“Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.”
You’ve no doubt opened up this review of Doctor Strange thinking “What sci-fi interfaces are in this movie? I don’t recall any.” And you’re right. There aren’t any. (Maybe the car, the hospital, but they’re not very sci-fi.) We’re going to take Clarke’s quote above and apply the same types of rigorous assessment to the magical interfaces and devices in the movie that we would for any sci-fi blockbuster.
Dr. Strange opens up a new chapter in the Marvel Cinematic Universe by introducing the concept of magic on Earth, that is both discoverable and learnable by humans. And here we thought it was just a something wielded by Loki and other Asgardians.
In Doctor Strange, Mordo informs Strange that magical relics exist and can be used by sorcerers. He explains that these relics have more power than people could possibly manage, and that many relics “choose their owner.” This is reminiscent of the wands in the Harry Potter books. Magical coincidence?
Subsequently in the movie we are introduced to a few named relics, such as…
- The Eye of Agamoto
- The Staff of the Living Tribunal
- The Vaulting Boots of Valtor
- The Cloak of Levitation
- The Crimson Bands of Cyttorak
…(this last one, while not named specifically in the movie, is named in supporting materials). There are definitely other relics that the sorcerers arm themselves with. For example, in the Hong Kong scene Wong wields the Wand of Watoomb but it is not mentioned by name and he never uses it. Since we don’t see these relics in use we won’t review them.
Choosing an Owner
The implications of what Mordo tells Strange is profound because it means magical relics possess some kind of intelligence. That’s a weighty word, so In order to back this up, we need a common definition in place. Let’s ask Merriam-Webster.
a (1) : the ability to learn or understand or to deal with new or trying situations : reason; also : the skilled use of reason (2) : the ability to apply knowledge to manipulate one’s environment or to think abstractly as measured by objective criteria (as tests)
That gives us the foundation that we need. In order to choose their owner, these relics require a theory of mind, an ability to detect and perceive the individuals they meet, and they must possess a reasoning mechanism to decide that an individual is worthy or useful to them. That seems to satisfy both senses of that definition. For our purposes we’re going to think of this in terms of an artificial intelligence and review these relics as if they were a form of advanced technology. Thanks, Mr. Clarke.
We should take care, though. There are some narrative trappings for magic that can trip us up. Magic, for instance, doesn’t typically run out in these relics, but if they were technological, we would have to deal with issues of power, batteries or recharging. So for all their instructive power, we would have to deal with even greater complexity if they were real technology.
The AIs/Intelligences appear to vary in capabilities from narrow to general and are focused on their own specific purposes and “hardware.” In use, they primarily respond to the intentions and actions of the user. None of the objects seem to be able to speak directly, although the Cloak provides rudimentary directional guidance and responds to speech and emotions, so the connection varies from communication via touch to some form of remote telepathy.
The initial awareness and selection by an relic for a sorcerer seems limited in range to a few meters. It’s almost like they need to meet their humans socially to determine if they are a match. But once an relic chooses a sorcerer, their interactions can occur more remotely. The Cloak, as we’ll see in that write-up, flies to save Strange from a fall and it fights for him in the Sanctum while he seeks medical attention across town at the hospital.
What’s the platform?
One question the diligent backworlder might seek to answer is how all of these unique relics—created as they were across different millennia, and realities and by different sources/sorcerers/beings—wound up with similar intelligence and imprinting features. The movie itself doesn’t provide an answer, so we’ll leave it to speculation, but it does imply some sort of shared provenance/source material/code base/relic-maker convention.
Ok. So we’re set with some understanding of how these things work and what they have in common. Next let’s dig into the big billowy one that should have gotten supporting actor credit in the film.
I agree on this for some of the more intelligent relics (the cloak being the best example), but I don’t know if we see evidence that ALL of the relics act like this. For example, we never see the Boots of Valtor make decisions on its own.
This could be a matter of its owner having more experience with the relic, and having some kind of subconscious communication with it, but I wonder if it’s equally likely that certain relics have less ‘intelligence’ than others. They might be limited in who they’re willing to bond with, but might make those decisions more instinctually than intelligent relics like the cloak.
It could be a useful reference for only making items and interfaces as smart as they have to be. I think it would be a bit awkward if my boots could make complete decisions on their own, if only from a balance perspective.
Agreed. I don’t know the comic book canon, so some of that relic decision-making could have been made off-screen, but it doesn’t seem like it would be wholly useful for a doorknob to select who can use it. Though now that I type that, it seems like a security feature…