Doctor Strange: Mysticism in the MCU

The first Doctor Strange trailer is finally here! It came out on yesterday (April 12th) and unsurprisingly racked up over a million views in its first 12 hours. If you haven’t seen it, please go watch it here.

Source: wikimedia

This November, the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) is going to face a tough challenge. I’m not talking about the specifics of introducing a little-known hero into the growing pantheon of Marvel heroes, because that is a gamble that has paid off time and again for Kevin Feige and co. A stellar cast, anchored by Benedict Cumberbatch, Tilda Swinton, Rachel McAdams, and Chiwetel Ejiofor, is sure to deliver a quality movie. Stephen Strange’s comic book origins provide plenty of material for an emotional and dramatic film. Much like Iron Man, Doctor Strange will provide audiences with a complex and flawed character whose greatest enemy is often himself. I think the casting of Cumberbatch is absolutely perfect, as evidenced by his iconic portrayal of Sherlock Holmes in the eponymous Sherlock BBC series.

Even in the comics, Doctor Strange’s origin is the story of redemption. The fall of a prideful surgeon, whose wild successes had tainted the motives of his medical profession, driving Stephen to seek fame rather than focus on healing his patients. A horrible accident then left Stephen unable to perform surgeries, effectively destroying his life’s sole purpose. Aimless wandering leads him to the Ancient One (Tilda Swinton) who takes him on a path of mindfulness, meditation, and the mystical arts. Stephen’s journey is a personal one, as he fights his own inner demons and overcomes his own weaknesses to become a powerful magician/mystic. Created by Steve Ditko in 1963, Strange’s path to heroism is not all that different from many of the other Marvel characters of the Silver Age, and these origins have all translated successfully to the big screen. All of that being said, I think Marvel has earned our trust to deliver solid movies with believable and likable characters, especially when the material is there for them to draw upon. The wild successes of MCU films and Netflix shows about lesser-known characters like Jessica Jones, Ant-Man, and most especially the Guardians of the Galaxy, have proven that any character can succeed with the right creative team (and with a little help from branding, to be sure). There is only one problem:

Doctor Strange with the Eye of Agamotto. Source:

Magic. Don’t get me wrong, I love magical stories: Harry Potter, Lord of the Rings, Chronicles of Narnia, even movies like Prestige, or Inception are all wonderful. My hesitation is not about whether the magic or mystical powers of Doctor Strange and his foes will translate to film, because I’m sure they will. It is all about how the existence of magic in the MCU affects the rest of the films. I’m afraid it will taint them. How will magic blend with the science fiction elements of futuristic technology (Iron Man, Ant-Man), biological accidents/experiments (Captain America, Daredevil, Hulk), and alien technology/influence (Thor, Inhumans, Guardians)? Marvel has already done a lot of work to downplay some of their other mystical elements in Daredevil (see Stick and Elektra) and the seemingly Inhuman explanation of the Scarlet Witch’s powers. So maybe they will continue the trend, making the mystical arts more of a cosmic entity or alien technology, making it fit better in the MCU. There are a couple of ways to do that, but I am not sure if they would come at the expense of Doctor Strange’s own story.

eye of agamotto
the Eye of Agamotto zoom of the above image. Source:

One big theory floating around is that the Eye of Agamotto is one of the Infinity Stones, of which only Time and Soul are presumed to remain, assuming the Aether from Thor: Dark World was actually the Reality gem, of which I’m kind of iffy. The portrayal of gravitational anomalies and portals in spacetime doesn’t seem to really show control over “reality” in the same sense that alternate universes would. And the first Doctor Strange trailer hints directly at a multiverse for the first time in any MCU or TV property: “what if I told you that reality is one of many?” This may lend to the exploration of alternate realities, and how better to do that than with the Reality Stone? Perhaps the Eye is actually the Reality stone and the Aether is something else (Time?). If Doctor Strange gets all of his magical powers from the Infinity Stone, it begs the question of what would happen once he loses the stone to Thanos (as he is bound to in one of the two Infinity War mega-films). If magic were only derived from the Infinity Stone, however, it would take away the permanence of Doctor Strange’s power, making him into merely the custodian of someone or something else’s abilities. I think that would short-change him, as his comic presence relied as much on the training and exploration of the mystic arts as on the artifacts he found along the way. Either way, using the Eye of Agamotto or another infinity stone to control Doctor Strange’s magical powers couldn’t be all-inclusive, since Baron Mordo (Chiwetel Ejiofor), the Ancient One, and other characters would have to have had magic of their own too.

That means magic will have to become a central force in the MCU. In order for it to blend well, Marvel will have to establish rules. Rules about magic’s limits, who can use it, how it works with or against technology or powered individuals, or even a good reason why magical individuals might not deign to participate in the more earthly conflicts (i.e. why Strange may be kept to the sidelines in other films). I hope that Doctor Strange, whether he is the Sorcerer Supreme or not, will be tasked with serving as the sole protector of Earth/this reality/this realm from magical attack. If he is pledged to inaction in non-magical events or otherwise indisposed, it might help to keep magic out of future films that rely more on technology or biological powers. The problem with magic is that it can be limitless or transcend rules of physics, that tend to limit the more science-fiction-based elements of the superhero genre.

Magic could introduce a sort of deus ex machina into the Marvel Cinematic Universe, giving heroes (or even their enemies) an “out” in seemingly unwinnable situations. I firmly believe that one of the MCU’s true strengths has been its attempt to keep things real-ish, creating an alternate reality only slightly different from our own. This relies upon believable explanations for the powers and events that drive the superhero films. Suddenly, magic can be a loophole or creative shortcut that brushes over sloppy plot points or neuters story complexity. Can you imagine the Avengers facing Ultron or Thanos or the Masters of Evil and having Doctor Strange show up and just conjure a spell that traps all of the bad guys in another reality? Or distorts time around him so that the Avengers can have a second chance to win? Suddenly, the limits that are placed on our heroes could be upended. Characters can be brought back from the dead, impossible things can become commonplace, and then our heroes can’t lose. Not that we want them to, of course, but for a movie to be good, the peril has to seem real. Magic can remove the consequences of mistakes and take the edge off of our heroes’ peril. If it does that, will the MCU survive?