As I’ve mentioned before, for years this blog was primarily focused on Canadian film & TV, but I’ve begun expanding my topics because, naturally, I have a range of interests. And recently I’ve been blogging some about comics and superheroes (in part because I experimented with my own collection of superhero prose tales). So today I’m attempting a lengthy consideration of the Hollywood superhero movie, Doctor Strange (which I suspect will annoy people on all sides…kind of like how my Canadian film/TV commentary equally offended pro-Canadian film/anti-Canadian film camps lol). Enjoy…or whatever…
The motion picture, Doctor Strange, came out months ago — but I only saw it recently and want to jot down a few belated thoughts (as they say: any movie you haven’t seen is a “new” movie).
The movie did well at the box office, but engendered some criticism related to racial/culture issues — some intrinsic to the original comic book source, but some injected into the movie by the filmmakers. Along the way I’ll be referencing the comics, the original, 1978 Dr. Strange TV movie, as well as The Shadow (1994) and Kung Fu (1972-1975) and Iron Fist (2017-) — stories about white Americans whose origins are rooted in Eastern mysticism.
But first: just to comment on the movie as a movie.
I: THE MOVIE
Doctor Strange was…okay. But it struck me as kind of reflective of the whole nature/problem with modern Hollywood blockbusters and their huge budgets and endless CGI effects. Like ketchup — these can be used to cover over a lot of problems. Bereft of the special effects, it’s a thin, generic story of bad guys seeking to unleash a vague evil and good guys having to stop them, and where much of the story progression feels workmanlike.
The story (though if you’re reading this you probably know it) is that a cocky American surgeon (Benedict Cumberbatch) is in an accident that leaves him crippled. Sinking into despair, he embarks on a journey to Katmandu in search of a mystical cure. He is taken in by a mystical order, trained in the magical arts, and becomes embroiled in a battle to save the world.
And a lot of it can feel a bit, well, lazy — stitching together plot points by the most meagre of threads. Strange learns of this mystical cure simply because he is told of someone who experienced it, a man he apparently just looks up in the phone book or something. And the guy simply tells him the name of the place. Strange then flies to Katmandu where his “quest” seems to involve wandering the streets asking random people if they know the place until he happens to be spotted by Mordo (Chiwetel Ejiofor), who then takes him to the temple (which is in downtown Katmandu). And barely is he through the front doors then he is shown all sorts of amazing mystical things.
Like — seriously? That all feels like a sequence of events written by writers who just want to get through that part of the story as quickly as possible. And, y’know, maybe they did. Maybe they said: look, the audience knows he goes to the temple — it’s basically just the prologue.
I even quibble about the magical/mystical scenes because, though spectacular scenes of the characters bending reality, turning cityscapes on their side, etc. (stuff which, admittedly, can feel a bit like they just borrowed the effects algorithm from the movie Inception and plugged it into their art program) it’s oddly…repetitive. I mean, that’s the main trick the filmmakers seem to have, repeating it in the movie’s key action scenes. And though I can understand the need to begin with a bang to get the audience’s attention, the movie has nowhere to go from there in terms of blowing our minds.
One scene that does seem as though it’s aiming for the ineffable is when Strange first arrives at the temple and is taken on a hallucinatory mind trip like something out of the climax of 2001: A Space Odyssey or the movie, Star Trek, The Motion Picture. It was one of the more interesting effect sequences precisely because it wasn’t trying to be logical, and so evoked a sense of other-dimensional weirdness (though still seemed a bit dull compared to the landscapes depicted in some Dr. Strange comics). But even it felt perfunctory, like they just plugged in a random bunch of images, and then sped through it…rather than trying to visualize the sense of an other reality that is surely at the heart of Strange’s evolving perceptions. Oh, and it was kind of dumb he’s barely in the door before he’s being shown it. As opposed to it being something he is introduced to after he’s spent some time at the monastery.
And this kind of hints at a theme I’m going to return to: that the movie itself has a slightly impatient, bullish, greedy attitude, like a child who wants to eat his dessert before eating his dinner. The filmmakers are more interested in the flash and pop than what lies under all that.
Still, as I suggested near the beginning — the movie is okay as a fairly consequenceless way to kill a couple of hours. The actors are fine, the special effects good, etc.
So now let’s delve into the controversial stuff.
So there are layers to them.
One was that at the heart of this early 1960s-created property is a white American who goes off to Asian and supposedly masters this Asian mysticism better than any Asian people. On its own, it’s no big deal — it’s just a story. But it’s seen as part of a bigger trend where non-white, non-American cultures are consumed by American movies, books, comics, etc. but refashioned to insure a white American remains the hero. Although it’s worth noting in no way is Doctor Strange really based on or inspired by actual Eastern mysticism; it draws upon the idea of an Eastern temple…but it’s not like comic book creators Stan Lee & Steve Ditko were rooting the magic in actual Hinduism or Buddhism or anything. Indeed, in the early comics Strange is described as a Master of “Black Magic” — hardly an inherently Eastern-sounding label. When the character was first brought to the screens, in the 1978 TV movie starring Peter Hooten, they largely did away with that entirely, with his mentor played by a white Englishman, John Mills, and using Morgana Le Fey (Jessica Walter) — of the Arthurian mythos — as the villain.
Still, the recent filmmakers were apparently cognizant of this potential objection, so their response was to take the wise old Asian mentor from the comics — The Ancient One — and re-cast him as a white woman (Tilda Swinton). Striking a blow for gender equality — but it hardly addresses the racial issue since now it actually reduces the presence of Asian characters in this ostensibly Asia-set mystical order.
Now in one interview, one of the movie’s writers — C. Robert Cargill — basically said they knew they were damned if they did, damned if they didn’t. And there is some truth to that. Stick with the wise old Asian mentor and people will criticize it as a racial cliché. Cargill even tries to argue any choice would be rife with controversy, from using a Tibetan setting — so infuriating the Chinese — to choosing the specific Asian ethnicity of the character.
But some of that seems a bit like special pleading (even arguments chosen after the fact) since the setting of the temple, and the Ancient One’s ethnicity, was never fully (or consistently) defined in the comics. The filmmakers had a fair amount of creative flexibility (as is obvious by their decision to simply make the character a white Celtic woman!) And dropping the Asian mentor entirely seems like the worst sort of compromise. Indeed, before I even saw the movie I thought one way they could have muted the criticism would’ve been by making the Ancient One a more important, dynamic figure — essentially using Obi-Wan Kenobi from the first Star Wars as a template. Have him be an active heroic figure whose death part way through the film leaves the inexperienced Strange to struggle toward victory (heck, the movie could’ve inspired a whole resurgence of interest in the character in the comics, maybe leading to a The Ancient One: The Early Years mini-series). As it turns out: that’s precisely what they did do…except they did that in conjunction with the race-swapping.
But where the issue becomes more problematic is in the behind-the-scenes stuff. I mean, it’s all very fine to see it as a well-intentioned effort to grapple with modern expectations. But some of the comments gave me pause. For example in the above-referenced interview Cargill at one point laments that no matter what they did, it would arouse the ire of “Social Justice Warriors.” Now you may be lucky enough to have missed the rise of that term (or “SJW”s) but it’s basically a next level iteration of “political correctness” (and terms like “virtue signallers”) — all generally used by right wingers (and alt-righters) to dismiss and disparage liberal or progressive arguments. So to me it’s a little troubling that one of the writers at the heart of a movie being criticized for racial insensitivity is blithely throwing around the pejorative label “Social Justice Warrior” — that doesn’t mean he himself is necessarily a right wing reactionary, but it does make you wonder who the people he hangs around with are.
In other interviews the film’s director/co-writer, Scott Derrickson, justified the race-change by saying that The Ancient One was offensive because he was basically just a Fu Manchu-type (referencing the old pulp fiction super-criminal). But, um, sure — The Ancient One and Fu Manchu are two Asian guys who often wear robes. But saying they’re the same is like saying Professor Xavier and Ernst Stavro Blofeld (or Dr. Evil for you youngsters) are the same (often bald white guys who sit a lot and control a bunch of minions). But most of us don’t have any trouble distinguishing the leader of the X-Men from James Bond’s old foe, do we? Re-reading some of these interviews I realize it’s actually even worse than I recalled. Because Derrickson goes on to say that after choosing to gender-switch the character, he decided against casting an Asian woman because then she’d be The Dragon Lady (the Asian femme fatale/warlord created for the old American newspaper comic strip, Terry and the Pirates, and who is seen as an archetype of the fiercely dominating Asian woman). Which implies Derrickson is against ever casting Asian women in strong roles or as authority figures because that would be, um, racist? He basically seems to be saying he couldn’t make the character Asian because there are only two Asian character types — Fu Manchu and the Dragon Lady.
(Honestly, re-reading those interviews I’m tempted to just scrap the rest of my essay because my jaw is practically flapping down about my knees; I’m not sure there’s any point in continuing. But, ah, what the heck…let’s resume our originally scheduled analysis)
There were little things that kind of twinged with me in the film — perhaps demonstrating how little nuances affect the way you react to things. One was a minor joke in the film. Strange has been invited into the temple and handed a slip of paper with the word Shambhala on it (whether that was meant to be a subtle in-joke or the audience was supposed to recognize its resonance with Eastern mysticism, I’m not sure). Strange asks if the word is his mantra (ie: a word chanted during meditation) and is told: no — it’s the wi-fi password. At that point, it’s a funny joke. Then they take it one step further by having the character add: “We’re not savages.” And, I dunno, suddenly it doesn’t seem so funny, equating lack of wi-fi with savagery (in a movie facing criticism of racism and imperialism). It was an amusing joke that got a bit soured by the filmmakers’ imposing extra significance onto it…and maybe compounds the other issues surrounding the film.
Just to belabour my point (admittedly over a very minor scene): imagine a scene where a white guy sits down to a Chinese meal, picks up two long sticks beside his plate and struggles clumsily to eat his food. The waiter comes over, looks at him skeptically, then takes the sticks from him…and drops them in his glass, revealing they are straws, not chop sticks. Then the waiter puts a knife and fork on the table. That might be amusing. Now finish the scene by having the waiter say “We’re not savages” — and suddenly it doesn’t seem quite as funny, does it?
There’s also an interesting thing to consider about the old comics themselves (that’s overlooked by those calling them out for racist imperialism): namely that The Ancient One is alive and a recurring presence in the early comics (the comics began in 1963 and The Ancient One didn’t shake off this mortal coil until, I think, the early 1970s). So although the white American Strange is definitely the main hero, and a master sorcerer, in terms of power and cosmic significance he nonetheless remains subordinate to the Asian Ancient One. So — arguably — the comic initially was less blatantly about a white American dominating a foreign cultural trope.
(One curious rumour I read was that initially Strange would’ve become Asian as he masters the mystic arts — in other words the comic would’ve featured an Asian-looking lead. This has been cited as an example of a progressive idea that was crushed by editorial edicts. But — I dunno. It sounds equally problematic — literal Yellow-Face. Also I can’t help thinking this has been picked up by those who like to diss Stan Lee (the writer) by suggesting the artist (Steve Ditko) was more progressive — but really, looking at the two men’s body of work, is there any reason to think Ditko was more racially progressive than Lee? To be honest, I think the theory started simply because of how Ditko drew the character (giving him “squinty” eyes) — but, honestly, Ditko drew a lot of characters that way. What makes things even more ambiguous is that although the Ancient One is traditionally depicted as Asian — originally the temple is located in India. Suggesting either the original creators weren’t clear on the distinction between Asians and South Asians — or even from the beginning the concept was meant to be ethnically ambiguous).
The whole racial issue, and race-swapping (whether turning non-white characters white, which is usually seen as wrong, or turning old white characters non-white, which is usually seen as more progressive) is, of course, rife with minefields. In that sense I do sympathize with the movie’s writer lamenting they were damned if they did, damned if they didn’t. (And though it hardly needs be said, I know some ass is gonna complain so I’ll explain: the reason it’s seen as OK to race-swap a white character more than a non-white character is because white characters are more numerous…plus most traditionally white characters aren’t defined by their race — white was just the default — so it doesn’t alter them to swap their ethnicity 80% of the time. But most older non-white characters were very much defined by their ethnicity so changing them does alter them).
In the comics Strange has an Asian manservant named Wong, who calls him “Master.” In the movie they make Wong (Benedict Wong) a fellow sorcerer, arguably making it a stronger part. But…equally, by making him a fellow sorcerer, but Strange still the dominant sorcerer/hero, it arguably reduces Wong even more — making him simply an also-ran magician, rather than having a unique function in the narrative. In the 1978 TV movie, Wong (Clyde Kusatsu) is still Strange’s servant — but as I recall, is made a more significant, respectable character by serving a function that supplements Strange (almost like a coach in a sports movie). But, obviously, that’s a highly debateable point. I’m just arguing that bolstering a non-white character by making him an echo of the white character doesn’t necessarily mean he becomes a better character.
While in perhaps a deliberate counter to the white-washing of The Ancient One, the film takes a traditionally white character, Baron Mordo, and casts black actor Chiwetel Ejiofor (now simply Mordo, since the hereditary European title of Baron is less applicable). Here Mordo is presented as Strange’s friend whereas in the comic he’s a villain. However part way through the film I suspected where they were heading: namely re-fashioning Mordo in the manner of other comic book villains who started out the hero’s friend such as Magneto, Lex Luthor, Two-Face, etc. And sure enough, by the end of the film, Mordo has turned bad. So, again, damned if they do/damned if they don’t: they turn a white character black…but he’s a villain.
Now I want to take us in a slightly different direction — one that I’m not sure many commentators on the film have tackled (even those criticizing the racial stuff). And this is reflected in my sub-title about the “ugly American.”
III: AMERICAN EXCEPTIONALISM!
So the premise of the story is an arrogant surgeon is humbled and reborn as an altruistic sorcerer. Yet, funnily enough, the original comic (published in 1963 and presuming a more juvenile audience than the film) actually seems to tackle the scenario with more sincerity. For one thing, in the movie Strange is arrogant and abrasive…but still basically a decent guy (his biggest failing is his willingness to humiliate a fellow surgeon who misdiagnosed a case). In the comic? Strange is an out-right cad, specifically criticized for his greed and materialism (given recent debates over American health insurance, the movie’s decision to shy away from the profit-driven aspect of U.S. health care, and the way the comic damned Strange’s greed, is perhaps telling). But the point is: comic book Strange isn’t just arrogant…he’s a bastard.
Now I can understand why the filmmakers might have balked at that — worrying the audience (possibly unsure where the story was headed) would lose all respect for/interest in the nominal protagonist before his transformation into hero. (Or, as I say, not wanting to arouse the ire of right wingers by seeming to invest a political message into their film). But in light of later scenes it can equally feel like they weren’t prepared to grapple with the comics’ original point.
So in the original (8 page) comic book story Strange is humbled, broken, and goes to India and ends up at the temple. There he discovers fellow disciple Mordo is planning to kill The Ancient One. Instead of leaving the temple (as he had intended) Strange attempts to warn The Ancient One — despite, at this point, Strange having acquired no mystical power. In other words, his heroism is reflected in his motives, not in his ability to vanquish bad guys (Mordo casts a spell preventing Strange from speaking of what he knows). So not only has Strange become a better, altruistic person, but it is not through self-aggrandizing heroics that he proves himself, but through a more modest nobility. It’s a low-key story (which, admittedly, would be a bit dull stretched out to two hours!) — though also arguably moodier and creepier than the movie (Lee & Ditko obviously evolving the tale out of the horror/supernatural comics they had been producing a few years before).
Contrast that with the movie.
First off, Strange just wanders the streets of Katmandu until catching the attention of Mordo who then simply takes him to the temple, where he is instantly welcomed, offered tea (more on the tea in a bit) and presented with the key to the mystical universe, so to speak. It’s only because Strange is rude and dismissive that he is kicked out. Immediately he starts pounding on the temple door, begging/demanding to be let back in. Mordo then turns to The Ancient One and suggests Strange’s very arrogance is precisely what they need to shake up their moribund little order and so Strange is welcomed back in. Strange gets up to various hi-jinks, makes various sarcastic quips, and practices a forbidden spell. He is given a few token lectures about overcoming his ego…but then in the climax, Strange defeats the villain — by using the very forbidden spell he was told never to use!
Now obviously, some of this could be attributed to simply relying too much on lazy plotting (Strange’s easy entry into the temple) and formulaic clichés (heroes are often wise-cracking rebels who flaunt the rules).
But let’s unpack it.
American surgeon (who is more just arrogant and conceited than he is the outright bastard of the comics) is basically handed everything simply by asking or by throwing a tantrum and he triumphs over the villainy…by ignoring the rules.
In other words, instead of a story about an arrogant man who learns humility as was the theme of the comic — arguably the movie becomes a story about an arrogant American whose very arrogance and sense of entitlement is what makes him a hero. A movie concocted by a co-writer who complains about Social Justice Warriors and a director who seems to think all (fictitious) Asian characters look alike.
So now let’s look at the cultural provenance and how the modern movie compares with earlier takes on the theme.
IV: WHITE GUYS & ASIAN TEMPLES
Part of what stuck in my mind in some of those scenes is the contrast with the 1970s TV series, Kung Fu — also about a white guy who emerges a hero from an Eastern monastery. (Quick disclaimer: Kung Fu has a very special place in heart and psyche. I regard it as a singularly unique experiment in American television: its atmosphere, its surprisingly artful use of cinematography and music, its at-times challenging themes and approach to character nuance; I get a rush of nostalgia hearing the Chinese-flavoured theme music and seeing David Carradine trekking across the dunes. I’m not saying it can’t be criticized, merely I’m not the guy to do it properly).
Kung Fu has been criticized in recent years for some of the same issues as Dr. Strange — but I would offer a defence that the series, at worst, was a reflection of its time rather than some racist outlier (as I think some younger pundits believe). To my knowledge there had never been an American TV series starring an Asian actor to that point (and precious few with even black actors in leading roles). So to suggest that the filmmakers wilfully chose a white guy over an Asian is, I suspect, naive. If they had fought for such an idea, might it have changed TV? Possibly. But it’s equally likely the networks would’ve just passed on the series entirely. The fact that Bruce Lee is the name suggested as the possible alternate star is also mis-characterizing history — at that point Lee wasn’t an internationally famous movie star but just the guy who had played Kato for one season in the Green Hornet.
Indeed, I would argue the decision to make the hero half-white, and so David Carradine could play the role without make-up, was itself a progressive move because it’s not impossible the network executives would’ve been perfectly okay with a Yellow-Face make-up job (Christopher Lee’s last outing as Fu Manchu — in Yellow-Face — was 1969!) I would also point out that Kung Fu wasn’t about a white guy becoming better at an Asian system than the Asian guys. I don’t think there was any indication in the series that Caine was supposed to be uniquely superior to his fellow monks (at least anymore than how any hero of a TV series is supposed to be exceptional).
Anyway, my point about Kung Fu is that if nothing else, the series comes across as entirely sincere in its philosophical ambitions — many of the episodes genuinely exploring moral and ethical dilemmas through its semi-pacifist Buddhist hero in a way that I can’t think of any other series before or since doing. And in the opening episode, we see flashback’s to Caine’s entry into the monastery. Like Doctor Strange it involves scenes of Caine (and others) being locked out of the temple — but in Kung Fu, instead of throwing tantrums and pounding on the doors, Caine proves his worthiness by sitting quietly, meditatively, day after day, rain or shine, until he is allowed in. Then he, like Strange, is offered tea — but he refuses to drink. Why? Because it is disrespectful to drink ahead of your elder. It’s one more test/demonstration of Caine’s humbleness. So you can understand why I (admittedly, facetiously) noted Strange’s blithe drinking of the tea and thought: “Dude — you don’t drink the frigging tea! Everyone knows that!”
Another interesting antecedent of the movie, Doctor Strange, was 1994’s The Shadow, which also parallels Dr. Strange in that it involves an arrogant white American (Alec Baldwin) who is reborn as a hero in an Eastern temple. Except in The Shadow, Lamont Cranston isn’t just a bastard — he’s an evil warlord. But I would argue (and some might say I’m engaging in special pleading) they avoided some of the pitfalls of the Doctor Strange movie because, though we don’t really know why he was chosen for his conversion/redemption, it is mostly thrust upon him (as opposed to him just being a superior white guy) — and he continues his crime fighting in New York (perhaps allowing us to infer he was chosen, not because he was better, but precisely because they wanted to send him to the predominately white New York). There’s also — arguably — more of a sense that Cranston has been reformed/redeemed, that he is truly a different person after his time at the temple in a way that Strange doesn’t seem as much. In other words — there is more a sense of humbleness (including in how he reacts to learning of the death of The Tulku, as though genuinely losing someone important to him…or even when he self-deprecatingly remarks he speaks “just Mandarin” when Margo Lane acts impressed that he speaks Chinese; but I’m probably stretching a bit there).
(One could also note that while the Doctor Strange movie reduced the number of its Asian characters by race-swapping The Ancient One, The Shadow movie gives a prominent role to the Shadow’s Chinese-American agent, Dr. Roy Tam (Sab Shimono).)
Since I’m on the topic of white guys mastering Asian tropes, it’s perhaps worth also noting the recent Netflix TV series, Iron Fist — which was roundly thrashed by a lot of reviewers. Now Iron Fist had a lot of problems. It just wasn’t very good — though I’d buck some common wisdom and argue that with the exception of Jessica Jones, most of the Marvel Netflix series have been underwhelming. But Iron Fist was the most underwhelming-est. (Though I would offer one counter argument: some critics pointed to how star Finn Jones seemed too skinny. But I do wonder if that was deliberate. After all, the cliché of Martial Arts is that it allows a smaller person to beat up a bigger person. And knowing they intended to team the character with the other Netflix heroes in The Defenders — including Daredevil who has no physical superpowers but can also beat up a room full of bad guys — they maybe wanted Iron Fist to look unimposing…precisely to make him seem more bad-ass. But if that was the intent, they failed to convey it in the narrative).
One interesting point I heard made was that when Iron Fist was created in the comics in the 1970s — he was just one of a number of Martial Arts-themed characters. And, indeed, Marvel’s flagship Martial Artist was arguably the Chinese hero, Shang-Chi. So the white Iron Fist was only one variation on a Martial Arts theme. But jump to 2017 and he seems more conspicuous since he stands alone on the field.
But one could argue that Iron Fist (TV) also reflects aspects of Doctor Strange (movie) in contrast with their comics.
In the comic, as I recall, Iron Fist/Danny Rand was (like Caine in Kung Fu) given to spouting a few spiritual homilies and though he arrived in New York seeking revenge…it was tempered by a spiritual outlook. In the TV series, Danny seems, well, like a bit of a self-obsessed narcissist whose very self-focus is what makes him a hero. I’m oversimplifying, of course — there are criticisms of Danny’s bull-headedness (usually from the female characters played by Jessica Henwick and Rosario Dawson who, nonetheless, go along with him in the end) and Danny is supposed to be well-intentioned and goodly-hearted. But I just mean that, in a way, both the TV Iron Fist and the movie Doctor Strange don’t just adopt Asian tropes…but they then seem to deliberately reject the philosophical themes and tenets that the original versions (and series like Kung Fu) at least paid lip-service to respecting.
Dr. Strange, Kung Fu, Iron Fist, and even The Shadow, may well have used the white-guy-becomes-a-hero-by-learning-from-an-Asian-culture…but arguably Doctor Strange (the 2016 movie) and Iron Fist (the TV series) seem to argue these guys improve upon the Asian system with their American can-do exceptionalism, smug Yankee arrogance, and by side-lining Asian people even more.
In other words, these new interpretations don’t just perpetuate problematic clichés…but I would argue make then worse than the originals were. If the way these characters/stories are presented reflect their eras, what does that say about today?