Warning: SPOILERS ahead for Doctor Strange
With Doctor Strange, Marvel was all set to expand its universe in new and interesting ways as Stephen Strange harnessed the mystic arts and learned to change reality itself. Thor had previously explained that Asgardian magic was essentially an advanced form of science, but the powers of the Sorcerer Supreme should be the real deal, right?
The answer to this gets a bit murky. Yes, the magic of Doctor Strange is presented as being actual magic… but the source of its power is a bit less mystic than one might think. Given its focus on the Multiverse, Doctor Strange (and its magic) skews much more toward science fiction than fantasy. And that’s not necessarily a bad thing.
Though we’ve been introduced to the concept of different realms in the Thor movies and another dimension (the Microverse, a.k.a. the Quantum Realm) in Ant-Man, Doctor Strange is the first Marvel movie that really ties it all together with the concept of the Multiverse – a long-standing a staple of the Marvel Universe, with each universe having its own designation within it. The mainstream Marvel universe was universe 616, the Ultimate Comics universe was 1610 and the Marvel Cinematic Universe is 199999. There’s a universe where Earth is overrun by zombies (universe 2049), one where everyone’s an ape (universe 8101) and even a universe where a spider was bitten by an irradiated pig and became Peter Porker, the Spectacular Spider-Ham (universe 8311 a.k.a. the best universe).
In Doctor Strange, we’re given our first look at the Multiverse proper in the MCU, and it’s pretty spectacular. We see different worlds, different dimensions and literally see the possibilities of an infinite multiverse unfolding before our eyes. We also learn that the power wielded by various sorcerers (including The Ancient One) are drawn from these different dimensions; throughout the film, we see Strange, Mordo and others harnessing this power from the Multiverse and bringing it to life in a variety of different ways. Sometimes there are tools involved, sometimes it’s just ritual movements. Regardless, the core concept of magic in Doctor Strange is that power from elsewhere is channeled by the sorcerers and used here.
The thing is, though… that’s not magic. Or at least, not the sort of fantasy magic we’re used to in more high-fantasy settings. Converting energy from one form to another, even with spectacular effects, falls pretty squarely under the umbrella of science (provided that the energy is just being converted and not being created or destroyed; law of conservation of energy and all that). This explains the fiery look of magic in Doctor Strange… the “magic” is simply raw energy that’s being shaped and used, just like we harness heat and electricity in everyday life. The fact that magical energy can be channeled from other places in the Multiverse at all suggests that there is some science underneath all of it, even if it’s draped in the fabric of mysticism and spirituality.
During their fight in the Sanctum Sanctorum, Mads Mikkelsen’s Kaecilius calls Doctor Strange “a scientist” once he learns that Strange is an actual doctor. There isn’t any derision or irony in his voice; instead, he seems pleased to find out that Strange is a scientist of sorts because that means that he understands the laws of nature. It makes explaining his motivations easier, even if Doctor Strange doesn’t exactly switch sides to join up with Kaecilius and Dormammu. Even though so much of what the sorcerers do seems counter to the natural world, the fact that Kaecilius latches onto that suggests that they’re much more closely related than might be evident at first.
If we look at Doctor Strange as a science fiction film instead of a fantasy film, we can see this connection pretty clearly. Natural law is an extension of the universe that the law acts on; the laws of nature on our Earth, for example, allow for things like time that moves at a constant rate and Earth-level gravity and all of the things that define this universe. In a different universe, however, natural laws might act differently because the universe has more energy or less energy or is older or is younger or is fundamentally different in one of an infinite number of ways. The most notable version of this in Doctor Strange is the Dark Dimension, where time doesn’t flow at all. The Ancient One honestly explains it pretty well when introducing the concept of the Multiverse to Strange, and this view of the Multiverse isn’t that far off from actual scientific theory about what other dimensions or universes might be like.
Even though Doctor Strange deals with magic and sorcery, there’s obviously an underlying science to all of it. Mysticism in the film is used to harness and control the magical energy, and powerful artifacts store large amounts of this energy to make it easier to use. The seemingly sentient nature of the Cloak of Levitation adds more of a fantasy feel to the movie, but that’s one of the few things in the movie that really seems to fit in with the fantasy genre. When you look beyond the monks’ trappings that the characters dress in, there’s a much stronger argument for saying that Doctor Strange is a science fiction film… or at least borrows heavily from sci-fi.
Whether you consider the movie to be based on science fiction or fantasy or something in between, the fact remains that it takes a pretty interesting approach to magic in the MCU. As with Thor we find that true magic doesn’t exist, but what we do see is possibly even better… it’s a system that practitioners are able to access and manipulate in a way that actually makes sense (beyond the whole “channeling energy from other dimensions” bit) and that’s fairly rare in both science fiction and fantasy. That Doctor Strange was able to do it so well given the number of concepts it had to introduce to explain it is a testament to the film regardless of genre.