Doctor Strange takes audiences on a spiritually insensitive journey of appropriation

by Sonya Lalli 

When I went to see Doctor Strange, the question about whether Marvel Studios’ latest blockbuster would be a success seemed to have already been answered. I couldn’t resist the dazzling trailers and adverts, the glowing four- to five-star reviews, and of course the all-star cast. Sweets and popcorn in hand, I settled into my comfortable cinema seat and prepared to be bowled over.

The film opened with eye-popping CGI that bent and folded time around a brilliant action sequence, one that is perhaps unlike anything we’ve seen since Inception. Indeed, the first few scenes lived up to my every expectation as a viewer, and I sat on the edge of my seat while the movie ripped and roared in that sensational – often silly – way superhero movies tend to.

We then quickly find ourselves face to face with arrogant neurosurgeon Stephen Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch), who is unable to work after a brutal car crash results in nerve damage to his hands. An ego-wounded Strange goes to great lengths and expense to find a medical fix, and after nothing works, he pushes away his nurturing ex-girlfriend Christine Palmer (Rachel McAdams). Penniless, and with nothing left to lose, he heads east for a solution – embarking on his hero’s journey.

It was here that I became deeply uncomfortable.

Strange finds the Ancient One (Tilda Swinton) at a temple called Kamar-Taj in Kathmandu. There, he realizes that he may be able to gain the power to heal his hands – not to mention time-loop, teleport, cast spells and adopt a magic cloak – by letting go of his ego and elevating his mind.

Captain America has superhuman strength. Thor’s powers are otherworldly in origin, and Iron Man’s come from a tech-forward fusion arc reactor. Doctor Strange and his new cohorts, however, are sorcerers – and their fantastical powers are rooted in the western world’s cherry-picked perception of eastern spirituality.

The Ancient One starts her sorcery lesson plan by drop-kicking Strange’s soul from his body, and in another scene she shows him bodily diagrams of acupuncture points and chakras that in no way pertain to the plot or add to the mystique. As part of his lesson plan, Strange practices martial arts, studies books written in Sanskrit, and learns how to cast spells by harnessing the same awareness necessary for mindfulness and meditation.

doctor-strange-2Strange completes his journey spectacularly, as superheroes do, by saving the world and becoming the well-rounded, empathetic character we were cheering for. The movie is good, yes, and its offences may seem mild – but that doesn’t change the fact that its central premise is flawed. The comic on which it was based is an insensitive, hodgepodge portrayal of spirituality stemming from eastern religions such as Hinduism and Buddhism.

I should make the disclaimer that I’ve never read any of the Marvel comics, and know little more about the characters’ universe than what I’ve seen in movies and recently read online. But I reject the argument that Marvel Studios in these respects had to stay true to the comic, which I’ve learned was first published in the early 1960’s.

While the Ancient One is Tibetan in the original Doctor Strange comic, the studio chose Swinton to play the character, changing gender and heritage. One of the screenwriters implied that the studio changed the character’s heritage to Celtic, and relocated Kamar-Taj from Tibet to Nepal, to avoid getting political with China, a major movie market.

Let’s set aside the obvious criticisms that yet another leading Hollywood role was whitewashed, and that despite Kamar-Taj’s geographic location, not a single Nepali or South Asian actor appears in the movie. (However, Strange’s sidekicks Wong and Mordo are not white, and are played respectively by Benedict Wong and Chiwetel Ejiofor).

McAdams’ version of Christine Palmer portrays three different characters from the original comic’s universe. It adapted the ethnicities of the Ancient One and Mordo, the latter in a bid for diversity, and changed the location of the temple to a more neutral location. Surely the studio has also made other changes to adapt the comic for the screen that only the most devoted comic fans would notice.

So the question is: Did Strange really have to go all the way to Nepal to realize that that he was an egoist? No.

Could Kamar-Taj not have been a nondescript temple somewhere in the United States, and the sorcery books written in English, or perhaps a fictional ancient language? Yes.

Could their magical powers not have come from non-denominational spirituality or mindfulness? Yes.

The truth is Marvel Studios could have adapted out the cultural appropriation, the same way it made other changes in the name of plot line, profitability and politics.

I am a first generation Canadian immigrant and London transplant, and no stranger to the anecdotes and flavour my Indian heritage has provided mainstream western culture. From the annoyingly redundant terminologies naan bread and chai tea, to the Bhagavad Gita sitting like a prop in the changing room of my overwhelmingly white yoga studio, the plurality of non-white identities, backgrounds and belief systems crop up only when palatable and to be an accessory to the dominant culture.

Evidently, the same is true in the Marvel Universe.

Marvel Studios president Kevin Feige recently acknowledged criticisms of his and director Scott Derrickson’s decision to give the Ancient One role to a white woman. He pledged the studio’s commitment to diversity, and vowed to make films that “reflect the world”.

But what is our world?

It’s currently a place seemingly more fantastical than Marvel’s own universe, where in the space of six months, voters in two of the world’s most progressive countries defied all odds, polls and good sense in the name of racism and disrespect.

It’s a world where many of those marginalised cannot rely on their leaders to protect and fight for them. It’s one where children and adults alike should be able to find safe harbour in fantasy. Superheroes don’t see colour, age or religion, socioeconomic status or politics. They save us all. And perhaps it’s time we demand more from the world’s most influential superhero movie studio than peppering a few non-white faces into its roster.

Minorities’ experiences, beliefs and faiths (or lack thereof) are our own and vastly different from individual to individual. Passing instances of cultural appropriation may seem like a trivial breach of respect – ones that make us feel uncomfortable, rather than incensed or disrespected. Yet Doctor Strange is just another example of how effortlessly society continues to trample on and take from minority culture, and the film’s superficial allusion to eastern religions and spirituality is not okay.

We’ve come a long way since the sixties when Marvel first gave birth to Doctor Strange. But if there’s anything the film adaptation can teach us – besides how to kick ass as a sorcerer – it’s that there is still a long way to go.

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Sonya Lalli is a Canadian writer, journalist and lawyer of Indian heritage. Her debut novel The Arrangement will be published by Orion Fiction in summer 2017. She has a black belt in Tae Kwon Do and loves travel, yoga, piano, reading and cocktail bartending. Tweet her @saskinthecity or find out more here.

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8 replies

  1. Ok, maybe you should do more research before writing these think-pieces. Marvel / Disney is one of, if not the most diverse movie studio out there and their consistent representation of diverse characters, casting and directors proves this, in comparison to Sony who are getting a white man to direct Pochahontas, whilst Disney are looking to hire a full Asian cast and director for their live version of Mulan. The problem is with Dr Strange is I think that they were always going to offend somebody due to the source material, Kevin Feige even stated that he had apprehensions about how to tell the story due to the blatant stereotypes and this is something I’ve heard Asians appreciate when the casting for Danny Rand ((Iron Fist) was announced, as as Asians they didn’t like the stereotypical storyline of the Asian with martial arts powers.

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    • Marvel films aren’t that diverse. All their superheroes are either black or white. No Asians, Hispanics, Arabic, Native Americans, etc. in the Avengers. All their female superheroes are white. Every single Marvel film so far has starred a white guy, and all of them have been directed by white men. Peppering in a few non-white characters, mostly black, shouldn’t be acceptable in 2016.

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    • disney is not a diverse studio or company. who are you kidding, yourself? disney white washes everything they touch. just look at Aladdin, which was not only whitewashed but culturally incorrect. Doctor Strange was an OK movie, not that great. It could have been better.

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  2. xenogogue what would happen if you focused on the actual facts brought up around character representation in this article? would you be able to craft your response as reducing the points as her lady feelz instead of deflecting them as your white tears? just a thought here, your klan flag is showing fyi.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hello bsnark.
      A salient and well leavened reply. A couple notes:
      1) I am a non-Christian POC. Your “white tears” do not apply, at least to half of me. I am guessing that you cannot claim the same. You seem the “white-guilt over-defensive on behalf of those lovely brown people” sort.

      2) my points were to the calling out of the film for offenses not in evidence. In context, all of the examples given make sense in a canonical fashion. If you have an argument, make it.

      3) Without said offenses, the base argument about representation falls apart. Sorcery is a universal credo. (In canon) its manuals are written in all languages, and its practitioners span the globe. The one that stands to scrutiny is the choice of SWINTON as the ancient one. But, TBH: in my opinion, you could cast her in nearly any role, and I would have trouble finding fault. Personal bias, there, not racial.

      Feel free to continue your ad hoc attacks, though. I find them endearing.

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  3. It seems to me that you were on a mission to be offended.
    As a complete neophyte to the Dr Strange portion of the MCU, I was STILL able to determine that, the examples of acupuncture and vedic charts, alongside am MRI scan, which you neglected to mention, were to illustrate that NONE of those systems had the answer that sorcery provides.
    Moreover, the books in the library were in several different languages, living and dead. The fact that the practice is a “Hodge-Podge”, I would assume, was intentional.
    Dr Strange travelled to the nexus he was told of, not the nearby NY nexus, which is also a pivotal point in the film, as that is where he, eventually presides.
    To your point of “Could their magical powers not have come from non-denominational spirituality or mindfulness?”: They did. That was a base tenet of the teaching that the fictional Doctor went through.
    I am am extremely liberal-minded person who tries very hard to be sensitive to the beliefs and customs of others, but strikes me as hand-wringing.

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