Beneath the Magic of Doctor Strange (2016)

The problematic underbelly of Marvel’s latest hit movie

Benedict Cumberbatch as Doctor Strange.

From the Desk of the Answer-Man

Marvel’s fourteenth movie, Doctor Strange has come on strong in its opening weekend in the United States. But underneath Marvel’s latest blockbuster, even with talk by Marvel’s president, Kevin Feige, toward creating a more diverse Marvel, questions about the decision to cast Tilda Swinton as the Ancient One, issues with Tibet and China, recasting Mordo and Wong in new and less stereotypical roles reveal just how far Marvel has to go before it can say it has taken diversity and representation as seriously as many of their new fans are hoping.

A bit of history:

Doctor Strange, as a character sits at an unusual place in comicdom. The character has a long history, making his first appearance in Strange Tales #110 (1963). It took him another 58 issues before he would go from a backup story to having his own comic, ending Strange Tales and instead making it Dr. Strange starting from issue #169.

The book’s early stories are quite different from his modern appearances, with Strange being unlike most of Marvel’s heroes, a complete hero, seasoned and capable, protecting our world from the threats from beyond our reality. Strange was depicted as older, having already completed the Hero’s Journey, past petty fears, jealousies, and other mortal temptations, he was a transcendent being in charge of keeping humanity safe from things beyond our understanding.

Thus, as a character, he was a part of the Marvel Universe, but almost at a different level of it. People were to be protected, other superhumans were occasionally to be used, but otherwise avoided because where Strange went, almost no one could follow and remain sane.

He was indeed, a Doctor, navigating the immune system of the Multiverse, finding infection and lancing it as needed, curing and restoring balance against the hosts of enemies waiting to lay claim to Earth’s dimension.

Reading Doctor Strange back then was akin to being high, trying to understand more of reality’s existence, especially as drawn by Steve Ditko, than was humanly possible was the book’s main appeal to its select readership. Doctor Strange was never a great selling book. It rose and fell many times over the years, but eventually a brave editor and writer team would try and resurrect it again, sometimes to great acclaim.

The transition to movies, however, would be fraught with many problems of race, representation and the incredible whiteness of modern media, particularly where Marvel has been concerned. Drawn from tales of the mysterious East, especially during the 50s and 60s, its culturally insensitive themes and other problematic elements would require fancy footwork on the part of Marvel. For Doctor Strange to work, there had to be a changing of the fundamental story due to casting and other modern sensibilities for the modern audience.

There were four primary considerations as this property was being considered:

Fear of a Dragon Lady

The gender and race-bending of the teacher of Doctor Strange, the Ancient One; Marvel’s higher-ups indicated it was the fear of recreating a known Asian stereotype — the Dragon Lady, which they claim, prevented them from making the Ancient One an Asian female actress of any denomination other than Tibetan.

A Dragon Lady is usually a stereotype of East Asian and occasionally South Asian women as strong, deceitful, domineering, or mysterious. The term’s origin and usage is Western, not Chinese. Inspired by the characters played by actress Anna May Wong, the term comes from the female villain in the comic strip Terry and the Pirates. It has since been applied to powerful Asian women and to a number of racially Asian film actresses. The stereotype has generated a large quantity of sociological literature. “Dragon Lady” is sometimes applied to persons who lived before the term became part of American slang in the 1930s. It is also used to refer to any powerful but prickly woman, usually in a derogatory fashion.

Ironically, the Ancient One’s role is exactly as presented in this description, deceptive, domineering and mysterious. So, maybe they got that part right? Or maybe they could have written her differently?

Given the original representation of the Ancient One as a highly benevolent mystic mentor, the story didn’t require him to make pacts with beings of dubious or even infernal origins. The retelling could have had the Ancient One remaining as virtuous; erasing the need for such a duplicitous version of the character in the first place, preventing the association with a Dragon Lady.

Help Around the House

The original writings had the role of Strange’s Asian man-servant, Wong, as a loyal and trusted companion who maintained Strange’s domicile, the Sanctum Sanctorum. While tolerated during the 50s and 60s, such a role today would certainly be questionable and intolerable.

Fortunately, in Doctor Strange (2016), the role of Wong is changed from man-servant to that of a mystic master and teacher to Stephen Strange. Wong is no longer a servant, he is the librarian who isn’t interested in your excuses for why your books are late…

Played by Benedict Wong, this new Wong is fierce, loyal, and as magically capable of wielding the Wand of Watoomb as Stephen Strange. This is a good thing. Of all the transitions for roles made in this movie, I believe Wong’s transformation into a mystic is by far one of the most necessary and most effective. He gets my MVP award.

Benedict Wong as Master Wong the Librarian

Catering to the Market

A degree of the setting of Dr. Strange is in the nation of Tibet. Given the political climate between China and Tibet, and with China being one of the world’s largest movie markets, Marvel was afraid to do anything which might have the movie censured in China. This may have been one of the reasons mentioned for having the Ancient One’s background changed to a Celtic origin.

While these are sold as primary reasons for the downplay of the role of the Ancient One as an Asian actor, I cannot see this as an adequate explanation for why she couldn’t have been a mystic from India (which has a long history of mysticism) or some other Asian subgroup, all of which have rich histories and mythologies which could have been drawn upon without the so-called potential for offense to China as a whole.

Given China’s growing interest in Hollywood, blockbuster movies have started having entire segments of the movie taking place in China. Transformers was one of the first American movies where it was clear to me the movie was catering to an Asian audience. Since then, Transformers 4: Age of Extinction may be one of the most lucrative movie in Chinese movie history.

A Question of Villainy

Benedict Cumberbatch as Doctor Strange and Chiwetel Ejiofor as Master Mordo

There was a change in the role of Mordo, cast by the actor Chiwetel Ejiofor. In the original story, Baron Mordo was a White character. He was the highly-skilled but morally-corrupted student of the Ancient One. As the Ancient One’s power began to wane, he sought a student whose mastery could equal or surpass his own and Mordo was certainly capable, but impatient. Unwilling to wait to learn the secrets of the Ancient One, Mordo makes a pact with the ruler of the Dark Dimension, the Dread Dormammu. He is Doctor Strange’s most competent opposite number, willing to make dark pacts of power to defeat the person he believes stole his chance to be the Sorcerer Supreme.

In the modern Doctor Strange, Mordo is a conflicted individual, but not as corrupted as his comic counterpart. He is a teacher to Strange and later an ally against the new agent of Dormammu, the former mystic master Kaecilius and his acolytes. We get no background on Kaecilius other than his belief that Dormammu will grant immortality to his worshipers once he takes over the Earth’s dimension. Kaecilius, in effect, IS Mordo, so that Chiwetel Ejiofor can avoid being cast initially as a villain (which is often the stereotype Black and African actors get cast in.)

In this revised story, Mordo may still come in conflict with strange but for different reasons. Mordo opposes Strange’s indiscriminate use of magic, believing the rules of magic should be more stringently adhered to. Perhaps he’s right and we will see him again, not as a villain but someone who is diametrically opposed to Strange’s magical methodology, in his own right, potentially a hero.

Mads Mikkelson as the zealot Kaecilius, who replaces Mordo as the first villain Strange has to face.

In conclusion:

There is no question, Marvel has managed to get a formula for producing money-making blockbusters. If only they could fix their lackluster villains…an essay for another day.

The question is:

  • Can they figure out how to make movies which are more inclusive, representative of the diversity of its fans, and culturally-sensitive before their fanbase becomes disillusioned with the status quo?

Doctor Strange has been a decent step, all things considered, and with the recent success of the Netflix series Luke Cage (2016) and the highly anticipated Black Panther (2018) movie, they may begin to redeem themselves on a the diversity front.

If only they could figure out how to get a leading lady onto the silver screen. Captain Marvel, where art thou? (Ach, delayed again, no doubt…)

While DC may be lagging in the great superhero movie wars, Wonder Woman’s teasers thus far show the fans are hungry for her arrival. Marvel might not want to count DC out of the running just yet.

More Doctor Strange:

The Answer-Man’s Archives are a collection of my articles discussing superheroes and their powers in relationship to their respective universes. We deconstruct characters, memes, profiles and how superheroes relate to real world culture. You can find other Archives on Quora and the Science Fiction and Fantasy Stack Exchange or at The World According to Superheroes.

Thaddeus Howze is a writer, essayist, author and professional storyteller for mysterious beings who exist in non-Euclidean realms beyond our understanding. You can follow him on Twitter or support his writings on Patreon.