We at Geek Crusade had been highly wary of Benedict Cumberbatch being cast as Doctor Strange. As elaborated in this post, we felt it was a clear case of typecasting. Because as good as he is, Cumberbatch has played one too many brilliant, but flawed, men who need lessons in social graces. (Sherlock, The Imitation Game, The Fifth Estate).
But as it turns out, Cumberbatch is a great fit for the role of Stephen Strange, the Sherlock-surgeon turned Sorcerer Supreme via traumatic accident. His not-quite-convincing American accent notwithstanding, Cumberbatch has crafted a flawed, likeable and Tony Stark-like protagonist (Facial Hair Bros!) who is going to play a major role in the Marvel Cinematic Universe.
Let’s start by addressing the whitewashing controversy, which has dominated much of the coverage of Doctor Strange. I’m well aware that whatever I write here is going to upset someone, somewhere, but here goes anyway.
Granted that Tilda Swinton, a white British woman, is playing the Ancient One, originally a Tibetan in the comics. But let’s bear in mind that that character was based on a racist Asian stereotype, while Strange’s character arc – white man seeks enlightenment in the Orient – is itself a very old, tired trope.
So the question to ask is: Does Swinton’s casting work? The answer: Hell, yes. The Oscar-winner is nigh-on perfect as the mystical mentor, making even the fortune cookie wisdom sound good (“You cannot beat a river into submission, Strange.”). And while the enlightenment trope ticks all the boxes – man tells Strange about a secret place, Strange goes on long quest, finds a mysterious mentor and is eventually empowered – I would argue that the presence of Swinton and the always excellent Chiwetel Ejiofor as Mordo make it far more palatable.
Having said that, it only works because Marvel cast an actress of Swinton’s calibre. Anyone lesser, and the changes to the comics mythos would have been much harder to justify. As Opinionated Geek JM Wong points out, we have to acknowledge that while the Doctor Strange comics are problematic in nature, the MCU machine is so much bigger than reacting to every bit of outrage they get.
Then there are the quite literally mind-bending visuals, incorporating everything from martial arts to surrealist imagery and the influence of Inception and The Matrix. Its intent is made clear from the opening battle sequence between The Ancient One and the renegade sorcerer Kaecilius (Mads Mikkelsen) that defies the laws of physics.
It’s often said that the CGI in blockbusters is stunning – Doctor Strange re-defines it. Trust us, you have to watch this in IMAX to fully appreciate the effects.
The imagery is also a tribute to the artwork of Doctor Strange creator Steve Ditko, which is often described as psychedelic and hallucinogenic. In fact, the obligatory Stan Lee cameo is a neat little homage to Ditko, the apparent creative qualities of the drug LSD and the novelist and philosopher Aldous Huxley.
While Strange’s arc is more than reminiscent of Iron Man’s, it works because of some very funny touches (check out the scene where Strange attempts to make Wong laugh). Unfortunately, the same can’t be said about Mikkelsen’s villain, who is once again a Marvel antagonist with little real motivation or context other than wanting to destroy the world.
As JM noted, that now makes a trio of great character actors – after Christopher Eccleston in Thor: The Dark World and Lee Pace in Guardians of the Galaxy -who have been quite literally wasted as Marvel villains. Just check out Mikkelsen’s work in Hannibal to realise just how chilling a villain he could have been.
The story arc – arrogant protagonist is chastened by traumatic experience, gains powers and humility and defeats the bad guy – is also nothing new. But all in all, this is an excellent new addition to the MCU that is well worth your money. As per usual, don’t forget to stay on after the movie for a mid-credits and post-credits scene, one of which (kinda) validates our earlier post (spoilers in that post).
Doctor Strange opens in Singapore today. Tell us what you think of the movie!