This is a discussion of the Doctor Strange teaser trailer only. I haven’t read the comics, nor do I think that’s necessary to deal with the trailer at hand.
I watched it this morning and maybe it’s because I’m at Peak Dissertation Brain (and fatigue), but I quickly went from cranky to livid pissed. I shot off a couple grumpy tweets to vent. And I was thrilled to see a wave of critical responses calling out the blatant whitewashing of characters marked as Asian:
— Asian Film Strike (@AsianFilmStrike) April 13, 2016
Phil Yu got right to the point: “as we’ve noted before, yes, the origins of Doctor Strange are steeped in a lot of old-school exotic, Orientalist stereotypes. Washing out the Asian-ness of The Ancient One appears to be an attempt to sidestep some of the character’s more racist undertones for a contemporary audience.”
These are important critiques, and I was glad to see engagement with these ideas throughout the day in my timeline. What stood out to me, however, was how the whitewashing and Asian-y Mysticism that suffuses the characters, costumes and set design is linked to an ableist notion of rehabilitation based on the idea that only by shedding disability can a person realize their full humanity.
Here’s what I gather from the trailer: Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) is a successful surgeon who is seriously injured in a car accident. He goes East-ish to Nondescript Asian land to presumably to find his purpose after he’s no longer able to continue in his old life. My guess is that the emphasis on Strange’s forearms and hands — first scrubbed and gloved for surgery and later trembling post-accident — suggests that arm and hand gestures will be integral to visually tracing the character’s physical (later magical) ability and progress. Whether this is caused by sustained mental, emotional, or physical impairment isn’t clear in the trailer but it likely doesn’t matter–it’s merely an obstacle to be overcome via training montage, the first part we see in the scene where The Ancient One (Tilda Swinton) strikes Strange’s chest and his spirit(?) separates from his physical body.
Here’s where the whitewashing of The Ancient One, and the problematic casting of the white Cumberbatch, becomes even more of an issue. The process and accumulation of knowledge and skill in magic/mysticism (coded Asian) drives Strange’s mental/emotional/physical rehabilitation and eventual realization of superhero status. Strange becomes a Magical Supercrip, one who ends up transcending all disability and even his pre-accident “normal” ability. That the white Ancient One confers this on a white Strange reinforces a white ableist ideal where Asian mysticism can be appropriated to reinforce white supremacy in ability by showing how these two characters surpass all others, most notably Chiwetel Ojiofor’s Baron Mordo.
Yes, the trailer is a less than two minute snapshot. I do hope that the film does a much better job with these issues of representation and appropriation, but I’m not counting on it. Swinton’s choice to make the character bald, for example, indicates that there was a serious lack of consideration of these details. As more trailers and footage are released, we’ll get a better sense of the extent of the filmmakers’ oversight but for now this first teaser is a troubled start.
update 4/24/17: deleted tweet by Brandon Matsalia upon his request.