Printed: 2019-08-25

Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies

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Arthur C. Clarke’s Third Law and the Movie ‘Thor’

Kyle Munkittrick

Science Not Fiction

May 12, 2011

Anytime some preposterous technology is injected into a narrative either as a McGuffin or a deus ex machina, that damned quotation from Clarke gets trotted out as the defense.

“Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.”

If you haven’t seen it yet, Thor is a ridiculous and entertaining superhero spectacle. All the leads did a great job, particularly Hopkins as Odin. If you can take a man seriously when he’s standing on a rainbow bridge wearing a gold-plate eyepatch, he’s doing something right. Director Kenneth Branagh’s interpretation of Asgard was visually overwhelming, but weirdly believable.

portmanThe reason? Branagh leans heavily on the magi-tech law of Arthur C. Clarke, which Natalie Portman’s character quotes in the film. So, what is the difference between really-really advanced technology and actual magic?

Sean Carroll, who did some science advising for the film, clears the idea up a bit:

Kevin Feige, president of production at Marvel Studios, is a huge proponent of having the world of these films ultimately “make sense.” It’s not our world, obviously, but there needs to be a set of “natural laws” that keeps things in order — not just for Iron Man and Thor, but all the way up to Doctor Strange, the Sorcerer Supreme who will get his own movie before too long.

In short, the Marvel universe is internally consistent, which makes me all the more excited for the Avengers film. Clarke’s rule of magical tech helps create some of that consistency. I both love and loathe Clarke for that statement. Love because it strikes at the heart of what technology is: a way for humans to do things previously believed not just implausible, but impossible. Loathe because it creates an infinite caveat for lazy authors and screenwriters.

It seems like anytime a preposterous technology is injected into a narrative either as a McGuffin or as a deus ex machina, that damn quotation gets trotted out as the defense. So does Thor live up to Carroll’s hopes, or does it abuse Clarke’s rule?

To answer that question, we need to investigate Clarke’s law a bit further. There is a corollary to it: “Any technology distinguishable from magic is insufficiently advanced.”

By that measure, just how advanced are Asgardians? More than sufficiently. I knew Branagh wanted to explicitly avoid making Thor an actual magical god of thunder. And, because of that, I had so many damn questions about pretty much everything in the film. Why is Thor the only one who can lift Mjölnir? What is Odinsleep? Are Frost Giants aliens? How is Odin able to “take” Thor’s powers?

Needless to say, I was frustrated…


Kyle Munkittrick, IEET Program Director: Envisioning the Future, is a recent graduate of New York University, where he received his Master's in bioethics and critical theory.

Nicole Sallak Anderson is a Computer Science graduate from Purdue University. She developed encryption and network security software, which inspired the eHuman Trilogy—both eHuman Dawn and eHuman Deception are available at Amazon, the third installment is expected in early 2016. She is a member of the advisory board for the Lifeboat Foundation and the Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies.


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