What does Doctor Strange need? More Asian people.

Doctor Strange, the latest superhero offering from Marvel Studios, tells the story of Dr. Steven Strange, a brilliant neurosurgeon in New York City whose career is ruined when he gets into a car accident and loses the use of his hands. After failing to find a cure, Strange goes on a wild goose chase to Kathmandu, Nepal, searching for the Ancient One (Tilda Swinton) and her mysterious teachings. There, his eyes are opened to the vaguely explained concept of Marvel’s version of the “inner chakra” and his own ability to manipulate time and dimension. Although arrogant and selfish, Benedict Cumberbatch’s Dr. Steven Strange is more likeable than his narcissistic Sherlock Holmes. Strange is almost Tony Stark-esque in his self-regard, while still maintaining a similar underlying sense of decency which makes the man in the iron suit a popular hero.

As Strange drinks tea, swaggers around in Buddhist monastery robes, and practices magical kung fu on mountain tops, he must also navigate the various characters who flitter in and out of his life. Aside from Tilda Swinton’s Sorcerer Supreme and her loyal apprentice Mordo (Chiwetel Ejiofor steals every scene he is in), the film falls short in giving other characters the screen time and story arcs their actors deserve. Mads Mikkelsen’s villain follows the tradition of other Marvel baddies; he looks cool enough, but severely lacking in depth or charisma. Rachel McAdams, like other Marvel love interests, is beautiful, capable and whip-smart. And like other Marvel love interests, she is severely underused. Benedict Wong as the librarian Wong (yes, that is the character’s name) is the only prominent Asian cast member, and he provides light comedy and the occasional action-y shots, filling the single “Asian Character Slot” which only becomes available when a Hollywood film dabbles in Asian settings and cultures.

And here is where Doctor Strange falters as a film.

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Make no mistake – the film is entertaining enough and it is well acted. It is also a visual feast; the mind-bending shots of a city collapsing in on itself far surpass any shown in Christopher Nolan’s Inception. However, like many big blockbuster Hollywood films, Doctor Strange remains tone-deaf in its representation of Asian Culture. For a film that’s set in Nepal, fused with so much Asian imagery and culture, it is sorely lacking in Asian characters. Aside from Wong and the occasional man or woman on the street, the film does very little to address the balance. Doctor Strange is by no means as offensive as Mickey Rooney’s turn as Mr Yunioshi in Breakfast at Tiffany’s, but the story still grates nonetheless. Here is another white man who travels to the east to “rediscover himself.” There, he becomes the best at whatever art form or skill set created by the country’s inhabitants. All the while, these inhabitants are demoted to trusty side kicks, wise mentors who die prematurely, or faceless cronies defeated by the white hero. This formula has been used time and time again by Hollywood: Tom Cruise is the last samurai, Keanu Reeves saves the day in 47 Ronin, and Matt Damon liberates China from monsters in the upcoming film The Great Wall.

Most viewers in Asian countries might not see the problem with such stories, and that is because we have our own film industries, and therefore, we are not as starved of on-screen representation as Asian Americans might be. But we have also been conditioned by Hollywood to believe that characters in these films have to be white. The whitewashing in Gods of Egypt and Exodus: Gods and Kings did not cause a big uproar in Asia as it did in America because Asian audiences find it perfectly reasonable that Hollywood characters can only have white skin, blue eyes and blond hair, despite both films being set in Africa. These Hollywood films have taught us that the west is populated by white people who are much more capable and much more heroic than their non-white counterparts. This is not at all indicative of reality.

So Hollywood. Why not change this false perception? Challenge the old. Present the new.

With Doctor Strange, the point is not how great Tilda Swinton is as the Ancient One; it won’t even matter if she rocks up to the Oscars and wins an award for the role. With this film, as with the show Iron Fist on Netflix, Marvel had the opportunity to change the narrative. They had the opportunity to diversify its stories and flip the stereotypical white-saviour trope on its head, but they chose not to do so.

It is already frustrating to see Asians marginalised in Hollywood blockbuster films. It is even more frustrating to see them marginalised in films which have elements heavily borrowed from their own culture. 

RATING: 3/5 stars.


Follow me on Twitter at @PimKaprao

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