I seriously considered giving Doctor Strange, the latest installment of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, a pass. As information about the production was released, I was put off by the film’s orientalism and whitewashing—and further put off by the feeble explanations the filmmakers gave for their more questionable creative decisions. When the release of the trailer didn’t especially inspire me, I effectively wrote the film off, but as glowing review after glowing review appeared, I began to feel that I might have been unduly harsh in my decision to judge the film sight unseen. So I went to see it.
And found myself surprised that the film had received so many glowing reviews.
Doctor Strange is a proficient entry into the superhero genre, but—aside from its use of special effects—it is largely unremarkable, and it does indeed perpetuate demeaning stereotypes of Asian culture at the same time that it diminishes Asian representation through its whitewashing of the Ancient One character.
There’s just no way to get around this: Tilda Swinton brought absolutely nothing to the Ancient One character that an Asian actress would not have brought, and I say that as someone who greatly respects Swinton’s talent. She is a fine actress, but her casting was a mistake and none of the explanations that have been offered for it hold up under close scrutiny. The filmmakers said that they didn’t want to offend the Chinese by including Tibet as a setting or Tibetans as characters. They found it easy to make Nepal the location of Kamar-Taj, but they somehow found it impossible to hire a Nepalese actress to take the role of the Ancient One. One might argue that the filmmakers may have been deeply invested in the idea of a multicultural Kamar-Taj, but then why not hire an actress like Lucy Liu or Aishwarya Rai for the role? Supposedly, the fear of perpetuating a “Dragon Lady” stereotype was a factor in the decision, but stereotypes have nothing to do with casting and everything to do with writing. If every version of the script that Derrickson, Spaihts, and Cargill produced made the character seem like an Asian Dragon Lady, then their script was just not very good.
And actually, that’s exactly the problem. The Doctor Strange script is not particularly good.
The film’s main issue is that it is yet another origin story. By this time, the MCU is rife with origin stories, and the trope is becoming increasingly more difficult to present in a fresh and exciting way. Furthermore, the emphasis on origin deprives the overall story of much-needed development. The Ancient One is not a problematic character simply because of casting, although that alone is a serious issue, but also because the film’s narrative gives her amazingly short shrift (and this is the case with most of the characters). The origin story provides no way around this stumbling block. Doctor Strange is one of the MCU’s shortest films, and fully a third of it (if not more) is given over to a belabored exploration of Strange’s origin.
But if the filmmakers had made Stephen Strange an established sorcerer and defender of the Sanctum Sanctorum of New York, nothing else about the plot would have had to change. Indeed a number of film’s elements would have improved dramatically. Dropping the origin story, and leaving Strange’s story ambiguous, would have enabled the filmmakers to avoid the super-gross white-person-goes-to-the-mysterious-and-exotic-Orient-to-find-themselves trope. Additionally, Marvel wouldn’t have wasted an origin story—a narrative set-piece whose returns are already diminishing—on a character who is in no way helped by the presentation of such a story.
Origin stories are about development, and they resonate because they showcase the human spirit at its most resilient and in possession of its fullest potential. In an origin story, a flawed character meets an extraordinary challenge and is made better as a result. But Stephen Strange is not made better by his experiences in this film. He begins the film as a thoroughly unlikeable character and ends it as a still-pretty-much unlikeable character. He learns magic, of course, but he does not really develop. Of course, there’s nothing wrong with having a character who is unlikable, and there’s nothing wrong with having a character who is impervious to improvement. In an origin story, however, development is the whole point, and Stephen Strange would have been better off being introduced without one.
Ditching the origin story narrative would not just have resulted in a better main character, it would also have provided the writers more space in which explore the philosophical concepts the film attempts to interrogate. With so much time devoted to showing the audience how Strange goes from surgeon to sorcerer, the questions the film poses—about the clash between rules and rule-breaking, pragmatism and idealism, hypocrisy and compromise—are never given the nuance they need to be truly thought-provoking. And that’s a shame because they are interesting questions, and greater attention to them would have resulted in a truly excellent film rather than in one that is merely okay.
Having said all that, however, the film is not without highlights. Strange’s final confrontation with the dread Dormammu plays with audience expectations in a way that is quite different from than anything we’ve seen in a Marvel film to date, and I applaud that kind of out-of-the-box approach to storytelling. I also appreciate the handling of Karl Mordo’s character. While knowing how Stephen Strange becomes a sorcerer is not especially interesting, knowing how Karl Mordo becomes his enemy is. In a sea of bafflingly underused characters, Mordo had a refreshingly complex and compelling point of view—something that MCU villains traditionally lack. Mordo’s story arc was clearly charted, and it was the one thing in the film that makes me want to see where things go from here.
Otherwise this was a beautiful, but largely superficial, film that offers very little that we haven’t seen before. And while I understand the tendency to rave about the special effects, which were masterful, I do wish that mainstream critics would be a little more strict. Doctor Strange is Marvel’s 14th film. Their audience deserves new substance as well as new style, and the studio should be held to account when they don’t provide it.