This Review will contain spoilers of the Doctor Strange movie
Last night I finally got around to seeing one of Marvel’s most anticipated movies. As Dr. Strange is among my favorite comic book characters, I was beyond excited to finally see him featured on screen. Of course in lieu of some things, I was offput. I’m walking Strange territory with this one, and no the pun wasn’t intended. The best way I can put this is that the movie was phenomenal save for one key, and very important mistake… that being the casting of the Ancient One as white. Now my statement says the casting very specifically because I’ve already got internet warriors trying to twist my words into something that insinuates that I have a problem with Tilda Swinton or how she depicted the Ancient One, even though in my post I said casting. But more on that later. Let’s start with the good stuff..
Benedict Cumberbatch is Stephen Strange. His hubris and conscientious narcissism is so aggravating and I love it. This is the story of a man who needed to be knocked off his high horse and humbled to learn, through discipline, to gain knowledge, strength and power for something more than his own self improvement. Finding Mordo, and the Ancient One helped him to find something deeper than himself. He went to fix his hands so that he could go back to his old life, and ended up entering a different one altogether. Strange’s skepticism and then later, hunger for knowledge is so well rendered, that one can understand and feel his development throughout the movie until he does something so selfless that you realize then he has healed himself of his true ailment. I loved this characterization and again Marvel Studios has done well at making full, round characters that we can relate to no matter what walk of life they tread.
Then there is the air of magic that the movie brings to an otherwise, sci-fi and technology based universe. Marvel has finally introduced their Multiverse which opens up castle sized doors of opportunity for creativity within the universe, and the effects and the way it’s all packaged is just gorgeous. The concept and portrayal of the Mirror Dimension is brilliant and both the explanation and the effects behind “magic” is a simple complexity that allows us as viewers to understand it, while leaving it enigmatic enough for the writers to do pretty much whatever they want with it. I believe it was described as “energy drawn from other dimensions.” In other words, power and energy that we can’t fully understand, and can be regarded here, as magic.
When it comes to Tilda Swinton as the Ancient One, I’ll try to be as clear as possible, because there is a lot of fire flying from many directions on this issue, even to the point of some people refusing to see the movie. First, she did an exceptional job as the Ancient One. She played the role very well, and I wasn’t at all upset at her acting. She very much played wise and old without looking very old at all, and showed a level of skill very worthy of the Ancient One. So I have no issues there. I will also say that Marvel took a keen eye on the idea of changing the Ancient One into a woman for the film. It was very nice to see the leader and teacher be a woman, and so well respected. However, I stand strongly by the fact that casting her as white, no matter how well Swinton did, was a narrow-minded and ignorant choice, considering that he was Asian to begin with, and Asians already have so few leading and powerful roles to represent them.
Identity matters. I’ve heard the argument that “he was Tibetan and we’ll cause issues with China who will ban our movie if we cast him as Asian, etc.” and the more popular excuse that “He was originally a caricature of Asian culture and we didn’t want to portray that”. Both are a huge load of donkey dung. It was about money, and the ease of defaulting to white. The result is the erasure of Asian’s within their own culture in film. It was amazing in Doctor Strange to see the multi-ethnic people training in the mystic arts. I loved seeing that, but at the end of the day turning her white was the wrong answer. It again puts a white person at the helm of something that belongs to Asian culture. I’m not for it. So as I said, story and acting wise, Tilda was excellent. Culturally, and Identity-Wise? It’s a bad look for Marvel representing Asians. I care about my Asian friend’s thoughts and feelings. Next time, I hope they figure out another way to fix an issue that isn’t white-washing it out. Marvel is making some strides forward, but this was a huge step back.
Let me digress. I loved Wong. I loved Mordo. I loved Kaecilius as the villain, but honestly it could’ve been any Strange villain. What helped this along was the fact that he was backed by Dormammu. I would’ve prefered a flaming head on Dormammu but I can’t be mad with how well they expressed his raw power, as well as how Strange used the Eye of Agamotto to defeat him regardless of how hopelessly outmatched he was. This very much reminds me of when they first faced off in Doctor Strange #3 from 1974. Oh and The Dark Dimension looked amazing!
I absolutely love references, and I try to keep a sharp eye out for them when watching Marvel films. In this one my favorite was at the end their after Kaecilius and his men were defeated, they showed them as Mindless One’s for about half a second. That kind of made me flip. Just a little. Aside from that I know there was mention of “The Living Tribunal”, which happens to be a powerful cosmic being within Marvel. Mordo fights with a weapon that seems to be a staff capable of encompassing some of it’s power. Also while I never heard of the boots of Valtorr (worn by Mordo), but I have definitely heard of the Vapors of Valtorr, so that was cool to see. Then, I think I heard the name Drumm? Daniel or Jericho, I don’t know but it certainly relates to Brother Voodoo either way! I need him on screen ASAP! Also we now have our 5th Infinity Stone, that being the time gem, in the form of The Eye of Agamotto. Not comic accurate of course, but friggin’ awesome either way. Only one more to go.
All-in-All this is easily one of Marvel’s best films, which makes the myopic casting of the Ancient One put that much more of a dampener in it for me. I enjoyed the film but I simply can’t ignore that identity error. But I suppose all they are going to care about in the end to that respect is the money right? That’s the only reason I give this movie a B+ as opposed to an A+. Everything else was on point, from acting, to effects to comic book references. I really enjoyed this film, and I recommend it, but only with the added knowledge of that Asian erasure. Enjoy the film, but know the problems.
P.S.: You want a good idea of the issues with Doctor Strange’s Ancient One Casting? Check out Shaun Lau’s Reviewing the Review’s of Doctor Strange