Doctor Strange and Coping with the 2016 Election
So I’ve seen Doctor Strange, it’s pretty good, even if Donald Trump is president of the United States. Out of all the Marvel movies, this is the one that most feels like it’s on a conveyor belt, like Benedict Cumberbatch and Tilda Swinton were just handed scripts and told “do something charming” like it’s Law and Order they’ve got twenty more episodes to churn out by the end of the month. “Goddamn it Rachel McAdams, don’t you know how I’ve lost everything?” “Yes Benedict Cumberbatch, after all these years it turns out *I* was the passing fancy.” “Benjamin Bratt, how did you cure your spinal injury?” “Easy, go to 123 fake street and aaaaaaaaalll willl be reveeeeeeeaaallled. I could just tell you now but instead go to Kathman-sodding-du.”
B-Cums and Chiw-E alike feel like they’ve got one foot in and out of their natural accent, you’ll be hearing their English voices even when they’re masking them. All moments of character establishment are dashed through like checkpoints, even when Steven Strange is shown magic for the first time, the scene rockets across the screen like they’re outright expecting you to be bored immediately by any piece of information that isn’t tied to a joke or a stunt. Imagine if the opening crawl from Star Wars was instead shown to you as a 100-second montage. That’s the level of blah-di-blah this movie feels about its own story.
But the second half of it’s good. And this isn’t like Ant-Man where the entire setup’s full of holes, or Age of Ultron where it feels like half the connective tissue is missing, or Civil War where there seems not to be nearly the emotional setup to justify the weight of the payoffs. Doctor Strange is a machine-assembled movie but it’s an efficient machine, and once it has all its pieces on the board it’s like the movie truly begins. Mads Mikklesen is perfect casting as the villain-of-the-week, Rachel McAdams lights up the screen in yet another “I don’t know what I’m doing here either” underwritten Marvel girlfriend role. Swinton and Ejiofor both do workhorse unshowy performances slowly drawing you into their world even given paper-thin material. Benedict Wong gives good sidekick. B-Cums similarly gives a perfectly measured performance as Strange, never letting him get too smug even as he becomes an expert in magic as well as science, even though his quips are pandering rubbish “…asshole!”. It’s also the Marvel movie where the world-building is given the lightest touch, the speech about infinity stones is left to an off-handed comment in the denouement. And even with the nobody-cares rushing through the first hour, the second hour is pretty damn entertaining. with several outstanding sequences and a finale where the hero has to genuinely outsmart the villain for once.
Anyway, Donald Trump is president of the United States. How does something like that happen. And I can think of a million reasons why people would say “I’d rather not vote for Hillary” but that doesn’t explain why such a huge number of people actively supported Trump. And it was such a narrow margin, seems like anything at all could have tipped the scale in Hillary’s favour, any one of a hundred things. It wouldn’t even have had to be something big.
And I could talk about a lot of things Doctor Strange *could* be, like a more deliberately philosophical movie, or a more visually luxurious movie, or a more engagingly character-driven movie, but instead let’s ask how could Doctor Strange have won the 2016 presidential race for Hillary Clinton?
Doctor Strange is a unique Marvel movie for how it has no Americans in its lead cast. An Englishman as Steven Strange, a Canadian as his love interest, an English woman as his mentor, a Dane as the villain, a black Englishman and an Asian Englishman as the sidekicks, another Englishman as the villain’s sidekick. Cameo from Australian Chris Hemsworth tacked on at the end. You have to go to the Californians Michael Stuhlbarg and Benjamin Bratt in their small roles to find authentic Americans. Even the nurse who prods Strange towards an uncommon cure for his injuries (Steven Strange gets injured towards the start of this movie, I don’t care about the plot and neither do you) is a black Englishman doing a flawless American accent.
But it’s hard to commend this too much as a coup for diversity as that’s still just three non-white guys with speaking parts. The big elephant in the room with the entire movie is that Tilda Swinton’s role in the comics was a wise old Tibetan man. But in order to secure favour with Chinese investors and distributors, you simply cannot imply that Tibetan Lives Matter. Such is the true face of politics. There’s been a lot of nerdy crybabies online in the internet over the last few years whinging “get your politics out of my hobby” but this where we reveal that apolitical art is impossible. Simply letting a Tibetan character be Tibetan would be an incredibly bold political statement, would increase the number of Tibetan people you can name by at least 100% percent, and would cost Marvel studios potentially hundreds of millions of dollars across this and future business enterprises involving the Chinese market. This is a movie compromised by censorship and by fascism.
But for the purposes of this review, fuck Tibet. Tibet wouldn’t have gotten Hillary elected, not nearly as much as a badass female boss would’ve. So we’ve got Tilda Swinton, as a boss with a murky moral code and an only-I-am-allowed-to-have-great-responsibility fatal flaw. But it wasn’t enough, didn’t get Hillary elected. Not in the five days between Friday and Tuesday. We need more.
First of all let’s make Michael Stuhlbarg a woman. Sorry Michael, that dick’s gotta go. We need more women. Stuhlbarg’s character isn’t especially competent or likeable, but it’s in a system of three, interacting with Stephen Strange and Rachel McAdams (I don’t care what her character’s name was and you don’t either. It began with a P though, didn’t it. Potts, or Pace or something). Changing the balance from two guys and a girl to two girls and a guy means a lot, and even though he’s only there to be not-as-good-a-doctor as Stephen, that still means he’s number two on a list of two. McAdams’ competence at medicine is entirely informed, we never see her doing anything Strange isn’t telling her to do, even when she’s introduced as having made an emergency discovery, she needs Stephen to go fix it for her. Why can’t she just do it herself? Not good enough to even try. The character is impostor syndrome made manifest, she’s only a good doctor when she’s offscreen. Michael Stuhlbarg’s character on the other hand goes for it, takes every opportunity, he’s smug, confident, and when he loses does so gracefully. Let that character be a woman. Not just any woman, cast Sarah Jessica Parker. SJP is in the ranks of talents like Miley Cyrus and Kristen Stewart that people write off because they were in stupid girly stuff, not even giving their good work a shot because it’s tainted by the stink of girly. This is the subtle misogyny that underpins the unconscious of liberated western society. We take the just-okayness of 80% of Marvel’s supermen and treat them like they’re gold-standard. My feminism is doing the same for women, putting stinky girly cootie pop culture up at the same level of consideration. That’s how you get a woman elected president, not by pushing for exceptional qualities to be seen as exceptional but by pushing for their everyday qualities to be seen as everyday. Stuhlbarg’s a great actor, I loved him in A Serious Man (a movie whose trippy, philosophical style Doctor Strange could learn a lot from) but you notice how the Coens have never made a movie with an outright female lead, or where both leads were women? That kind of accidental sexism, where women’s stories just don’t occur to us, is what we need to grow out of. And to do that we need to give Sarah Jessica Parker more high-profile roles, and we need more Marvel movies featuring women arguing.
So that’s more people seeing Doctor Strange and thinking that there’s nothing unusual about a professional arena having multiple outspoken female voices. Maybe that would sway a few votes.
Next, let’s have a change of location. The movie is set in four cities: New York, London, Hong Kong and Kathmandu. A good global set, and maybe there’s good political nudging in having all the faces running from the explosions be Asian, but non-white people were already voting for Hillary. We need to change that New York location. These people are dealing with magic, they can teleport anywhere, the magically-everywhere palace is designed to be hidden, there’s really no need for it be set in major cities. New York’s a very blue state, let’s move it further south to a swinger. Disney basically owns the Floridian economy (that wasn’t a joke) so let’s set it there. The reason people found the support for Donald Trump so surprising is that the cultural identity of the United States as a whole has become very detached from the cultural identities of its component parts. Move outside of the upper classes of Hollywood and New York and you find very few stories being told to a wide market. These people feel ignored by the greater American system, unsure how to react to the changing racial makeup of society. To put it bluntly: White lives matter. And to get white people to vote for you you have to make them feel like they matter to you, specifically. A huge amount of words were thrown around this year saying that supporting the people that racists support makes you a racist too. And it does, just not the same type of racist and nervousness can’t be dealt with the same way as outright hatered. These people need to be included rather than condescended to. Basically we need to stop hitting the block button, because if we do, we leave the undecideds to the people who don’t.
So make a movie about Floridians, have them listening to Florida music, mentioning Florida streets, eating Florida food, show us the Florida skyline. You won’t notice these details at all (maybe you wouldn’t like local Floridian bands, but fuck you), but people in Florida will. Get rid of Benjamin Bratt and Kobna Holbrook-Smith and cast ethnic local Florida guys in those roles as hard-working class Florida men. Give Floridian kids something to look up to. Give a whole bunch of Floridians jobs on the filmset for a few weeks too. They might not even notice it, but people in Florida would come out of the movie with a slightly stronger sense of their own place in the United States. Not enough that you’d notice the rise in any given room, but measured across the entire state, maybe that’s a few more people who feel motivated to get out and vote, a few more people comfortable with the Mexican faces they see on the street every day.
Next: add a sequence where Stephen is poor. Stephen loses all his money in this movie, and it’s just brushed over, it may as well not have happened. He spends all his money on expensive medical research to fix his hands, and without his career as a surgeon or the willpower to seek a different career he can’t make that money back. He gets to Kathmandu and after being told that his promised salvation is literal magic he says that he spent his last penny getting here. His last penny? How poor was he? I don’t know a lot of rich people but I know a lot of people who’ve travelled the world. Stephen was so poor that travelling one-way to Nepal left him penniles? Where was the scene where he has to move into a smaller flat? Where was the scene where he meets his new neighbours? Where was the part where he has to sell his cars? Why isn’t he moving next door to a father of four with a hernia who only just got health insurance because of the Affordable Care Act. Maybe a former mechanic who lost a hand and had to go into financial ruin getting it reattached? Why can’t he give Stephen a motivational speech about how things aren’t so bad? At the speed this movie rushes through things, that whole sequence would be five minutes, tops.
We need to look at poverty. Not just in movies like I, Daniel Blake or The Death of Mr Lazarescu or Pavee Lackeen. We need to see poor people getting attacked by aliens, eaten by dinosaurs, rescued by superheroes. These people more than anyone need to feel like their voice matters because these people more than anyone do not go out and vote. These people need to be given the same weight as a doctor or a lawyer or a politician. There needs to be rom-coms about people whose parents are obese and about to lose their houses, and action movies about people who sling heroin to make ends meet. We need to see adventure movies where the kids have suspicious bruises and bad teeth. And we need to see poor people hold down a conversation with a superhero. As the thesis line of Joe Cornish’s Attack the Block goes “They’re my neighbours”. And they need to be made to feel like it. And to do that, someone who makes 12k a year needs to live next door to someone like Stephen Strange once in a while.
And lastly, we need a Muslim. We have a decent sprinkling of black faces on the cast, but we need a brown guy too. Can you name any Arab actors who’ve had significant roles in major movies? I was gonna say Oded Fehr but it turns out he’s actually Israeli. Still a far more foreign-looking guy than you usually see show up without justification in an American movie, I only know from when he was an Egyptian in The Mummy. But we need the real thing, someone whose blood is Saudi, Afghan, Iraqi, Kurdish. Hell, I’d even settle for Persian. There are so few Arab actors allowed in the ring in Hollywood that TWO Steve Jobs movies were made and NEITHER of them could find a Syrian-looking guy to play him. All those people who crow “How can I be a racist if the president is black” they need to have a Iraqi thrown in their face. What Iraqi actor? Any actor at all, pick one from one of the countless Iraqi movies you’ve seen. Pick a voice of Iraqi culture that you must surely have come across during all these years we’ve been discussing Iraq on the news. Such a significant global power that the US has been throwing money at it in one form or another for half a century, there’s got to be some Iraqi person we can actually name, right?
All joking aside, Iraq does have a culture, and some artists do come from there. I can find names of some of them, but I can’t vouch for any one of them over any of the others as the most talented one. So let’s pick one at random. To do that we go through the wikipedia page for cinema of Iraq, look for entries with actual pages attached to them, out of those find ones that weren’t documentaries, and then out of those find ones where the lead actors are actually Iraqi, which as you know brings us inevitably to Yasser Talib, who played Ahmed in 2011’s instant classic “Son of Babylon”. You all remember that one, best movie of 2011 am I right? So that’s our Iraqi actor. But where are we going to put him? Well, the wonderful Mads Mikkelsen’s gotta go so. But then we get to the uncomfortable optics of the Iraqi being the bad guy. Don’t wanna lose Chiwetel Ejiofor, Benedict Wong’s part is too minor to make a big enough political statement, plus honestly, Wong owns the role. So what to do? Well we recast acadamy-award-nominee Chiwetel Ejiofor as the villain, a role he plays wonderfully and not often enough, and we give international superstar Yasser Talib the role of the complex lancer, Mordo. This of course has the added bonus of meaning that he gets to stay in the cast in Doctor Strange 2 when Mordo comes back as a bad guy, letting Talib stay famous while his career expands, and give that meaty villain role to show his range while making him more than a shallow Arab boogeyman.
And thus people might come out of the movie thinking “Huh, maybe muslims aren’t so bad. Maybe they can learn to be part of my society. Maybe that muslim family on the corner is just minding their own business. Maybe that whole ‘Iraq war’ thing was a bit of a misunderstanding.” And it won’t solve racism overnight, and it won’t make die-hard flag-waving islamophobes snap out of it, but we’re not aiming for them, we’re aiming for the people on the fence. We don’t eradicate racism by preaching to hate the haters, we do it by making nervous people feel safe. In five days, across the whole of the US, that’s a lot of people coming out of a movie thinking that maybe they’d like to have a beer with Yasser Talib. An Iraqi Muslim being interviewed by Conan and Ellen, in trailers next to other movies, his name appearing on a poster, his face popping up in the sponsored sections of your facebook feed like he’s any other completely average nobody like Joel Kinnaman, all of that, that’s a lot of bridge-building.
And that’s it. I’m kind of not joking. Make a movie like that and five days later just a few more people feel it’s worth voting, and just a few more people aren’t so secure in the reasons they were going to vote for Trump. And some double down on their belief that America is ending, but those people were going to vote for Trump anyway, those people are the true lost cause, and will only be taught by their children.
Doctor Strange is a pretty good movie, even if it condones the fascist repression of the Tibetan people, and even if it was a few tweaks away from changing the course of history.
The game is won not by the bricks you throw but by the ones you lay. The “both sides” fallacy of news reportage and commentary has only caused more entrenched division. We will not find a middle by accident, we have to build it. And it will not come in the form of a cathedral but a theatre, and a school, and a sports league. History is only told on days like November 9th 2016, but it was written on a thousand days before that.