I went to the Dr. Strange movie in November, soon after it opened. It has taken me this long to finish a review, due to being distracted by the US election.
The original Dr. Strange comic began in the 1960s, drawn by Steve Ditko, and the movie has very much a 1960s feeling. It's a psychedelic tour de force. Dr. Strange falls into other dimensions, which are weird as hell, and there are magical fights in which buildings fold and twist, until you don't know what you are looking at. I didn't do drugs in the 1960s, but I saw the posters and 2001. The movie looked very familiar. Mixed with all the optical hoo-haw is fake Eastern mysticism, which is also very 1960s.
The plot: Dr. Strange is a brilliant neurosurgeon and an antisocial jerk, a lot like Tony Stark in the first Iron Man movie. His hands are injured—destroyed—in a car accident. Modern Western medicine cannot help him. He turns to Asian magic as it was imagined in the 1960s: a mystical order in Nepal based on a side street in Katmandu, with Asian masses crowding past the unassuming door.
Strange arrives at the order’s temple and discovers the leader is a white woman with a shaven head, apparently young, though she is called the Ancient One. She has major-league magical powers. He is impressed and joins the order, learning its discipline, a mixture of martial arts, Zen, and Taoism as imagined by 1960s Americans. He also learns the order’s purpose: to defend Earth against hostile forces coming from other dimensions. Of course, a villain appears, a former student of the Ancient One, and of course there are mind-bending magical fights.
That’s all you need to know about the plot: the 1960s brought into the present, with amazing special effects.
According to one of my friends who knows Marvel comics, the Ancient One was a stereotypical Asian magician, Marvel apparently decided he was out of date and racist and changed the character from an Asian man from a hidden Himalayan kingdom to a white woman from Ireland. There is also a rumor that the Chinese government told Marvel if the Ancient One came from a Himalayan kingdom, as he did in the original comic, the movie would not be released in China. The issue of Tibet is still sensitive to the Chinese government, and China is the second biggest movie market in the world.
I had trouble with the Ancient One as played in the movie. She did not seem sufficiently mystical. I wanted a tiny, elderly Asian full of canny wisdom. Or the kind of authority figure Ditko drew, tall and dramatic and foreign. This shows that I am influenced by stereotypes, even though I don't want to be.
But I went along with the story, which included some satisfying fights. Other people told me they were okay with a white female Ancient One. Not everyone was, however. I discovered there was a lot of discussion and anger on the Internet about the whitewashing of the Ancient One.
I suspect Marvel wanted the Ancient One to be female because the movie is short of women. (This is a usual Marvel problem.) There is only one other woman of any importance, and she is off screen most of the movie. Per an article I found, Marvel tried making the Ancient One Asian, but she came out as a kind of Dragon Lady, another famous stereotype, slinky and exotic and dangerous.
Maybe they should have tried harder. I can imagine the Chinese movie star Michelle Yeoh as the Ancient One. She would be a kick-ass ancient master, not the least bit slinky. Because she knows martial arts, her magical gestures would be awesome.
If Marvel wanted to turn the Ancient One back into a man, they could have hired Jet Li or Chow Yun Fat. Like Yeoh, Li knows martial arts and is a formidable scene stealer. (I saw him steal Lethal Weapon 4 from Mel Gibson, who was pretty charismatic in his prime. It was no contest. Li dominated the movie.) Chow Yun Fat used to play gangsters. Then he moved to playing emperors and Confucius in a movie biography of the great sage. He could certainly be the Ancient One.
They could have used an Asian American actor.
Of course, (spoiler alert!) the Ancient One dies, and people of color always die in Hollywood movies. So making the character Asian would have played into another stereotype.
In any case, Marvel could have gone to China and found a legendary movie star or looked for a rising young Asian American actor in the US. I don't know why they didn't. Maybe they simply wanted a good looking, youngish white woman. This can certainly be called whitewashing.
I then discovered that part of the anger was due to Marvel casting a white, Western, European man as Dr. Strange. As far as I know, the comic book character has always been white, so casting Benedict Cumberbatch is not whitewashing. It was also not necessary. Marvel is always changing the colors and histories of its characters. Even the species can change. Remember when Thor was a frog?
Marvel could have cast a Middle Eastern or African actor as Dr. Strange and not explained why, any more than they explained why Nick Fury and Heimdall are black.
I don’t know why they didn’t. Except that Dr. Strange is a brilliant, arrogant, white man who is in complete control of his world—and then discovers that his Western skill and science cannot fix everything. There’s more in the world than he realized. (Of course, he masters the Asian occult science, because that’s what happens in this kind of story, and this is its own kind of stereotype. The white guy is brought low and then triumphs. Sort of like Tony Stark in the Afghan cave.) Changing his background would change the story. It could have been done. It wasn’t.
I think the ultimate problem is Marvel wanted to keep the feel of the original comic. This might not be an entirely wrong decision. But it meant that Marvel was caught in stereotypes. The 1960s, with all their merits, were a lot more retrograde than America is now. Though, after the recent election, we may get the 1960s back again, or something like the 1960s.
On the plus side, there are six important characters in the movie: two white women, two white men (one the hero, the other the villain), one black man, and one man of Chinese descent. (Wong, the Asian man in the movie, was a personal servant in the original comic. In the movie, he is a master of occult arts and a chief librarian. This is a move up.)
One third of the important characters are non-white. The US is currently 28% non-white. So the movie matches US demographics. Of course, the world is mostly people of color. But the movie was made by an American company. Marvel is trying, it seems to me. Maybe not enough.
(An example of trying is the Howling Commandos in Captain America. Even though the US army was segregated during World War II, the Commandos are racially mixed and include several different nationalities. By the end of Avengers 2, the Avengers consist of two women, two black men, a red and blue robot, and Cap. I like the earlier version of the Avengers. But the new version is more diverse.)
Having said all this, I enjoyed Doctor Strange and intend to see it again. Maybe its flaws will become more evident. Maybe I’ll decide I like the movie more than on the first viewing.
I don’t agree with the people who say that going to the movie supports racism. In a certain sense, everything we do supports racism, unless we are constantly 100% fighting racism every moment, raising our own food and making our own clothing so we don’t patronize racist corporations, refusing to pay taxes because we don’t want to support a racist government. Racism is a system, intertwined with capitalism and imperialism, and it reaches every corner of American—and world—society. When you buy clothing made in Asia, you support the exploitation of Asian working people, many of them women and children. When you buy food grown by agribusiness, you support the exploitation of brown-skinned farm workers here and in other countries. If you buy chocolate, for heaven’s sake, you support the exploitation of child workers in Africa. (I’m not going into fair trade chocolate here. That will be another column.)
Maybe at some point we will all decide to give up on the current system and either build a new and fair society or go off into the mountains and become subsistence farmers. Until then, we have to decide as individuals what aspects of the system we reject. I have a list of companies I won’t do business with. But I’m really reluctant to give up chocolate or Marvel movies, even though I recognize the problems with both.
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