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The Marvel Cinematic Universe Can’t Avoid Magic Forever


Which is cooler: dragons or dinosaurs? Magic wands or laser-guns? Fantasy or science fiction? These are the debates that plagued my late-night sleepovers with friends growing up. The problem was that everybody, including me, wanted the answer to be both! And that’s what Marvel Comics had always decided, too.

The Marvel universe is supposed to have magic in it, right alongside its scientific trappings. But the Marvel Cinematic Universe has completely avoided magic, up until now, focusing only on science-fiction explanations instead. Even in the upcoming Doctor Strange movie, which will revolve around one of Marvel Comics’ best-known magic users, Marvel Studios president Kevin Feige insists that magic won’t get introduced into the MCU. When asked about how that could possibly work, Feige told Birth Movies Death:

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.

That’s how the MCU “solved” the problem of Thor and his pesky hammer, by explaining it as highly advanced technology rather than as a magical object. It seems like the Marvel movies want to make a bid for legitimacy by focusing on the “realistic” reputation that science fiction has, in comparison to fantasy. I wouldn’t necessarily classify the Iron Man movies as “hard sci-fi,” but it’s clear that those movies are going for a very different vibe than Harry Potter. The Harry Potter books and movies make ample use of “the power of love is the strongest magic,” which is definitely “soft fantasy” stuff. Magic as a plot device has a reputation for being touchy-feely and emotional at its core, and therefore also less “real” and less powerful. There are some gender stereotypes at work here: “hard” sci-fi about technology is supposed to be masculine, and therefore taken more seriously.

No matter what their reason was for leaving it out, I’m just not sure that Marvel can avoid magic forever, since it was already such a big part of the source material. By leaving magic out, the movies have introduced a whole new set of problems, rather than simplifying anything. In the case of Thor’s hammer, for example, the Marvel movies have created new weird debates within the fandom about how the hammer works. In the comics, it’s easy to understand: the hammer has magic powers, so it “knows” who is worthy to hold it and who can attain the power of Thor. But in the movies? Well, that’s another story!

Even the characters in Age of Ultron can’t seem to agree on what it means when Vision picks up Thor’s hammer, and neither can the fandom. The director, Joss Whedon, says he included this scene because he wanted a shorthand to indicate that the characters should trust Vision. But in the movies, the hammer doesn’t have the same properties that it does in the comics … and even in the comics, a robot lifting the hammer doesn’t have the same connotation anyway. Vision is a synthetic human, so is his ability to lift the hammer any different than putting the hammer in an elevator? Or are the movies saying that if Vision wanted to become Thor, he could? This has inspired lengthy, as-yet-unresolved debates within Marvel fandom. In the comics, we know the explanation, but the movies haven’t really provided one.

The movies give us Thor’s explanation to Jane about his powers and his home world: “Your ancestors called it magic, but you call it science. I come from a land where they are one and the same.” The Marvel movies really like this classic idea that, after a certain point, advanced magic and advanced technology are indistinguishable from one another. This is known as Clarke’s Third Law, or Niven’s law.

The comics have a much easier time with this concept, though, because they’ve already acknowledged that magic exists. Marvel Comics allow for the existence of both genius sorcerers and genius scientists, and the comics even posit that both might be able to work together and learn from one another. But by refusing to allow for the existence of magic, the MCU has painted itself into some very strange corners, and Thor isn’t the only character who has suffered from some serious rewrites as a result.

It’s been a few years since Marvel movies introduced us to the new concept for Thor, though, so we’ve all had some time to get used to the idea that the residents of Asgard are super-powered aliens, not gods. In the comics, there isn’t too much of a difference anyway, since Marvel comics already include tons and tons of super-powered alien characters. But what about characters like Scarlet Witch and Doctor Strange?

With Scarlet Witch, the MCU didn’t even have the right to call her a witch at first, because the MCU doesn’t have the rights to all of the mutant characters from X-Men. Even in Civil War, many of the characters have still never used their official codenames, and the word “mutant” still can’t be used. Plus, there’s no magic. Scarlet Witch doesn’t have any hexes or spells.

In Scarlet Witch’s case, though, this is a real disappointment because it feels like a reduction in her powers. According to her comic book backstory, she’s always had both magic powers and mutant powers, and she has learned how to use both, often concurrently. This makes her a uniquely powerful character, plus it’s a big piece of her backstory and what makes her special as a character. It’s already a huge disappointment that the character has been white-washed out of her original heritage, which was half-Romani and half-Jewish. (So far, this backstory isn’t a part of her story in the movies, plus she’s being played by a white actress.)

A similar problem has also arisen with Sam Wilson, a.k.a. Falcon. In the first few minutes of Civil War, we finally get the chance to see Sam Wilson’s bird companion, Redwing. In the comics, Sam Wilson has mutant powers; he can communicate telepathically with birds, most notably his avian friend Redwing. In the movies, Sam Wilson doesn’t have any mutant powers. That’s not even a magic thing that’s been removed; that’s a science-fiction explanation that the MCU must have thought would be too unbelievable and weird to include. So, instead, Redwing is a robotic bird-shaped drone. The robot isn’t even an intelligent AI. There’s even a moment when Black Widow makes fun of Sam for naming the robot. (How does Black Widow feel about working with Vision, then?)

So, in the movies, Sam Wilson is just a guy in a high-tech bird costume. He doesn’t have any additional powers; this is played for laughs a couple of times in Civil War. Also, Scarlet Witch isn’t a witch anymore; she’s a mutant, although the creative team can’t use the word “mutant,” and her powers don’t make very much sense either. In Age of Ultron, Maria Hill summed up Scarlet Witch’s powers as follows: “She’s weird.” It felt like a shorthand acknowledgment of the fact that Scarlet Witch is really supposed to have magic, and without that explanation, her powers don’t make a ton of sense.

Civil War hasn’t yet introduced us to the canonical explanation for Black Panther’s powers, so we don’t yet know how that will work. But I’m going to predict right now that the movies will leave out any of the magical explanations for his powers (e.g. the Wakandan Panther God), and instead focus on coming up with sci-fi explanations. Will that translate into a reduction in his powers? It’s hard to say, right now, but Civil War has already shied away from giving us much explanation about how T’Challa’s superpowers work.

It’s probably just a depressing coincidence that the characters who’ve potentially ended up getting a reduction in their powers happen to be the MCU’s few female characters and few black characters. Thor’s powers have been rewritten as well, but it doesn’t seem to me like he’s lost any powers, although the explanation for his powers has been changed (and has become more confusing as a result, and also made it harder to justify a potential plot-line in which Jane Foster could pick up the hammer like in the comics).

In the case of Falcon and Scarlet Witch, and perhaps also Black Panther, it seems like they’re just straight-up less powerful now than in the comics. By taking away the explanations and back-stories for their powers (and in Falcon’s case removing the powers entirely), the movies make it harder for us to understand their full potential and their importance on the team.

The weirdest part is that the comics never seemed to have any trouble with any of this, so it’s hard to understand why the movies think that these elements will be too complicated to include. Marvel Comics treated sorcery as something that was just part of the universe, not some weird extra element. Sometimes, the comics create situations where fantasy and sci-fi collide directly, such as in The Avengers #233, when Thor throws his enchanted hammer into a Negative Zone. In other words, Thor throws a magic object into a science-fiction barrier. Why doesn’t Thor’s hammer bounce off the forcefield surrounding this zone, rather than going through it? And once it goes through, why can’t Thor’s magic overpower the science here, and allow him to call his hammer back?

Of course, the comic lavishes plenty of in-story explanations for all of this, as well as reasons why the other characters’ various abilities don’t work against the barrier. (Scarlet Witch, for example, tries her “probability-altering hexes … but to no avail!”) This is just one example of many featuring a time in the comics when science and magic butted heads, and the writers had to come up with explanations for which one would be “stronger” according to the rules of the story at hand. The results are, admittedly, nonsensical and goofy. Why should one thing work when another fails? Because the story called for it! That is explanation enough.

I still think the decision to eschew magic in the Marvel movies came down to the assumption that people will be more willing to take these movies seriously if they rely on “hard sci-fi” explanations, as opposed to mystical ones. This is an old assumption that still prevails in science-fiction and fantasy fandoms now, and it’s an argument that I don’t expect to resolve any time soon. Instead, I’ll just recommend that the Marvel movie creators take a look back at some of these old storylines in which magic and science collided, and realize, it’s all just ridiculous. What’s the difference, really, between traveling to the Astral Plane with Doctor Strange, versus traveling to alien planets at the speed of light with Captain Marvel (the Monica Rambeau iteration, obviously)? Either way, our hero is traveling to a new and fantastical place, fighting new and fantastical foes. It’s all silly, and there’s no reason why one form of story should be seen as more serious than another.

Why are we supposedly more willing to believe that Tony Stark can build a watch that explodes into a cannon-arm, but Scarlet Witch using a magic spell is going to alienate audiences? Ant-Man can throw a tiny frisbee at himself and “go huge” (defying all the laws of physics), but Falcon can’t talk to birds? It sure seems like the Marvel movies are willing to let some heroes strain belief, but other heroes just don’t get to go that far. Perhaps they think it’s already unbelievable enough that characters like Scarlet Witch and Falcon and Black Panther would even be there. Is it really so hard to believe that they would also be blessed with incredible powers, unlike those of any of the other heroes? Based on the world that Marvel has created, that should be just as acceptable as anything else that’s already happened. So why not just take it all the way?

(featured image via Comic Vine)

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Maddy Myers, journalist and arts critic, has written for the Boston Phoenix, Paste Magazine, MIT Technology Review, and tons more. She is a host on a videogame podcast called Isometric (, and she plays the keytar in a band called the Robot Knights (