“Sorcery”? “Science”? Magic and Spirit in the Marvel Cinematic Universe
by Armond Boudreaux
One of the most interesting developments in the Marvel Cinematic Universe since its inception almost ten years ago has come, not in an Avengers or an Iron Man film, but in a television show and in a movie based on one of Marvel’s least well-known characters. When Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. (AoS) introduced Ghost Rider, it introduced an entirely new set of supernatural ideas into a world that up until now has been thoroughly materialist. And when Doctor Strange was released, it brought those ideas out of AoS’s obscure corner of the MCU and made them an important feature of the larger universe.
With AoS and Doctor Strange, the idea of spirit or a soul—an immaterial essence that inhabits but also transcends and possibly outlives lives the material—has become a serious possibility in a universe that Marvel creators and executives have insisted is “science-based.” In one of the more powerful scenes from this season of AoS, S.H.I.E.L.D. mechanic Mack threatens a villainous android who insists that “killing” it would be murder. Mack balks at the idea of what is essentially a radically advanced computer having a spirit, and though the scene raises interesting questions about whether or not an artificial intelligence has a soul, it also seems to vindicate Mack’s traditional views about the spirit. And in Doctor Strange, the idea of the “astral form” seems to prove mind-body dualism, the view that the mind has a non-material essence—in other words, a soul. (It’s no accident that when the movie visually depicts Strange’s astral form, he looks like a ghost.)
But in some ways Marvel has been reluctant to completely embrace the idea of the supernatural, even as they tell stories about Ghost Rider and Stephen Strange. For example, producer and writer Jed Whedon recently told Comic Book Resources that the supernatural elements of AoS are really just science:
“Any time there’s something that on another show would be a wave of the wand magic thing, we can chalk it up to, oh, it’s from another dimension. There’s another set of physics rules in that world and so it’s allowed us to put it all under the science umbrella. The word ‘dimensions’ is sort of covering a lot of ground there.”
In other words, Ghost Rider comes from a place that he calls “Hell,” but science would just call it another dimension or another universe, a bubble in the multiverse that operates by a different set of physical rules than those that apply in our universe. So what looks like the supernatural to us is just the “science” of another universe.
The show wrestles with this idea primarily through the character of Fitz, a scientist who cannot accept some of the seemingly supernatural events occurring around him. For example, when a villain seems to manifest the power to create something out of nothing—in violation of the law of conservation of mass—Fitz searches for a scientific explanation, refusing to believe that something can come from nothing. And in a sense, his skepticism is vindicated: it turns out that the villain is not “creating” matter, but pulling it from another universe into our own.
Doctor Strange also embraces the idea of the multiverse, and the magic that Strange discovers in Kamar-Taj relies on pulling energies from other dimensions and manipulating those energies to produce magical effects in this universe. As a featurette on the Doctor Strange digital release argues, this makes the “magic” of the movie more believable than mere wand-waving because a) it’s rationally believable, b) it operates by rules that science can discover, and c) because it has limits. You can’t just do anything as a sorcerer.
All of this is interesting because it seems to allow us to have our proverbial cake and eat it, too. We can take comfort in the knowledge that science forms the foundation of the MCU, and we can also embrace the spiritual and philosophical ideas in Doctor Strange and AoS.
On the other hand, Whedon’s insistence that the MCU’s magic is really “science” and his appeal to multiverse theory to explain away the supernatural don’t really stand up to scrutiny.
Take Ghost Rider, for instance. He’s a man whose body is possessed by a demon (called “Zarathos” in the comics), and at certain times that demon turns him into a flaming skeleton who executes vengeance on evildoers. While the existence of such a being might be explicable by the rules of another universe, those rules don’t apply in our universe. His existence on Earth is an aberration from mundane physical laws; it defies the rules that govern not only physics but also biology. He’s a blip, an interruption in the normal state of things, a rebel against physics—if you will, a miracle in the truest sense of the word. And by definition, miracles can’t be explained by the scientific method.
The same is true for the magic in Doctor Strange. While the idea of pulling energy from other dimensions might make magic more palatable to our scientific sensibilities, that idea doesn’t make what Strange does any less magical. In fact, the definition of “magic” that Doctor Strange gives us sounds an awful lot like magic as it has been described since ancient times. Far from mere “wand-waving,” magic for the ancients meant exactly what Marvel has given us: people manipulating spirits and energies from another realm in order to make things happen in this world that couldn’t happen otherwise. And remember that the sorcerers of Doctor Strange don’t design cool new gadgets that draw power from other universes; they manipulate energy by speaking and by drawing signs in the air with their hands.
And while “multiverse” might sound more like science than ancient spiritual terminology, it isn’t clear what difference there is between saying that Ghost Rider comes from Hell and saying that he comes from another universe. What is Hell (or “Hel,” if you’re a Thor fan) if not another dimension with different rules? Or think of the Dark Dimension, the home of Doctor Strange’s Dormammu: Kaecilius claims that time has no meaning in the Dark Dimension, and Dormammu himself seems to have a strangely liquid body that defies earthly laws about the behavior of matter. In what way is belief in such a dimension different from belief in the supernatural worlds that various cultures have believed in?
It’s good that the creators at Marvel are being careful to construct a consistent and believable magical system. Such a system allows for dramatic storytelling with real stakes, risks, and limits for the characters. But if we push too hard the idea that “magic is just science that we don’t understand yet,” we risk the mistaken belief that empirical methods will eventually answer all of the questions and that our senses will finally penetrate the deepest mysteries of existence. As the Ancient One tells Strange, such arrogance can keep us from learning “the most significant lesson of all.”
Armond Boudreaux is a writer and assistant professor of English who lives in Georgia. He is the author of That He May Raise, Animus: Little Gods, and the forthcoming Titans: How Superheroes Can Help Us Make Sense of a Polarized World. He writes about superheroes, politics, and philosophy at http://www.aclashofheroes.wordpress.com. You can read more about him at http://www.armondboudreaux.com.