The problem with any retelling of the Doctor Strange origin story – and although I am more or less tired of origin stories as “first movies” in superhero cinema, I make an exception here, because Doctor Strange’s origin story is probably the last truly compelling one in comics that hasn’t been filmed yet – is that the original Doctor Strange origin is almost irreversibly Orientalist – apocryphally, Stan Lee is said to have described Doc as “what if Mandrake the Magician learned all of Fu Manchu’s secrets” at one point, and that is more or less the origin story right there and that’s kind of a problem. Doc, moreso than any other Big Two comics character, is the best example of the “white man learns ancient non-white secrets, surpasses the original practitioners” trope. Thus, I can see the argument for getting away from that by casting a non-Asian actor as the Ancient One, and Tilda Swinton is as gloriously weird an actor as exists on this planet so giving her the role makes sense in that context (and making the Ancient One female adds additional cultural weight to the student/master relationship between Ancient One and Doc that I feel is welcome).
However. In a cinematic universe where Marvel is doubling down on white male protagonists – to the point of casting the whitest possible character to play Iron Fist, a character who A) is only white because when he was created it was impossible to imagine a non-white character in his role and B) actually works much better in the “child of two worlds” aspect if you make him biracial Euro-Asian or simply Asian but raised in an American context – and has at this point a track record of reducing the impact of non-straightwhitemale characters seemingly to increase the impact of SWM protagonists (Ant-Man being the best example of this so far as it spends half the film trying to explain why Evangeline Lilly isn’t just the Wasp despite the fact that she obviously should be), any change of ethnicity in characters has to be very, very carefully done. Casting Chiwetel Ejiofor as Baron Mordo, for example, is diverse casting, but how great is it to make one of Strange’s definitive archenemies the diverse casting choice, exactly? And while Swinton is an inspired choice for the Ancient One, couldn’t Michelle Yeoh (for example) also have been as inspired?
So doing Doctor Strange’s origin story – which, I repeat, you should want to do, because it is about a bad and broken man healing and becoming a better one, unlike most superhero origin stories which are either lengthy revenge fantasies or “generally decent person gets superpowers” – is tricky, because you can either go with the traditional origin, in which case you risk criticism of being Orientalist, or you can revamp it and attempt to de-Orientalize it, in which case you risk criticism of whitewashing/yellowface. What Marvel have done here, apparently, is try to split the difference via the Swinton casting but still keeping the “trip to conspicuously un-named country that looks a lot like Tibet” aspect of the origin story, in an attempt to address both issues while still keeping the origin as traditional as possible. But the problem is that instead of avoiding both, they’ve opened themselves up to scrutiny on both counts, which is certainly sort of an own-goal in this context.
None of this, incidentally, should be taken as the implication that I won’t be going to see this on Day One because of course I’m going to go see this. Me noting that aspects of the film are potentially problematic (and I hold out hope that the script will address some of my concerns) is not the same as me refusing to go see a Doctor Strange film. It looks visually ambitious, which I both hoped for and expected, and Cumberbatch looks to be a decent Doc, which I also expected – just because he was the safe choice for the role didn’t make him a bad choice. (I do find it amusing that he’s basically doing Hugh-Laurie-as-House for the accent, if only because my personal Doctor Strange in one sentence is “if Dr. House became Dr. Who.”) I’m not sure how Mads Mikkelsen is gonna be Dormammu but, whatever, he’s a good actor, I’m happy to let them run with it and see what happens.