‘Doctor Strange’ Navigates the Cultural Appropriation Minefield

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By Jonathan McAloon | 4:32 am, November 7, 2016

Adapting Marvel comics into a modern film comes with a health warning: most of them were written in the ’60s and the ’70s.

Those were the halcyon days of psychedelia and sexual revolution, but also of Carry On films, television personalities being allowed to drink whiskey on-set and grope kids, and incessant racial stereotypes.

Doctor Strange was always going to present a strange challenge all its own: created in 1963 it was one of the only Marvel comics where non-white characters got a significant look in, but those characters were informed by the prejudices of the day and a vogue for Orientalist appropriation.

In a recent interview with the Daily Beast, director Scott Derrickson discussed his decision to give the role of the Ancient One – traditionally a Tibetan man in the comics – to Tilda Swinton, a white woman, which has come under scrutiny for “whitewashing“.

“It was a challenge from the beginning that I knew I was facing with both Wong and the Ancient One being pretty bad racial stereotypes—1960s versions of what Western white people thought Asians were like… when I envisioned [the Ancient One] being played by an Asian actress, it was a straight-up Dragon Lady.”

Instead Marvel decided to make the Ancient One a sort of honorary title rather than a specific individual, and this incarnation was “Celtic” in origin.

The project was always bound for a cultural gaffe minefield. But besides the talk, how does the film itself hold up? It’s a lot of fun, and for better or for worse, the cultural appropriation discourse takes a back seat.

When we first meet superstar neurosurgeon Stephen Strange he’s concerned with making a difference, but in a flashy way: he’d rather develop a breakthrough surgery that could save thousands than save lives nightly in intensive care.

In usual Benedict Cumberbatch mode, he’s a pedant with a photographic memory: a mixture of Sherlock and House. To boot he’s got a Night Rider system in his Lambo so he can look at brain scans while driving.

But taking his eyes off the road leads to a car accident that destroys his precious hands. Now he must look for a cure in the Nepalese village of Kamar-Taj, which, behind its walls, doesn’t have much to do with Nepal.

This seems very much a conscious choice by Marvel. We are now in an interdimensional space tucked just behind our world, which disavows links to a specific culture. (Almost: it is still a temple where martial arts are practised.)

Strange’s three guides are the Ancient One, Mordo (Chiwetel Ejiofor), a black man, and Wong (Benedict Wong), an Asian: this character posed another problem for the writers.

In the comics he was a servant whose family had been indentured to the Ancient One for hundreds of years, playing into another Sixties racial stereotype. (“We weren’t sure he was going to make the cut,” said screenwriter Jon Spaihts to The Hollywood Reporter.) Now he’s a scholar-warrior, as intimidating and imposing as when the Salford actor played Kublai Khan like a Mongolian Tony Soprano in Netflix’s Marco Polo.

But the The Media Action Network for Asian Americans was still unhappy with the result. Spokesman Guy Aoki told Variety: “So the Ancient One was racist and stereotyped, but letting a white woman play the part erases all that? No, it just erases an Asian character from the screen when there weren’t many prominent Asian characters in Marvel films to begin with.”

There is one moment, very near the beginning, when the film comes close to addressing the issue head on.

Doctor Strange arrives at the temple at Kamar-Taj and is asked to “forget everything you know”. Seeking the Ancient One, his prejudices make him initially address a venerable-looking Asian man, only to stand corrected that the Ancient One is a much younger-looking woman.

It’s hardly profound: it’s a superhero movie. It isn’t perfect either. But it’s a nimble way of negotiating the double choke-hold of the comic book’s past and charges of cultural appropriation, or erasure, that were bound to pop up.