There has been a lot of news about the Doctor Strange movie in recent weeks, and I thought maybe it was time to talk about a topic that seems to interest a number of folks around the internet: How the movie will handle magic. To do this, let’s take a look at both what the filmmakers have officially said about their take on the concept, as well as how the comics they’re drawing on for inspiration depict magic.
So far most of our news on how the movie will handle it has come from Kevin Feige, the godfather of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. The following are some choice quotes.
“Are you watching the Cosmos series? That’s magic, [the quantum physics]. It’s unbelievable. If somebody knew how to tap into that stuff, what’s the difference between that and magic?
You don’t get into it in Harry Potter, but if a scientist went to Hogwarts he’d find out how some of that stuff is happening! We’re not going to spend a lot of time on that, but there will be some of that. And particularly for a character like Strange, who goes from a man of science to a man of faith and who traverses both worlds. And sometimes there won’t be an answer! Sometimes he’ll want an answer – ‘How is this happening?!’ – and nothing.”
“Now, what is the definition of supernatural? It varies. We like the idea of playing with alternate dimensions. The very sort of crazy – [Steve] Ditko crazy acid trip way of traveling through dimensions and traveling through other realms is something that we think is very, very cool … playing with the perceptions of reality.”
“He can do a whole host of things, eventually,” explains Feige, who is also the producer of Doctor Strange. “He does cast spells, which in the comics have very sort of tongue-twisty fun names. We don’t want to shy away from that, because that’s what makes Doctor Strange Doctor Strange. He has a Cloak of Levitation that allows him to fly, but he doesn’t fly like Superman or like Thor. It’s almost got a consciousness of its own, this cloak, which, again, gives us a superhero with a red cape — which we’ve seen a few times — but allows us to do it in a wholly unique and wholly original way. He can create these mandalas of light that he can use as shields and he can use as sort of weapons. He can create portals that will open before your eyes that he can step through and go to other places around the world. And frankly, even in this film, we’ll only touch upon what a lot of his powers are.”
I’ve seen a lot of people around the internet reacting somewhat angrily to the suggestion that Strange’s magic might just be “quantum physics” in the movie. I’m not particularly worried, though. There’s a lot to unpack here, but to explain my complacency we need to talk about how Dr. Strange’s magic has traditionally worked in the comics. If you read a lot of magic-heavy stories in Marvel you’re going to see the phrase magical energy (or some variant thereof) crop up a lot:
Magical energy is what people like Doctor Strange use to cast their spells in Marvel. It’s an energy force that acts like a lot of other energy forces. It can be stolen, traded, absorbed, transferred…
Indeed, this is often a major plot point. Strange’s nemesis, Dormammu, seeks to steal all the magical power of our universe and add it to his own. In numerous stories over the years, Strange has lost access to one source of magical power and had to make do with others. Its exact origins are mysterious. One early Dr. Strange comic posited that magic is ultimately generated by stars…
…but that’s not really been referenced since. There’s a lot of rules like that when it comes to magic in Marvel. One writer comes up with what they think is a clever idea, but the next writer ignores it. For example, in a pretty excellent Dr. Strange story called The Oath, writer Brian K. Vaughn introduced this odd concept:
…which to the best of my knowledge no writer before or since has mentioned. So when I’m talking about magic in the Marvel universe, keep in mind I’m largely talking in generalities here. There are always some weird exceptions, but they often don’t endure over the years. The point is, Marvel magic is generally just treated as a weird, exotic energy source that’s little understood. In a way it’s not dissimilar from real-world little-understood cosmic forces, like gravity (we still have trouble explaining how that works) or dark energy (we have no idea what this stuff is) and quantum mechanics (sound familiar?). In fact, not only is magic an energy source that can be swapped around, it’s even capable of being harnessed by people who aren’t magicians:
Numerous characters like Yandroth, Doctor Doom, and Mechamage have all figured out how to build machines that use magic to operate. Likewise magic has been harnessed by other means; for years the best explanation for the Scarlet Witch’s powers was that her physical mutations let her unconsciously channel raw magical energy. Of course, now she’s not a mutant anymore, so who knows. At any rate, magic in Marvel is somewhat mechanical in nature, both in its behavior as a form of energy and in the ways it can be harnessed by science or biology.
But let’s talk specifics. Beyond just being a mysterious energy source, magic in Marvel can be (very roughly) lumped into three types: personal magic, universal magic, and extra-dimensional magic. Back in the mid 2000s Marvel published a book called “The Marvel Tarot” that called them egocentric, ecocentric, exocentric, respectively. Again, all of this is really just an attempt to sum up years of general trends in comics.
Personal magic is exactly what it sounds like: magic related to the body and mind of the magician. Astral projection, telepathy, controlling your chi, all that sort of stuff falls into this category. It’s the easiest magic to perform, though using it exhausts you and you eventually have to rest, get some food, and build up your personal energies again. There have been plenty of comics where Dr. Strange and other magical Marvel characters used their abilities/spells too much and had to take a breather.
Universal magic is more powerful, and relies on using the ambient magical energies in the world around you. You may be drawing on leylines, a nexus of magical power, or power contained in an enchanted item, but as you’re not exhausting yourself with this magic, you can do a lot more with it. Sky’s the limit, really. Teleporting, time travel, energy blasts, so long as you have access to enough power, you can do it. It’s just not easy, and definitely not for the faint of heart. Plus, you can run out of ambient power as well; like I said earlier, there have been a few times in the past where Strange has lost access to major sources of magical energy and has had to cast around for new ones.
Extra-dimensional magic is more complicated. A great many of the major magical beings in Marvel are essentially extra-dimensional aliens who have accrued so much magical power (either just through having been around for millennia or from living in dimensions that naturally have more magical energy lying around) that they are godlike. These beings are usually called the Principalities. They are so powerful that they willingly loan out some of their magical power to magicians and sorcerers across all the dimensions; usually for a specific purpose. For example, one entity is named Ikonn. He’s a master of illusions and when he is called upon he gives the sorcerer in question a little bit of power that can be used to cast an illusion spell, like turning invisible or creating illusory duplicates of something. If learning to do magic the old fashioned way proves too hard, you can always try to contact one of the Principalities and ask them for this sort of loan.
What these entities want in return for this generosity varies; some want you to owe them a favor, some want your worship, some want your soul, and some want your help in achieving their own inscrutable goals (and if you don’t pay up, they can always cut you off). Dr. Strange famously has lots of weird little sayings like “by The Hoary Hosts of Hoggoth!” but these aren’t just expressions. When magician characters in Marvel say stuff like that, they are actively invoking powerful extra-dimension entities. So when a magician says stuff like this:
He is calling upon beings like this:
So in this context, Kevin Feige’s comments about “quantum mechanics” and “other dimensions” make a lot of sense to me. Those comments are similar to stuff that’s a pretty core to the concept of magic in Marvel comics, and especially in the Dr. Strange series. He’s treating magic as a mysterious cosmic force that can be sort of understood by science, but not quite—as he says, Strange was originally a man of western science and medicine, and will try to explain magical rationally, but “sometimes there won’t be an answer.” It doesn’t hurt that Feige’s descriptions of Strange’s specific abilities and spells sound like they’re lifted right from the comics, up to and including invocations to the Principalities.
Now, I know this will leave some people unhappy. I’ve seen a lot of negative reactions to the Thor movies online, where it’s implied all the magical stuff might just be sci-fi technology. I get that. But the fact of the matter is, this is pretty much how it’s always been with Marvel, and Feige and this movie seem to be sticking to the source material, more or less. Magic in Marvel is largely used the same way a lot of other weird esoteric powers are: to give an explanation for characters shooting zappy energy bolts at each other. Galactus and the Silver Surfer have the Power Cosmic, Nova Corps Has the Nova Force, Odin has the Odin force, etc, etc. Dr. Strange and a number of other characters have magic, but the only real distinction between Dr. Strange wiping your memories with magic and Professor Xavier doing it with his mutant powers is that you are told one is done with magic and one is done through… mysterious mind powers unexplained by science, which may as well be magic. It’s always been fairly mechanical, to some degree.
Yet it’s not as if there’s no room for mystery. It all depends on how you look at it. Sorcerers can do just about anything with magic, but how they do it, how consistently it works for them, its ultimate origin, those all remain rather arcane and unknown even to the people who use it. There’s enough grey area to have your cake and eat it too. The Thor comics have always walked the line between cosmic adventure and mythic fantasy, sometimes with more emphasis on one than the other. It’s the same in the Dr. Strange comics; sometimes they focus on extra-dimensional stuff, while at other times they’ve gotten very New Agey and mystical. It’s true of all Marvel’s magic-based series. At the end of the day, they always balance out somewhere in the middle.
My view is that magic is not an especially fixed concept. Magic in the Lord of the Rings books is not the same as magic in Harry Potter. Likewise Marvel magic is its own creature, and I like that about it. It’s got a very unique and weird flavor, and I’m really hoping Marvel Studios can bring it to life next Fall.