The Incredible Visuals And Unfortunate Orientalism Of "Doctor Strange"
Marvel's latest is quirky, trippy, fun, and unable to solve the problem of its source material's Eastern mysticism clichés.
Doctor Strange is a movie in which people do magic. And oh, does magic look good in Doctor Strange.
Magic leaves sparkler trails when the characters gesture their way through spells, forming shields or whiplike weapons or cool patterns just for the showy hell of it. It makes the air crackle like a sheet of ice when they travel to the mirror dimension, which is like our dimension, only less easily damaged in fight scenes. Magic warps reality itself in Doctor Strange, making buildings fold in on themselves and streets bend and curve in impossible directions, twisting and turning like the world is a Rubik's Cube in the hands of an impatient child. It allows rooms to stretch out like elastic, then snap back into shape. Magic sends the movie’s title character, Stephen Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch), spinning through the cosmos, through black-light multiverse dimensions, and through the pupil of his own giant eyeball. The look is a little bit The Matrix, a little bit Inception, a little bit Dark City, and all acid trip.
Doctor Strange — which director Scott Derrickson wrote with C. Robert Cargill (a team-up that previously resulted in 2012 horror movie Sinister) — is the story of how Stephen Strange goes from brilliant neurosurgeon to brilliant sorcerer caught up in a war over the fate of the world. It starts with Strange as the egotistical lord of his medical domain, possessed of an eidetic memory, a drawer full of fancy watches, and a failed but still flirty relationship with his colleague Christine Palmer (Rachel McAdams, languishing in a role that gives her little to do). Then a serious car accident leaves him with a hand tremor that ends his career, sending him into a depressive spiral of surgeries, experimental treatments, and, finally, on a desperate trip to another continent. He heads to Kathmandu in search of a place called Kamar-Taj, where, he’s been told, Eastern medicine might help him heal. Instead, he finds the Ancient One (Tilda Swinton), a powerful magician leading a mystical order in which students, as Strange becomes, study alongside masters, among them Mordo (Chiwetel Ejiofor) and Wong (Benedict Wong).
Doctor Strange is, without a doubt, the best-looking installment of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, especially in 3D, which gives its gravity-flipping action sequences an added sense of delirious dizziness whenever they turn on an axis and re-establish which way is down. In a franchise increasingly cluttered with a growing cast of characters and all the business they have to tend to, Doctor Strange is led by and indulges in its visuals in a way that’s refreshing, intent on showing us exactly how its hero is getting his mind blown instead of just informing us that it’s happening. It’s a superhero story aware of the New Age absurdity of its wizard school and its fight against the forces of darkness, but it's not willing to push harder at its source material. It’s one of the better and also one of the more frustrating movies in the franchise to date, doling out its daring in maddening little half-steps.
The worst of those half-steps is also a matter of visuals. Kamar-Taj is a mishmash of Asiana — it’s in Nepal, but its residents like clothing that’s Japanese-inspired, especially in the combination of robes and the obi-like sash favored by the villain Kaecilius (Mads Mikkelsen), a former Ancient One pupil gone wrong. Strange, upon arriving, is shown a book in which an MRI chart is placed alongside a chakra and acupuncture one. The latticework panels that line the walls look like chinoiserie, while the courtyard seems modeled after a Buddhist temple. The saffron garb the Ancient One is first spotted in seems to recall those of a Buddhist monk as well, though it’s not religion she teaches, per se — more a new way of looking at the universe. Christine, when she re-encounters Strange, muses that it sounds like he’s joined a cult, and Kamar-Taj does, at times, feel like a particularly demanding meditation retreat. It calls upon a classic kind of Orientalism, blurring culture to revel in a vague sense of Asian exoticism without bothering with specifics, and, more pressingly, without the people.
Doctor Strange was criticized early on for casting Swinton to play a character originally written as an elderly Asian man, a decision Derrickson has defended as a way of sidestepping the musty stereotype of the magical Asian dispenser of wisdom. It is absolutely unsurprising that Swinton is terrific in the role — embodying ageless beings is one of her many strong suits, from her gender-switching, century-spanning turn in Orlando to her patchouli-scented vampire in Only Lovers Left Alive. But not even the rewarding sight of a mischievous, hairless Swinton informing the film’s self-centered protagonist, “It’s not about you,” can obscure the point that Doctor Strange has missed. The film doesn’t actually get away from the cliché of a white guy soaking up Eastern wisdom and turning out to be a more gifted practitioner than the people it originated from. It just scoops out and replaces the character who’d traditionally be the source of all that wisdom, rather than figure out a way to improve and deepen him. In doing so, Doctor Strange ends up treating Asianness like it’s a lifestyle choice rather than having anything to do with culture or race.
It’s a problem that resonates with the struggle Marvel has been facing recently in adapting properties that rely on either Yellow Peril or Eastern mysticism clichés or both for TV, from Daredevil’s magical evil ninja club the Hand to the upcoming Iron Fist, featuring another white character who gets steeped in mystical Eastern knowledge. In some ways, Derrickson’s awareness of these issues highlights the problem with his movie’s lateral move to address them. It opts for erasure instead of the updating that’s managed just fine for the character of Wong, who’s shifted from servant to compatriot and who benefits from actor Benedict Wong’s excellent deadpan. These are choices that flatten some of the fizzy buoyancy that otherwise carries Doctor Strange along. This is, after all, a movie that allows its baddie to believe for a fair stretch of time that its main character’s name is “Mister Doctor,” and that plunks said main character in an enchanted cloak that tenderly wipes away his tears.
Strange is almost too comfortable a fit for Cumberbatch, too close to the haughty genius that made him famous in Sherlock — all cerebral, all certainty. But Doctor Strange finds room for the actor to poke at the fragility beneath his character’s shell of self-assurance in a way that he clearly relishes, to quip about Beyoncé and grow a beard of sadness and learn to handle not automatically being the standout student in magic class. Strange is a smug perfectionist whose sense of place in the universe (and sense of self) gets shaken up when he can no longer prove he’s the best at what he does. His journey toward becoming a better person as well as a formidable sorcerer may feel inevitable, but the final act cleverly challenges some of the conventions of the blockbuster big finish, from the spectacle of mass destruction to the massive battle. Strange ends up in line to partner with the Avengers in a future, overstuffed installment, but in his own film, for now, he moves to his own beat. It’s imperfect, but it’s enjoyable, and it sure looks good.