Doctor Strange: What’s Right and Wrong with the Marvel Universe


**Non Spoiler Review**
It’s a strange era we live in. Since Ironman in 2008, we are now miraculously on our 14th chapter in the Marvel Cinematic Universe (whisper: it’s all connected). No slight of hand, no smoke and mirrors- just a commitment to the source material and an monumental effort to keep it all connected (whisper: it’s all connected). Out of confidence, Marvel Studios can take almost any property and make it an instant hit, illustrated by the likes of Ant-Man and Guardians of the Galaxy. However, now we have the likes of a hero that is a mix between a Vegas magician, Dr McDreamy and Sherlock Holmes. But, is it genuinely magical or a two bit parlor trick? Honestly, I think it’s a little of both.

1475073483screen_shot_2016-09-28_at_5-04_-42_am_I’ll cut straight to it. As mentioned by many critics, Doctor Strange is quite the visual spectacle. It’s Inception meets Harry Potter- and there is nothing wrong with that. It’s so mind bending that it’s likely to induce a little vertigo for those with inner ear issues. Introducing magic in such a grounded Marvel universe is no easy feat and I think Scott Derrickson does an admirable job making it spectacular but believable. I also commend Marvel architect, Kevin Feige, and Marvel for their commitment to be true to the character’s design and origin. Cumberbatch looks good, feels good and is pretty much a cosplayer’s dream. Benedict is great in anything he does. He struggles a bit with the ‘Robert Downey Jr’ wit and clearly is more comfortable in dry sarcasm then trying to banter. It’s not a stellar performance but he has already made it hard imagining anyone else in the part- which is what you want. So all in all, great visuals, comics accurate Doctor and thumbs up on Cumberbatch. Thus ends my praise of this film.

As multi-dimensional as Doctor Strange is suppose to be, it is largely unimaginative. With the underlying structure of aforementioned Ironman (2008) but with a new veneer, we get the same structure that we have seen for all of the origin films. The formula: Arrogant protagonist + the purposeless love interest + Yoda x plucky minority sidekicks (division sign) generic evil villains. This pretty much describes almost every Marvel origin story we have seen. I love most of these films and many of them I consider quite good. But for a film that really is suppose to break the boundaries of reality I just expected a little more effort. The story is perfectly serviceable and if you don’t care that you are getting the same plot you’ve seen half a dozen times, then you will like Strange. I was just surprised how paint by the numbers it was. Like it or not, with every installment, the bar keeps rising. Like Steven Strange, Feige may need to forget everything he knows and open his mind to what else is possible.

26-tilda-swinton-doctor-strange-w529-h529The most egregious crime Doctor Strange commits is it’s blatant appropriation of Asian culture. With an almost entire Western cast, it really is embarrassing how little Marvel seems to care about this important issue. The white washing of the Ancient One (Tilda Swinton) was bad enough but come on, at least make an effort to make up for it in other ways. Despite some obligatory wide shots of Nepal, there are NO NEPALESE in this film. With the exception of a few background characters scurrying about, this could have been set in almost any mystical Asian mountain top. Heck, they could have put the cast in a PF Chang restaurant and it wouldn’t have made much difference. Clearly the entire cast are not indigenous and are just renting space in Kathmandu for the reasons. Even Benedict Wong, who is a Brit of Chinese dissent, can’t balance out the inequality. It’s really a ashamed too. With such a brilliant cast, the authenticity is lost because it feels like they are playing in a paper world. For a movie that is suppose to be set in an exotic land and culture, Doctor Strange is just bland and banal. While I appreciate comics source material, most of the Kathmandu cast, protagonist and villains, should have been Nepalese- or at least Asian. It probably didn’t help that before Doctor Strange, the trailer for Matt Damon’s The Great Wall played. Which will no doubt be another reluctant ‘white knight’ that has to step up and save an entire people group. Similarly, Doctor Strange has to go save Hong Kong since no indigenous heroes exist. I’m tired of it. A lot of people are tired of it. Marvel, 14 films in, you should be tired of it too. Black Panther should be a welcome change to this downhill slope to mono-culturalism but it can’t turn the tide alone. Marvel Studios needs to care for the people and culture that are depicted in their stories- period (Remember, Iron Fist is around the corner too). In 2008, like Tony Stark, it was all about having fun and partying like a millionaire playboy philanthropist. On the eve of 2017, it’s time to mature.

ctyjzlfw8aeyi0tOn a related note- Doctor Strange abysmally fails the Bechdale Test. Talented actress, Rachel McAdams, does nothing but just serve as caretaker for Strange. She has no volition of her own and is just there to pamper and praise Strange. I’m tired of that too. Stop it. Just stop it.

With all this ranting, I don’t think Doctor Strange is a bad film. While it doesn’t bring much new to story telling, it’s quite good in parts. Strange shows the symptom that we have all been feeling in the back of our minds for some time now; Lazy thinking is setting in and it’s time for something new. Good news is that Strange will fit nicely in the larger Marvel Cinematic Universe, which is what we all mainly care about anyways right?! Am I expecting too much from a Marvel film. Are my concerns valid as a comic book fan? How important should race and culture play in superhero films? Let me know what your thoughts are by leaving a comment below.

Update 12:33p: “white people are always better Asians than Asians…” Article by LA Times

4 thoughts on “Doctor Strange: What’s Right and Wrong with the Marvel Universe

  1. I was just happy to see that they were in Hong Kong and the extras actually spoke Cantonese (because quite often, Hollywood could care less between the two dialects, which are vastly different). See how low I set the bar for Hollywood because they’re so disappointing in this respect? :-/

    I agree that I, too, was sad to see Rachel McAdams do so little in the film. She’s an amazing actress and she could’ve just been played by any female actress at that point. Also, the supporting women of these comic films are all beginning to blend together in my head.
    Guessing this is where Wonder Woman will shine? (Though, the trailer looks like a rip off of Captain America to me and Batman v. Superman was just so awful for me to sit through that I don’t know if I can sit through WW.)

    Keep up the great reviews! Love this site! 🙂

  2. I thought you left out mention of the Evil Candyland and fruitypebbles-imbibed-Galactus-esque-smoke-monster. Seemed the opposite of a “dark dimension” to me with colorful zoomed in bacteria to jump around on. That whole part felt visually confused – like they couldn’t decide what another dimension should be like so they settled on a photoshopped picture from a biology book and a giant Thanos face covered by fireworks mist. Leaves me wondering how in the world BvS got so much flak for “heavy CGI” and this hasn’t.

    Anyway – to your point about the whitewashing: Being a white male, I’m pretty sure I have some significant blind spots for this, but I too was shocked by the Damon preview – I can’t believe the choices that went in to that. Specific to comic book movies, I have this curiosity: Many of these characters were created by a generation who experienced racial diversity in a much different way. Other races being used at plot points and mascots extended far outside comics in previous eras (see any of the major sports leagues). Superman needed a Lois to save and “Pieface” is an acceptable name for a sidekick. With the foundation of these characters being partly grounded in an era blind to this issue, what does it look like to “reboot” some of these origins and concepts without changing history (both the real history of comics as well as the history of the character)? Reboot in comics is a naughty word, and I have wondered if that lends itself to this ongoing problem. – how do you bring that into the 21st century while keeping the “comic faithful” on board and paying homage to comic history (given the root of the fan base stems from “collecting”)? One way that it’s being done at the moment is in the hyper-sexualization of a character like Harley to give her “empowerment” – that’s not all that new to comics, but I’m not sure it’s much better.

    I don’t believe this is an insurmountable problem by any means and I’m glad you have a platform to express “this is not ok.” On the part of the studios, I’d be surprised if overcoming the anxiety of “reboots” and “character revisions” isn’t a factor in why change has been so hard. Admitting problems with the foundation is something a homeowner will try to ignore as long as possible because of how expensive and painful it is to actually fix (after all, the whole house might fall down if you do it badly). But, of course, leaving it can can cause worse damage.

    • Great thoughts Trevor. Yea, I tool felt the dimensional baddy wasn’t very compelling. They should have just figured out how to bring Thanos into it so there is more of direct tie. In regards to race and sex, I think it’s symptomatic of too many chefs and not giving a director a chance to take risks and fulfill a singular vision. I think Derrickson did a decent job but it really could have been boundary breaking on so many levels. Instead it felt formulaic- a good formula but still paint by numbers. Thanks for your feedback!

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