Sunday, November 13, 2016

Dr. Strange (Spoiler Alert)

I heard that Rez had died on Saturday. I was planning to go to Dr. Strange with friends that evening and did, feeling a little numb and fragile, wanting a distraction.

The original comic began in the 60s, drawn by Steve Ditko, and the movie has very much a 60s feeling. It's a psychedelic tour de force. Dr. Strange falls into other dimensions, which are weird as hell; and there are magical fights in which building fold and twist, till you don't know what you are looking at. I didn't do drugs in the 60s, but I saw the posters and 2001. The movie looked very familiar. Mixed with all the optical hoo-haw is fake eastern mysticism, which is also very 1960s.

Doc Strange joins a magical order in Nepal, which is devoted to protecting the Earth from evil from other worlds and dimensions. The leader of the order is called the Ancient One. In the comic, he was a stereotypical Asian magician, according to one of my friends who knows comics. Marvel decided he was way out-of-date and changed the character to a white woman.

I had trouble with her. She did not seem sufficiently mystical. I wanted a tiny, elderly Asian full of canny wisdom (Yoda?)(one of my friends suggested a magic eight ball) or the kind of authority figure Ditko drew, tall and dramatic and foreign. This shows that I am influenced by stereotypes, even though I don't want to be.

But I went along with the story, which included some satisfying fights. Other people told me they were okay with a white female Ancient One.

Yesterday I encountered a comment on facebook saying no one should see the movie because of the whitewashing. I assumed the comment referred to the Ancient One, and it irritated me. I really like Marvel movies. I really like going to Marvel movies with friends. And I really needed a distraction on Saturday night. I did not want to be told I was supporting racism by seeing Dr. Strange.

Then Patrick told me the problem was Dr. Strange himself. People were angry because he was white. I checked the Marvel Universe Wiki and found this: "Born in 1930, Stephen Strange was the eldest child of Eugene and Beverly Strange, then vacationing in Philadelphia. Two years later, Stephen's sister Donna was born at the family's Nebraska farm." The Stranges sound white to me. Granted, Marvel is always changing the colors and histories of its characters. Even the species can change. Remember when Thor was a frog?

But there is an argument for showing Dr. Strange as white. Besides, Benedict Cumberbatch!

I did some searching on the Internet and then discovered that the whitewashing of the Ancient One is a huge topic online.

I suspect Marvel wanted the Ancient One to be female, because the movie is short of women. (This is a usual Marvel problem.) There is only one other woman of any importance, and she is off screen most of the movie. They said they tried making the Ancient One Asian, but she came out as a kind of Dragon Lady, another famous stereotype, slinky and dangerous and exotic. Maybe they should have tried harder. I can imagine Michelle Yeoh as the Ancient One. She would be a kick-ass ancient master, not the least bit slinky. Because she knows martial arts, her magical gestures would be awesome. And she would steal the movie from Cumberbatch.

Brigitte Lin is retired, alas. In her prime, she would have been a perfect Ancient One. She radiated dangerous power, especially as the Invincible Asia, and she specialized in androgynous or cross dressing roles, which would have been interesting.

If Marvel wanted to turn the Ancient One back into a man, they could have hired Chow Yun Fat or Jet Li. Like Yeoh, Li knows martial arts and can steal a movie. (I saw him steal Lethal Weapon 4 from Mel Gibson, who was pretty charismatic in his prime. It was no contest. Li dominated the movie.) Chow Yun Fat used to play gangsters. Then he moved to playing emperors. He could certainly be the Ancient One.

Of course (spoiler alert!) the Ancient One dies, and people of color always die in Hollywood movies. So making the character Asian would have played into another stereotype.

In any case, Marvel could have gone to Hong Kong and Mainland China and found a movie star. I don't know why they didn't. Maybe they simply wanted a good looking, youngish white woman.

On the plus side, there are six important characters in the movie: two white women, two white men (one the hero, the other the villain), one black man and one man of Chinese descent. So 33% of the important characters are non-white. The US is currently 28% non-white. So the movie matches US demographics. Of course the world in mostly people of color. But the movie was made by an American company. Marvel is trying, it seems to me. Maybe not enough.


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