience of having had his identity hijacked might one day shift Doctor Strange from a consequentialist to a deontological morality – from a ‘seek good consequences’ to a ‘do the right thing’ approach – this shift would in no way jeopardize his identity. A deontological Doctor Strange would still be Doctor Strange, since his new outlook would be the result of natural thought-processes.

Yet what if, in the strangest twist of all, the most widespread threat to continuing identity is posed neither by mystical possession nor by the very real specter of severe mental illness, but by the smell of baking bread? In ‘The Case Against Character’ in his book Experiments in Ethics (2008), Kwame Anthony Appiah suggests that our identities are being hacked all the time. Appiah argues that small, seemingly insignificant factors in any given situation can have disproportionate influence on our decisions and actions. He cites several experiments to support this view, the most famous of which dates back to the 1970s. When unsuspecting participants in that study entered a phone booth, they’d sometimes find a dime planted by the experimenters in the return change slot. Outside the booth, an actor awaited; and when the subject exited the booth, the actor would clumsily drop a pile of papers. Intriguingly, the experimenters found that a massive 85% of people would help pick up those dropped papers if they had found a free dime while only a measly 4% would help if they had not! Other experiments have shown large shifts in human behavior caused by such trivial acts as holding a cold drink or smelling something pleasant such as baking bread. In light of this data, Appiah argues for a ‘situationist’ view of character, which says that people have no consistent underlying identity but are instead constantly being swayed to behave in particular ways by the environment around them. This idea would seem truly damaging to the notion that every individual has an identity (algorithm) or set character; for how could that be true if the presence or absence of a mere dime can cause so many different people, with their supposedly unique brain algorithms, to act in such uniform ways?

While such experiments do reveal important glitches in our identity algorithms, the claim that they undermine the very notion of personal identity is overblown. If Peter Parker is a procrastinator, Wanda the Witch a workaholic, and Stephen Strange a slacker, their brains will produce trendlines that will over time clearly diverge from each other. Even though a random factor in one situation, such as the scent of danger, might cause all of them to finish a certain task in a timely fashion, this shared outcome would be the exception, not the rule. This type of small situational hack is quite different in both scale and duration from the wholesale transformation of an identity caused by severe mental illness.

However, suppose now that someone decided to study the glitches in our identity algorithms, then used the insights of behavioral psychology to manipulate how masses of people act. Further suppose that giant social media corporations were deploying their own algorithms for such a purpose, and that these algorithms were continually getting better at influencing the decisions of millions of people. Such hacking of our identity algorithms would be much more intentional, systematic, and persistent than the occasional influence of random situational factors. In such a world, the smartphones in our pockets could very well become the Darkhold for our minds.

© Jason Friend 2023

Jason Friend has an MA in English from Stanford University. He teaches literature and philosophy in California.

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