Doctor Strange gives us the arrogant but charming Dr Stephen Strange, a celebrity neurosurgeon known for his rock star antics in the operating theatre. He spends his money on Lamborghinis and penthouse apartments, and he’s also very, very good at saving lives.
A car accident – which isn’t the fault of a truck carrying radioactive waste, but rather, Strange looking at his phone while driving – results in his hands being horribly crushed with significant nerve damage. Dissatisfied with the rate at which occupational therapy is improving his fine motor skills, Strange travels to find a secret spiritual school in Nepal that he thinks will help him heal.
There, he is instructed in the art of sorcery by the Ancient One (Tilda Swinton), and has deep-and-meaningfuls with a graduate of the school; Master Karl Mordo (Chiwetel Ejiofor). Strange proves to be an adept student of sorcery but he must put his magic where his mouth is when a former student of the Ancient One - who has ‘lost his way’ - Kaecilius (the underutilised Mads Mikkelsen) tries to unleash a hell dimension being – Dormammu - upon the earth. As you do.
Doctor Strange is by far the most visually impressive Marvel film to date. The VFX are worth the price admission alone. What makes the special effects in Doctor Strange exciting is more than just technical skill; it’s about the imagination that has gone into them.
Cityscapes fold in on themselves and kaleidoscopically fold out again, like some sort of psychedelic Inception and Escher mash-up. A dark universe is brought to life in neon colours. Doctor Strange flies through time and space, only to encounter a pocket of the multiverse where his fingertips sprout new hands, and those fingertips sprout new hands again – a visual more arresting and terrifying than anything in recent horror films.
(Check out the Trailer for a tease)...
There are issues with the film, too. For starters, Doctor Strange doesn’t have quite enough heart for an origin story. But the more glaring, blindingly white problem is that – particularly as audiences are still waiting for 2018’s Black Panther or 2019’s Captain Marvel – it’s another movie about a white man. On top of that, a movie about a white man who visits the ‘mysterious East,’ where he quickly surpasses monks who have devoted lifetimes to their spiritual quests, and becomes a Master of the mystic.
And then there is, of course, the fact that the Ancient One – originally a Tibetan monk in the comic books – is played by Tilda Swinton (a white female).
When it was first announced in early 2016 that Swinton would be taking on the role, it felt especially problematic – as if studio executives expected audiences to applaud the move as progressive because a woman had been cast in a role that was originally a male character, while overlooking the fact that a culturally diverse character had been written out of the film entirely.
Since the film’s premiere, the cast and crew have addressed the criticisms at length.
Director Scott Derrickson told Variety, “I think diversity is the responsibility of directors and producers… In this case, the stereotype of [the Ancient One] had to be undone. I wanted it to be a woman, a middle-aged woman. Every iteration of that script played by an Asian woman felt like a 'Dragon Lady’.”
"I'm very sensitive to the history of 'Dragon Lady' representation and Anna May Wong films. I moved away from that. Who's the magical, mystical, woman with secrets that could work in this role? I thought Tilda Swinton."
Look, I get it: if I was making a movie, I’d want Tilda Swinton in it too. The woman is an ageless Goddess walking among us mere mortals. She's already proved she can play a sorceress (The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe), as well as wise women who are a tad scary (Only Lovers Left Alive).
While it's nice to have more female characters in Doctor Strange – the other female principle is Strange’s love interest Rachel McAdams, who is very good in her seven-and-a-half minutes on screen (it’s not enough) - If you can’t create an Asian character who doesn’t conform to ‘wise Asian mystic’ or ‘Dragon Lady’ stereotypes, how hard are you trying? After all, it was possible for the film’s creators to keep the character Wong (played by Benedict Wong) – a manservant whose family has always served the Sorcerers Supreme – and update his representation for modern times.
The rub is that this whitewashing takes place in the context of a film industry that routinely casts white actors in roles that should belong to actors of colour.
It’s an industry that cast Scarlett Johansson as a Japanese human-cyborg in Ghost in the Shell. An industry that, even when casting the third actor to play Spider-Man in less than two decades, couldn’t conceive of introducing the Spider-Man who comes after Peter Parker – Miles Morales, a half-African-American, half-Latino teen – when they had the perfect opportunity to do so.
Marvel Vice President of Asia Brand Management and Development, C.B. Cebulski said recently, “Things have to happen naturally, that's what Marvel is about you know, it's about finding the right character at the right time and we knew it was the right time for Black Panther and we know it's the right time for Captain Marvel, hopefully in the next couple of years it will be the right time for the proper Asian superhero, you know be it Ms Marvel or Sunfire or someone to really pop and take centre stage in one of the films.”
We've had a talking raccoon, but we haven't had an Asian superhero take centre stage. Surely, Marvel, the time is now.