Monday, December 5, 2016

Doctor Strange Review

The Marvel formula has succeeded again.  The first origin story since Ant-Man, Doctor Strange opens an exciting new dimension of the multiverse: magical mysticism and sorcery.  (I watched this on the same day I watched wizardry and witchcraft in Fantastic Beasts.  Here's hoping I don't burn in hellfire for the double whammy.)  While the film has its issues, from the casting controversy to its formulaic pattern, Doctor Strange still engaged me with stunning visuals and some surprises behind the curtain.

(Source: Wikimedia Commons)

I cannot imagine how hard the special effects team worked to make the film happen.  Even without seeing it in 3-D, I was entranced and engulfed by the colorful kaleidoscope world that they created.  The new visual and psychological presence of mysticism fascinated me.  Meanwhile, although Dr. Strange doesn't offer a wit quite on par with some other Marvel characters, he was good for an occasional laugh.  I had no comic book background with the character, so perhaps that's why I was surprised at how much Stephen Strange remind of Tony Stark.  For one thing, they have similar facial hair, and they're both arrogant.

However, Strange's (excuse me, Doctor Strange's) pride takes an interesting shape.  He is an excellent neurosurgeon who saves a person's life in the first scene and has saved many other lives before that, but it turns out he only takes the cases that will make him look good.  Near hopeless cases he tosses aside.  I have no idea why Pepper Potts - I mean Christine Palmer - puts up with him.  A former lover and current colleague of Dr. Strange, Palmer stays by his side when a car accident steals the steadiness of his hands.  I liked watching Dr. Strange coming into his own.  His arc goes the way you might expect of an initially self-glorifying character who learns to be a hero.  We've all seen it before.  That's because it works, and it works for this movie.

(Source: Wikimedia Commons)

My real enjoyment began when Strange goes to Nepal to be healed by the Ancient One, master of sorcery, played by whiter than bread Tilda Swinton.  I'll give credit to Swinton for playing a character with so much nuance and, frankly, really badass magical skills.  Her teaching technique can be summarized with this: that she stranded Strange on Mount Everest until he learned to create a portal back to Nepal.  If that isn't immersion learning I don't know what is.  The Ancient One serves as a rich resource of wisdom and a strong juxtaposition against Doctor Strange's personality.  Yet at the same time, she has a mystery about her that Strange suspects.

Her powerful force makes me all the more disappointed about a white woman being cast as her.  The original Ancient One was a Tibetan man.  The movie creators have given us all kinds of reasons as to why Swinton rather than an Asian actress was cast.  The Washington Post does an excellent job breaking down their excuses.  I would like to add that the director's fear of an Asian Ancient One becoming a Dragon Lady stereotype wouldn't have happened with the way her character was written and performed.  A Dragon Lady is strong, mysterious, domineering, and manipulative.  The Ancient One is certainly the first two, but I would hardly describe her as domineering or manipulative.  And how wonderful it would have been to see the stereotype of a meek, quiet, shy Asian woman broken with a powerful, complex, wise master of mystic arts.  If people automatically label such a thing as "Dragon Lady," that's their prejudice and their problem.

People have a right to be upset about whitewashing in Doctor Strange.  If it wasn't for that, I would have no qualms about recommending it.  For me, the movie was worth watching to continue following the Marvel Cinematic Universe and be able to see and discuss for myself what is right and what is wrong with Doctor Strange.  I hope Marvel has learned their lesson from the controversy.  With the talent of their writers, directors, and actors, the studio can and has created three-dimensional characters rather than racist caricatures before.  Marvel can afford to take a few risks with other characters of color.  Starting with - and I know this is pretty radical - casting an Asian actor for an Asian character.  What a concept.


  1. What did you think of the other Asian character, played by an Asian?

    1. Oh, good question! I thought he was a great foil to Dr. Strange, and I remember reading that the actor was hoping to break stereotypes in his role. He definitely succeeded, which is a bright spot in the movie.