This year, the #MCU takes a step in a bold new direction. No, I'm not referring to Captain America: Civil War - as tremendous as that film is sure to be, it's the continuation of a story Marvel have been telling since 2008's Iron Man. I'm referring to Doctor Strange, a movie that literally adds magic to the Marvel Cinematic Universe.
Hasn't there always been magic?
When Marvel kick-started the MCU, they were playing a high-risk game. Conventional wisdom had been that superhero films just didn't work unless you 'grounded' them. That's why Bryan Singer made heavy adaptations to the X-Men, and to this day they wear uniforms that desperately try to avoid looking like superhero costumes. The idea was simple: keep the more fantastical elements of the superhero world out of the films.
When Marvel released Iron Man in 2008, they deliberately chose to ignore that particular piece of conventional wisdom. Their films are characterised by wit and humour, while their superheroes are recognisably iconic. Sure, a few have been redesigned, but in the main their characters are clear homages to the comics. Emphasising the fantastical, Phase One included concepts like Asgardians and the Nine Realms.
But there was one bit of the fantastical that Marvel carefully avoided: magic. This was most evident in Thor, where Chris Hemsworth's Thor explains Asgardian magic in terms that Arthur C. Clarke would almost agree with:
The key phrase was this:
"Your ancestors called it magic, and you call it science. Well, I come from a place where they're one and the same thing."
If you wanted to see magic in Thor, it was there: in a hammer that grants #Thor strength and power, in Odin's whispered curse, and in Loki's projections. But if you wanted to see science, those words left it open to you to see science. After all, as Arthur C. Clarke had said:
"Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic."
The first hints of magic
As the MCU continued, Marvel began to dabble with magic. In the movies, this was particularly important for Thor: The Dark World - although Asgard is still hinted at as being scientific as well as magical, the world we see in that film is undeniably fantastical. Perhaps the most telling scene is that the imprisoned Loki is still able to generate illusions.
Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. has shown Coulson's team in contact with Asgardians a number of times, and the most interesting was the encounter with Lorelei in the episode "Yes Men". There, Lady Sif hand-waves Lorelei's power over men as her "sorcery".
A commitment to magic
In many ways, #MarvelNetflix series have been more 'grounded'; but ironically, they've exploited the idea of magic far more than any other part of the MCU to date. Daredevil Season 1 hinted at it, with Stick seeming an almost mystical figure. In Season 2, the Hand's rituals have deadly power - including the ability to resurrect the dead. Iron Fist is pretty certain to include elements of mysticism.
But these aren't a big deal. The Netflix shows have a very different style and tone to the rest of the MCU, so Marvel can let them do their own thing a little. What's more remarkable, though, is Doctor Strange. The trailer gives us a glimpse of sorcery on a scale Marvel have never dared try before:
"Open your mind," the trailer demands, and seems confident that viewers are ready to do just that. Better still, screenwriter C. Robert Cargill told MCU Exchange that there's a lot more to come:
“This teaser is, it’s the definition of a teaser. You are only getting a like a small taste of just how crazy this movie gets. We have only just the slightest hints of magic in there. There are major characters you don’t even glimpse in that trailer, there is so much stuff going on, that this thing is just nutty, the stuff they let us do, I can’t believe they let us do it. Like, just, … Kevin Feige and other producers like Stephen Broussard would be ‘How can we make it crazier?‘ and I was like ‘Aw right, let’s play around.’It’s just a hell of an experience.“
Doctor Strange is about to change everything. No longer are Marvel Studios avoiding or minimising the fantastical elements of their comics; now they're going to embrace them. Marvel evidently believe that viewers are ready for magic - and I for one have to agree.