The Diversity of Doctor Strange

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***Warning: post contains spoilers for Marvel’s Doctor Strange***

Diversity has been a challenge for the film industry at large and Marvel Studios is no exception. With source material that often includes outdated stereotypes and sexist ideals, modernizing classic characters and storylines can be difficult. It’s a delicate balance between honoring the original work and reflecting what matters to today’s audience. While not perfect, Doctor Strange was another step closer to achieving that balance.

It was not without controversy though. When the casting news hit that Tilda Swinton, a white woman, would be playing the Ancient One, many cried foul and with good reason. Hollywood has long been guilty of “whitewashing” and it’s still a huge issue; just look at films like Aloha and the upcoming Ghost in the Shell. However, filmmakers have said that in this case, it was done specifically to avoid Asian stereotypes that exist in the comics. To bridge the gap between the comics and the movie, it was eluded to that while Swinton’s character is an Ancient One, she wasn’t necessarily THE Ancient One; she’s one of many. This particular Ancient One is of Celtic origin but she is not the first, nor will she be the last. She’s kind of like Marvel’s very own Timelord but with a sling ring instead of a TARDIS. I must admit, it was particularly satisfying to watch a tiny, mystical, bald woman break down an arrogant egomaniac like Dr. Stephen Strange. “It’s not all about you”.

Tilda Swinton as The Ancient One
Tilda Swinton as The Ancient One

Kamar-Taj, where the broken find purpose through the Mystic Arts, contains students from all walks of life; young and old, men and women, and many different races and ethnicities. It doesn’t matter what you’ve done in the past. The Mystic Arts are open to all as long as you surrender yourself to them.

But diversity wasn’t just in the background. Dr. Strange would have been lost if not for Master Mordo (Chiwetel Ejioforand Master Wong (Benedict Wong), two supporting characters who were pretty critical to his success. Mordo convinces the Ancient One to take in the troublesome Strange, even though she worries he will turn to the darkness like her last arrogant apprentice. It’s also Mordo who helps train Strange and teaches him about important things like relics. Master Wong, keeper of a library of ancient texts, not only assists with recommended reading material but keeps Dr. Strange from, you know, ripping a hole in the space-time continuum and running around New York City with a freaking INFINITY STONE around his neck! Honestly, would Strange have figured out how to stop Dormammu, ruler of the Dark Dimension, had it not been for Mordo and Wong? It’s also worth noting that the characters of Mordo and Wong differ from their comic book versions. Mordo was originally a white man in the comics and Wong was Strange’s servant.

Chiwetel Ejiofor as Mordo. Photo Credit: Jay Maidment
Chiwetel Ejiofor as Mordo. Photo Credit: Jay Maidment

Another high point for me was Dr. Christine Palmer, played by Rachel McAdams. Dr. Palmer, an ER doctor, has a complicated relationship with Dr. Strange; one that’s probably one of the most realistic portrayals of how relationships are today. We know they have history but the film chooses to leave the past in the past. What I really liked about Dr. Palmer was that she didn’t have time for Stephen’s BS. She was never in awe of his greatness but rather, slightly annoyed by it. Even though they were no longer together, she obviously still loved him, which was evident as she stayed by his side after his life-altering car accident (PSA: Don’t text and drive kids!). But when he very cruelly lashes out at her, she walks away. No big, dramatic goodbye speech, just a few tears, as she throws his keys on the table and walks out. Sometime later, in the midst of his Mystic Arts training,  Strange tries to email her but she doesn’t respond. I can appreciate someone who knows when a closed door should remain shut.

Rachel McAdams as Dr. Christine Palmer

However, Christine and Stephen meet again under strange circumstances. In a battle with a former student of the Ancient One turned zealot Kaecilius (played by a very glam-rock looking Mads Mikkelsen), Dr. Strange receives a life-threatening wound and opens a portal to his former place of employment to find Dr. Palmer. While under the knife, he astrally projects to guide her through his own surgery…because of course he does. He’s still so arrogant, even while dying! It takes her a few moments to process what’s going on, but like a good ER doctor who is used to the chaos, she keeps her focus on saving Stephen’s life. Even as he leaves through a portal he opened in the supply closet, she seems to take it all with deep breath and a grain of salt, only losing it when she’s surprised by a falling mop.

Dr. Palmer is never made into a damsel in distress. When one of Kaecilius’ followers comes after Strange, it’s on the astral plane, leaving Dr. Palmer to continue being a doctor and not a trope. She’s never used as leverage against Strange by Kaecilius. Strange never has to save her; in fact, she seems to be doing just fine without him. Even when she says goodbye, she kisses him on the cheek before he returns to the Sanctum Sanctorum. I loved the complexity of that; showing how much you can care but still knowing when to let go.

While this film is not without it’s problems — Wong never getting to do much beyond providing exposition, for example — but it’s a step in the right direction in terms of inclusion on screen. I’m eager to see what happens next for diversity in the MCU.

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