One of the most interesting things about Disney’s ongoing attempts to expand their Marvel Cinematic Universe has been how they’ve attempted to avoid treading similar ground (apart from their direct sequels), and have made some pretty left-field choices of their more outlandish characters. Even the most ardent comic book fans weren’t massively familiar with the Guardians of the Galaxy for example, but the relative obscurity of the source material and its even-more-far-fetched themes proved no obstacles to its massive critical and commercial success. Doctor Strange is a similarly risky option – a character from the early 60s with vaguely racist origins and an approach to the supernatural that, like many things from the decade, made sense at the time but just seems a little silly by today’s standards.

While it remains guilty of some very disappointing examples of orientalism, it’s overall a pleasant surprise to see Steve Ditko’s trippy visuals translate so successfully from the comic book panel to the big screen. The main blot on its copybook is the casual racism deployed in its casting and some of the writing – the chief culprit being the choice of Tilda Swinton to play The Ancient One. A spiritual creature with the appearance of an elderly Tibetan man in the comics, he was an uncomfortable stereotype with hints of Fu Manchu about him, so it’s understandable that changes were made to the character’s canon. However, rather than casting a Tibetan or Chinese actor and changing the writing, the decision to use Tilda Swinton and then clumsily explain that they’d changed her into some kind of Celtic creature smacks of whitewashing hypocrisy.

While there are other elements of the film that are similarly uncomfortable (the Westerner who voyages to the Orient and learns enlightenment is a pretty tired old trope),┬áthe film should be by contrast praised for its handling of Wong, the good doctor’s assistant. An ethnic stereotype in the comics who does little more than make tea for the hero, here his role is expanded considerably into something far more substantial, with the British actor of Chinese descent Benedict Wong fleshing him out into someone arguably more competent than the lead character. Away from these controversies, the film itself delivers some astonishing visuals – just as Ditko expanded beyond the panel limitations of the comic book, the film uses every inch of the frame (and beyond, in the IMAX format) to really make its effects pop off the screen. Otherwise it’s as strong and effective as most of Disney’s Marvel movies – humorous, exciting and thought-provoking in equal measure. They really, really know what they’re doing with these films now. Hopefully their handling of racial issues will improve.

Another surprising and genuinely different choice of Marvel character for Disney to adapt8
Some appropriately astonishing special effects that match the experimental visuals of the original comic9
The casting of The Ancient One and orentialism of its plot4
By bizarre contrast, the handling of the Wong character9
The usual tremendously entertaining package of action and humour that Disney/Marvel have managed to perfect8
Bechdel Test passes
  • Features more than one named female character
Bechdel Test failures
  • None of the named female characters talk to each other
8Overall Score

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