Fabric geeks and cosplay freaks should make a point of seeing “Doctor Strange” at Disney’s El Capitan Theatre. No matter how you feel about the cast of The Ancient One, El Capitan’s presentation includes a chance to see Benedict Cumberbatch’s costume up close and during opening weekend, before and after the show, you can have a photo taken with the good (or bad) doctor.
At El Capitan
Cumberbatch’s Doctor Strange costume is displayed in the usual place: after the general concession stand and in front of the entrance into the theater’s auditorium.
The movie itself is presented in 3D at El Capitan. Only adult-sized 3D glasses were provided. I asked. If you’re child-sized or bring actual children, this means holding up your glasses through the whole movie.
Before the movie, we were treated to organ music that strangely included the theme from “Phantom of the Opera,” but also “Star Wars.” I guess the theme was capes because despite what Edna Mode has said, capes are cool. Someone commented that the costume looks better in the movie, but up close you can see details that aren’t easily discerned when Cumberbatch is running around.
We came too late to go downstairs and have our photo taken with a Doctor Strange character actor, but after the credits (be sure to stay for the two teasers about things to come), we rushed down and stood in a short line. Don’t hold up the line and ask for anything but the basics–standing with your hands in some kind of magic conjuring pose. I asked if the good doctor would faux tango with me. He courteously declined. Ian asked for have his astral projection to be struck out of him. That was also politely declined with confident and in character banter. You’ll get an idea of the base upon which to build your own cosplay characterization from an official Doctor Strange character and can build from there.
An additional note: They were handing out pumpkin spice chocolate caramel samples as the Disney Store. Woo hoo!
The movie itself was mostly a delight, a sure-handed mixture of serious concerns and comic relief. (A discussion on the problematic casting of The Ancient One is discussed at the end.)
We begin in a library unlike any you’ve seen before, but obvious ancient with old leather bound tomes in a foreign script. A sorcerer Kaecilius and his followers murder the librarian, rip pages from a certain tome and escape when pursued by The Ancient One through portals and into other dimensions that seem to fold and collapse at will, in more intricate detail and fluid logic and motion than “Inception.”
The next 10 minutes or so is basic Cumberbatch arrogant genius mode or how not to act even when you’re the smartest guy in the room, even if your name is Stephen Strange and you’re a brilliant neurosurgeon and you’re flirting with your it’s-complicated fellow doctor (Rachel McAdams as Christine Palmer).
Then we have something that will surely become the coolest public safety announcement about driving while distracted. Don’t speed down a narrow road in your sports car and illegally pass other cars by crossing over to the wrong side of a two-lane road while looking at x-rays on your cellphone. That leads to a horrific unplanned trip down the mountainside. The CGI and editing clearly show that the doctor’s hands are affected.
Strange is alive but his hands are a complicated patch up of pins and stabilizing mechanisms. Even after months of rehab and various further operations, some experimental, he cannot return to his work as a surgeon. His hands tremble and defy his mental commands. Through his therapist he learns about a man named Pangborn (Benjamin Bratt), who left physical therapy a paraplegic but returned able to walk. When Strange finds him, he’s playing a pick-up game of basketball.
Pangborn tells Strange about a place called Kamar-Taj in Kathmandu, Nepal. Strange finds himself in Kathmandu but cannot find the mysterious Kamar-Taj until a stranger Mordo (Chiwetel Ejiofor) saves him from thugs trying to steal his watch. The watch, from Christine, is broken, but Mordo leads him to Kamar-Taj. After a false start, and initial rejection, Strange is taken in and taught about astral planes and mirror dimensions and sorcery. Strange shows a clear disregard for rules, playing tricks on the new librarian, Wong (Benedict Wong). Wong does tell him that each student will eventually get a relic, something that has its own magic, but it isn’t the person that chooses the relic. The relic chooses the sorcerer.
The story then falls into that old myth of the superior white man proving superior to all others.Wong, Mordo and The Ancient One are aware of the growing threat and power of Kaecilius and believe that Strange will help them battle against the dark side of magic. Strange, after a few false starts, learns sorcery quickly and better than all the others including the Asians who are mostly relegated to exotic background status. Strange takes the Eye of Agamotto and learns to bend time, but is warned by Mordo and Wong that breaking the laws of nature will have dire consequences.
Yet you know that Strange will bend time and Strange will battle another superior white guy, Kaecilius (Mads Mikkelsen). In his first encounter with Kaecilius, Strange will be saved by a cloak (Cloak of Levitation) the relic that choses him. The Doctor Strange look is complete but his universe is not.
“Doctor Strange” is a movie that calls for CGI and the computer effects are beautiful and intricate, like something out of an updated M.C. Escher fantasy. Yet the movie takes us to places beyond folding and unfolding buildings, into psychedelic realms of vibrant colors and others where the world is floating spheres and particles.
Indulging in the fantastical worlds beyond ours has left us little time for character development and substantiating motivation for Kaecilius and his brethren. Still, this is a fun movie, full of visual and spoken humor and makes an entertaining cinematic origin story.
Racism and Whitewashing
The Marvel Comic Universe might have given us “Big Hero 6,” but still isn’t quite sure what to do with Asians and Asian Americans. “Doctor Strange” was first published in 1963 which was an explosive year. George Wallace became governor of Alabama under the racist proclamation: “segregation now, segregation tomorrow, and segregation forever!” Martin Luther King, Jr., along with Ralph Abernathy and Fred Shuttlesworth, were arrested in Birmingham and King wrote his “Letter from Birmingham Jail” and delivered his “I Have a Dream” speech. President John F. Kennedy promised a Civil Rights Act and was later gunned down by an assassin in Dallas.
In 1965, it was acceptable in the United Kingdom and the United States to have Laurence Olivier star in “Othello” with blackface with my favorite Downton Abbey actress Maggie Smith as his Desdemona. Orson Welles had portrayed the famous Moor in the 1950s, also in blackface. Anthony Hopkins darkened his visage to play Othello in 1981, but in 1995, a different Laurence, Laurence Fishburne starred as Othello. In 2001, Mekhi Phifer starred as Odin in an updated version of Shakespeare’s “Othello,” called simply “O.”
In 1956, John Wayne infamously starred as Genghis Khan in “The Conqueror.” In 1961, “Breakfast at Tiffany” brought a horrific parody with Mickey Rooney as Mr. Yuniyoshi. Yet, in 2016, “Doctor Strange” replaces a role originally meant for an Asian and casts it with a white woman. Is that any better than the wildly tangled exposition of how the infamous Khan in the Star Trek reboot came to be played by the white Cumberbatch in 2013?
The director of “Doctor Strange,” Scott Derrickson made a conscious decision to change the race of Mordo from white to black. He also made the decision to change the race and ethnicity of The Ancient One or a number of major characters. Mordo or Kaecilius could have easily been changed to Asian as well. The Ancient One could have been cast as an Asian woman, perhaps one who was school in martial arts. The Ancient One could have even been an Asian man. An Asian man in Asia as a great teacher or his follower wouldn’t seem out of place. It is almost as if Hollywood movies will find any excuse not to cast Asians and Asian Americans in major roles as antagonists or protagonists.
The casting of three white people as the most powerful sorcerers (Swinton, Cumberbatch and Mikkelsen) doesn’t improve upon the balance of race in this story and adding the black Ejiofor only seems to say there has been progress and directors and casting people are aware of the black audience, but race and racism is more than black and white. On the race issue, I’d have to give this movie 1.2 stars.