Doctor Strange is the latest Marvel Studios tentpole designed to push the Marvel Cinematic Universe in a new direction. Until this point, Marvel Studios' films have denied the existence of magic. The Thor films, as well as the use of characters like Scarlet Witch and The Mandarin, attempted to work around the blatant magical elements with bizarre pseudo-science explanations that worked to varying levels of success (and mostly failure). People will believe men can fly in robotic suits built out of scraps in a terrorist hideout, but not in a woman's ability to manipulate the universe with spell casting. From the moment we meet The Ancient One in Doctor Strange, we know magic is now officially canon in the MCU; it's glorious. Everyone involved in all levels of the production clearly has a wonderful time embracing the freedom of possibility where the very laws the films are built on can be ripped apart with a hand gesture and a ring. Visually, Doctor Strange is one of the most captivating and memorable Marvel films to date.
The plot is a pretty standard superhero origin story that acts as a vehicle for spectacular visual effects and fight sequences. Doctor Stephen Strange is a gifted surgeon with a massive ego problem. Sure, he can precisely perform microsurgery on the brain stem of a patient without the proper guiding equipment to ensure everyone's safety, but he callously disregards the well-being of patients who cannot expand his fame and standing in the world of medicine.
It all comes to an end when a car crash (caused by him texting while driving like an idiot (it seems redundant, but you need to see his terrible driving in action to believe it before the phone even comes out)) leaves both of his hands incapable of the precision work he once lived off of. He journeys halfway around the world to find the temple of The Ancient One. She literally opens his mind to magical abilities he never imagined possible that could easily heal him or even save the universe. Not all of The Ancient One's students choose to use these gifts for good and some are determined to give up our autonomy on earth for immortality from the hands of a dark force in an alternate dimension. The selfish Doctor Strange is forced to choose between his own success and the salvation of all mankind as magic can only be focused and spread so far by one person, however powerful.
With so much working for it, it is a great shame, then, that Marvel Studios once again decided the world was not ready non-white superheroes onscreen. Yes, they pop up now and again in the MCU. Iron Man brought along War Machine. The newest Avengers outing gave us the long-awaited introduction of Black Panther. Thor had Idris Elba as Heimdell and the supporting ensemble of Ant-Man was the most diverse of the big screen efforts. Their newest series for Netflix, Luke Cage, is an unabashed celebration of a black superhero and is arguably the most cohesive and stylish original series to date.
But why, in 2016, when every Marvel Studios' film goes to number 1 regardless of quality at the box office, did Marvel decide that The Ancient One had to be rewritten as a white Celtic woman? Tilda Swinton is wonderful in the role, but her presence in what is clearly a Buddhist temple, fighting with magical fans in monk robes and a shaved head, is a distraction. Cast an Asian actress if you want the female/male dynamic between The Ancient One and Doctor Stephen Strange, but stay true to the origin and culture of the character. There are issues with Doctor Strange as a series that are made so much worse by whitewashing The Ancient One and his culture.
If there is room for creative recasting in this universe, it stands with the title character himself. Doctor Strange is a problematic character representative of some of the worst character types in comic book history. The trope of a powerful white man gains abilities through the absorption of another culture is damaging on face value. Benedict Cumberbatch, like Tilda Swinton, is very good in Doctor Strange; the issue is not the quality of performance. The issue is Marvel Studios had the ability to fix a major black mark on their record by casting a non-white (preferably Asian) actor as the lead in this superhero series based in East Asian mysticism and instead, once again, cast an existing and popular white star for safety. It's lazy and disappointing.
It's even more disappointing in the context of the film's only major Asian actor. Benedict Wong plays Wong, the guardian of the mystical library of The Ancient One. He speaks with a thick accent, is obsessed with knowledge and rules, and is incapable of showing any emotional reaction not driven by discipline. It's stoic monk stereotypes foisted on the only speaking, visible representation of the culture Doctor Strange pulls its mythology from and it makes the focus on two pale, white, British actors playing with magic all the more jarring.
It doesn't get better for Chiwetel Ejiofor as Karl Mordo, The Ancient One's second in command. While he gets to speak in complete sentences, he is very much playing an angry black man type. He is so obsessed with the rules that anytime anyone steps out of line, he completely overreacts with an inappropriate level of anger. It is so jarring and disconnected from the rest of the film that it draws more focus to how inappropriate the casting and character types in the film are.
Doctor Strange is a perfectly enjoyable superhero film. I count it among my favorites in the MCU. The casting issue that controlled the critical discussion from the first press release is just unavoidable when you see how poorly the Celtic instead of Asian Ancient One change is implemented.
It feels like half of Tilda Swinton's dialogue is dubbed to cover for issues Marvel Studios might not have been aware of until after the cast was announced. This is the only place where the voice over technique is used and it's not limited to jumps between the various planes of magical existence, a device that could have worked. Once this concept falls apart, the rest of the casting and characterization issues are really hard to look past.
It is always possible to enjoy a film you have issues with. There is no such thing as a perfect piece of media in any form.
Doctor Strange made me feel alive in the theater. I felt that sense of awe and sublime that my professors once told me those massive 20-plus foot wide canvases of the unsettled West were supposed to evoke. I could not predict where the story would take me next, who would land on what side of the conflict, and how the good guys would ultimately stop the destruction of earth from a power the earth draws upon to run. The only thing I can take issue with is a series of poor decisions at the pre-production level that rise and fall like the currents throughout. The film is absolutely worth seeing with an understanding that different casting choices could have made it even stronger.
Doctor Strange is currently playing in theaters.