In 2008, Marvel Studios - an untested studio with a lot to prove - took a gamble. The studio launched the Marvel Cinematic Universe, a shared universe in which Marvel's greatest superheroes coexisted as part of one phenomenal narrative. But for all the chances Marvel was willing to take with the #MCU, one risk was off the table: the introduction of magic. Now, eight years later, magic is becoming mainstream in the MCU. But why has it taken so long to introduce sorcery into the MCU? How does magic work in the MCU, and where do we go from here?
The Scientific Basis of the MCU
The first two movies in the MCU - Iron Man and The Incredible Hulk - make one thing clear: The MCU was born in science. In fact, the stars of those two films are sometimes jokingly referred to as the 'Science Bros'! Both Iron Man and the Hulk are firmly rooted in the strange, impossible science of comic books. I mean, this is the kind of science where a genius engineer can whip up powerful exo-armor while held captive by terrorists; or where Gamma radiation can cause you to turn into a rampaging behemoth every time you lose your temper! Still, it was science all the same, and the early MCU went to great lengths to make everything look as vaguely realistic as possible. Perhaps the best example is the care and attention that went into the Iron Man armor, particularly when it comes to flight.
The success of Iron Man meant that the future growth of the MCU was guaranteed; and that led to a disturbing question. How would audiences react to the more fantastical sides of the superhero genre? Marvel was already defying the general consensus by introducing more comic-book-accurate superheroes, but was the world ready for magic? Marvel decided not; and, even when introducing the fantastical world of Asgard in 2011's Thor, the magic is cleverly explained as advanced science in the style of Arthur C. Clarke:
"Your ancestors called it magic, but you call it science. I come from a land where they are one and the same."
It was a smart play. Magic was there if you wanted to see it; I mean, this was a movie with an enchanted hammer! But if you simply wanted to see insanely advanced science, you could. The best example is the Bifrost, which is explained as a wormhole or 'Einstein-Rosen Bridge'. It was all done according to Arthur C. Clarke's famous 'Third Law':
"Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic."
This subtle decision ensured that Asgard could be seamlessly introduced into the scientific world of the MCU.
The Slow Introduction of Magic
Still, with Thor Marvel Studios had dipped a toe into the ocean of sorcery. The 2013 sequel, Thor: The Dark World, went a bit further. It gave viewers a deeper look at Immortal Asgard, and embraced countless aspects of the comic book world. In doing so, it hinted at magic in a way that no Marvel film before it had done. Perhaps the most fascinating aspect of it was Tom Hiddleston's Loki, who retained his power to cast illusions even while held prisoner. That detail suggested that these illusions were some sort of innate ability, hinting at magic.
In March 2014, Marvel Entertainment (who run the MCU TV shows) gave the first real nod to magic. The Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. episode "Yes Men" introduced the sorceress Lorelei, played by Elena Satine. Her ability to influence men was hand-waved as sorcery, quietly adding a new dimension to the show.
Thor: The Dark World was hardly Marvel's biggest blockbuster, and a lot of fans see it as one of the weaker films in the MCU. Still, the good news was that nobody even blinked at the increasingly-visible supernatural side to the film. The same was true of "Yes Men"; fans didn't even seem to notice the sorcery! Their confidence boosted, Marvel made up their mind; it was time to double-down on the supernatural. In October 2014, Marvel announced their Phase 3 slate. It included Doctor Strange, committing the studio to magic and sorcery for the first time.
Magic Has Become a Dominant Theme in 2016
Marvel Entertainment - who produce Marvel's TV and Netflix shows - have wasted no time adding magic into the mix. The first hint was in Daredevil Season 1, where the episode "Stick" saw the Hand bring in a child referred to ominously as the 'Black Sky', played by Bonale Fambrini. We weren't told much about this child; we learned that the Hand seem to worship the Black Sky, and we got an ominous statement from Scott Glenn's Stick:
"That thing in the container was not a child."
What was the Black Sky? What dark magics were the Hand dabbling in? Daredevil Season 1 didn't care to give us answers, with the Black Sky killed by Stick - his heart destroyed, so apparently beyond the Hand's resurrection rituals.
In Daredevil Season 2, the Black Sky and the Hand became a major plot. In one haunting scene, Rosario Dawson's Claire Temple learned that the Hand are actually able to resurrect the dead. Worse still, Elodie Yung's Elektra was revealed to be another Black Sky. The series ended with the Hand retrieving Elektra's body, and resurrecting her to fulfil their own dark purposes.
The most notable supernatural push, though, has been reserved for Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.. The series was moved to a later timeslot in order to embrace a far darker style, and this has allowed Marvel to add some fantastic mystical elements; so far, the series has introduced us to Gabriel Luna's Ghost Rider, hinted at the existence of Mephisto, and even unveiled a spellbook known as the Darkhold! In the comics, this ancient book is a powerful and dangerous tome, predating the human race; its spells are responsible for the races of vampires and werewolves. There are literally no limits to the sorcery Marvel could add into the MCU through Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D..
How Does Magic Work in the MCU?
The danger for magic is that it can act as a deus ex machina - a term that literally means "god from the machine". In literature and film, it's used to refer to a plot device that clumsily resolves a seemingly unresolvable problem. Comic book writers have often fallen into this trap; Doctor Strange has a history of turning up just in time to save the day with a few hurried incantations, much to the irritation of a lot of fans! Marvel's goal has to be to add magic into the MCU in such a way that we don't see it as a deus ex machina; failing to do so would remove any sense of tension from future plots, since the mere presence of a sorcerer would provide a way to resolve any crisis.
This is why Marvel has carefully established the rules of magic. Doctor Strange explains that there are other dimensions - not in the sense of a Multiverse, but in the sense of dimensions beyond height, width, length, and time. It's a concept that will be familiar to fans of science-fiction, and the late astronomer Carl Sagan explained it far better than I ever could:
In the comics, these other dimensions are inhabited by dangerous beings such as Shuma-Gorath and Dormammu, who seek to extend their rule and conquer our dimension as they have their own. This is clearly the same in the movies; meanwhile, in the MCU, sorcerers have learned to tap into the energy of these other dimensions. They use this energy to reshape reality itself. As the second Doctor Strange trailer put it:
"Through the mystic arts we harness energy and shape reality."
That energy can be channeled into objects, granting them mystical power - the classic example being the Cloak of Levitation. Likewise, some beings seem able to reach across the dimensional barriers and channel their energy into people, neatly explaining the Ghost Rider curse in Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.. Worse still, it's entirely possible that some creatures from the other dimensions can actually step into our own, possessing the body of a human; this would fit with the Hand's Black Sky, dismissed as a "thing" and "not a child".
That's where sorcerers come in. Tilda Swinton's Ancient One heads up the Masters of the Mystic Arts, policing the world from dark magic. That's why we haven't seen sorcery in the MCU before now; the Masters of the Mystic Arts are simply that good at their job. Unfortunately, the dark entities are still out there, greedy to consume our reality, and some sorcerers aren't content to simply wield the energy of other dimensions; they desire to glimpse them. Mads Mikkelsen's Kaecilius, still grieving for the loss of his wife, sought to pierce the veil of death; in so doing, he and his Zealots entered another dimension, and were seduced by the power they found there. The experience of that mystic dimension has transformed them, resulting in those telltale distortions around the Zealots' eyes.
Will There Be a Cost to Magic?
Over in the comics, Marvel's recently taken some pretty drastic steps to reduce the potential deus ex machina problem. In his New Avengers run, Jonathan Hickman established that there's a cost to magic; the more power you wield, the greater the cost. Jason Aaron has developed this in his current Doctor Strange series. He's revealed that Wong secretly established a group of monks who chose to carry the cost for Strange, while the physical pain Strange experienced has been banished - and has, in fact, become a deadly new entity in and of itself.
It's too soon to tell whether or not the MCU will set up a similar cost. Personally, I'm not convinced that it's necessary; unlike the comics, the MCU is carefully setting up rules and structures that explain the nature of magic and the supernatural. The experience of other dimensions in and of itself transforms you, and even a brush with these forces can kill; already Ming-Na Wen's Agent May almost died as a result of the "Ghost Infection" in Agents of SH.I.E.L.D..
Where Do We Go From Here?
Marvel's now working in a smart retcon that magic has been there all along. It's pretty certain that Thor: Ragnarok will embrace the mystical aspect of the Nine Realms in a way even Thor: The Dark World did not; we already know that we'll see Benedict Cumberbatch's Doctor Strange make a cameo! Meanwhile, Kevin Feige has indicated that Elizabeth Olsen's Scarlet Witch is in fact a sorcerer; she possesses the same powers as the Masters of the Mystic Arts, albeit in a raw and instinctive way, meaning she has far less control.
Over in the TV and Netflix shows, Marvel Entertainment continue to dive deep into the waters of sorcery. The mystical plots are sure to continue in Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. - it's practically becoming the defining plot, and the thematic links between Agent May's experience of death and Kaecilius's motivation in Doctor Strange are fascinating. What's more, the next Marvel Netflix series - Iron Fist - is one typically associated with Eastern mysticism, and Marvel Netflix is heading straight for The Defenders. Although we don't yet know what role Signourney Weaver will be playing in that series, we can be certain that it will also feature the return of the Hand.
The genie is out of the bottle. The MCU has always been science-based, but now sorcery has been added to the mix; and yet, it's been done in such a clever way. The hints and teasers we've been given suggest that Marvel has thought this through pretty carefully, working out how to add mysticism into a science-based universe. The result is, frankly, seamless. Magic is now part of the Marvel Cinematic Universe - and it's sure to stay.