Illustration by Gauraang Biyani

Demystifying Asia

It is necessary to consider whether this is due to the directors' ignorance or the comic book writers' uninformed imagination.

Nov 12, 2016

On Nov. 3, about 200 students piled into a couple of buses to travel to Asia, more specifically Nepal, through the blockbuster Marvel movie Doctor Strange. The movie featured Benedict Cumberbatch as a narcissistic doctor who loses functionality in his hands after crashing his sports car. When Western medicine fails him, he travels east to Nepal to discover magic that will help him heal. The movie has achieved a rating of [4.3/5](] from viewers and a standing ovation from most comic book lovers who have dogeared copies of the original story.
From a Hollywood perspective, the movie has the right mixture of everything you could ask for in an entertaining superhero movie — humor, mystique, action, romance and Benedict Cumberbatch – and so it is no surprise that it has been popular among the masses. Unfortunately, one cannot simply ignore the twinges of discomfort that arise as a basic analysis reveals sinister stereotypes lurking beneath the aesthetics and humor of the film.
Notions of finding yourself — or, in the case of Stephen Strange, finding your hands — permeate the first half of the film. Of course the only place where real enlightenment could possibly occur is in a secret enclave in some rural area of an Asian nation. You also have to ensure that your mentor is dressed appropriately in yellow or orange flowing robes. The absence of any of these things ultimately leads to an inauthentic experience and a lack of the insight you were searching for. Doctor Strange nails this Asian stereotype perfectly. If the plot were simplified to one line, it would be that a white man goes to Asia and gets taught magic from a non-Asian mystical being.
This is an aspect that has sparked outrage among people from Asian nations who have been culturally misrepresented by the entertainment industry in the past, in movies such as Batman Begins and The Karate Kid. Even among non-Asians, certain scenes can be cringe-worthy and can evoke a sense of shame in their portrayal of such clichés about Asia.
The directors of Doctor Strange have been called into question and criticized for their inability or unwillingness to accurately represent Asia. They have also been vilified for distorting other cultures to create a spectacle for entertainment. However, it is necessary to consider whether this blame is rightly assigned.
Although Doctor Strange appears to have a cookie cutter plot fraught with stereotypes, it is necessary to consider whether this is due to the directors’ ignorance or the comic book writer’s uninformed imagination. After all, the film is a cinematic version of the original comic panels. According to comic book enthusiast Tom Bacon, the movie stays true to the storyline emphasized by the original comic, Strange Tales #115. Given that the original comic was written in 1963, the flaws of the plot start making sense. Our knowledge about and respect for different cultures were not as nuanced in 1963 as they are now, and so the author of the comic was mostly creating this image of Asia based on what was available to him at the time. Unfortunately, this consisted mostly of ninjas, samurais and mystical powers hailing from the East.
On the other hand, it is important to acknowledge that the comic book writer may not actually be at fault. Comic books are works of fiction and are thus created for entertainment. Perhaps the mystique of Nepal is what excited him as he created the storyline. After all, if we are aware that this is an imagined world, can we really make the comic accountable for telling the truth of a country? In criticizing the film, it is necessary to consider whether the role of fiction is to act as a factual representation or if it is to use reality as a base for a world that is magical and perhaps slightly exaggerated.
People who assign blame to the directors highlight that although the comic book was a product of a more ignorant time, they should have been proactive enough to initiate changes to the comic’s perspectives. In this way, the movie could honor the original tale and still represent present realities. The directors and scriptwriters did in fact make changes, although not all of them were well received. For example, in the comic, The Ancient One is a man of Asian descent. However, the directors completely changed this and instead hired Tilda Swinton, a white British woman, to fill this role. As a result, they were heavily criticized for whitewashing.
However, it does make one wonder whether the casting of an Asian actor in this role would have made the stereotypes more acceptable or more offensive. I would vote for the latter. It would reinforce that image of a knowledgeable Asian Buddhist guiding the spiritually and emotionally lost white man to redemption. Tilda Swinton’s casting minimizes that stereotype by not directly portraying Asians as a singular source of mystical and philosophical knowledge.
In addition, the likable Wong character in the film has been adapted to minimize offense. In the comic, Wong acts as a manservant rather than a defender of a library with his own skills of combat. The directors have emphasized this as a strong point in the midst of all the criticism. Wong’s re-imagination does demonstrate a correction to the white supremacy rhetoric that usually accompanies films similar to Doctor Strange. It is clear that Stephen Strange is not served by Wong, but rather that Wong has power in his own right as guardian of the library. While this is not an excuse for the stereotypes that remain, it is encouraging that the directors are thinking critically about eliminating some of the offensive notions implied by the original works.
Having your culture represented so one-dimensionally in film is definitely problematic because people who are otherwise unexposed to the culture think that they are seeing the real thing. However, it is important to remember that these movies do not attempt to represent reality but to explore human conditions of loss, hubris and redemption imaginatively. The efforts of the directors to diversify the cast and to alter offending aspects of the movie demonstrate that their intention was not to cause harm but to create a movie that would get people running to cinemas with wads of cash in their hands. In future, consultation with comic book writers from the culture being represented may be useful, as they will know how to entertain without perpetuating overdone and distasteful stereotypes.
Vongai Mlambo is a staff writer. Email her at
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