Reviewing the Reviews of Marvel’s Doctor Strange

Six months and change after the release of its first trailer — and therefore about the same amount of time since co-writer C. Robert Cargill’s infamous “[t]he social justice warriors were going to get mad at us for something this week” rebuttal to Asian American critics of the film’s whitewashing — the initial reviews are in for Doctor Strange, and they’re not encouraging.

Oh, the movie? Actually, the critics seem to like it just fine. Being The Nerds of Color, however, we’re interested in looking at a different metric. Doctor Strange’s whitewashing of primary character The Ancient One was, after all, one of the driving forces behind the hashtag and rallying cry #whitewashedOUT in May.

So no, this isn’t a review of Doctor Strange the film, but a review of the reviews of the film, using a simple standard: how accurately and humanely did each review portray Asian American dissent over the whitewashing of The Ancient One?

IGN: Doctor Strange Review

“Controversies around changing the Ancient One from the comics aside, Swinton’s ethereal, unique presence feels right at home here, playing this serene yet oh-so powerful character.”

“Changing The Ancient One from the comics?” I believe the word you’re looking for is whitewashing. Must be nice to be able to put it aside.

Grade: F

IndieWire: ‘Doctor Strange’ Review: Marvel’s Mind-Bending New Superhero Movie Is Their Best Since ‘The Avengers’

“Worst of all, ‘Doctor Strange’ more dramatically underlines Marvel’s gender bias than any previous film, if only because there’s a striking contrast between the trite dude superhero and the mesmerizing lady guru who passes her power onto him.”

Critic David Ehrlich proves that he is capable of tackling cultural commentary — and feels it appropriate — but his commentary is limited to gender bias, erasing Asian Americans from the issue altogether. Imagine my surprise.

Grade: F-

Polygon: Doctor Strange review: The wizarding world of Marvel movies

“People seek out the magic of the Mystic Arts when they’re at their lowest low, searching for physical and emotional healing after all other hope has been lost. Strange, of course, only seeks answers from the East after he has exhausted everything that Western medicine has to offer. (There are no atheists in foxholes, eh?)”

Seems like a long way to go just to dismiss Eastern culture as inferior.

“Though Wong doesn’t have much to do in this film, his character is still a step up from the ethnically insulting ‘tea-serving manservant’ he is in the comics…”

I’m ethnically insulted that you care enough about my ethnic feelings to say this about Wong while failing to acknowledge, even once, the ethnic whitewashing of The Ancient One.

Grade: ethnically, F

Variety: Film Review: ‘Doctor Strange’

“…much has already been written about the casting of the white-skinned Swinton in a role originally conceived as an old Asian man (as if the world needs yet another Mister Miyagi/Pai Mei stereotype), when the only real disappointment there is that the practically extraterrestrial star wasn’t asked to play the title role…”

Little-known fact: federal law requires that every part written for an Asian person be offensively stereotypical. Nice of critic Debruge to call out the bullet we narrowly dodged. Extra points for drawing our attention to “the only real disappointment,” which we’ve been too thick to grasp.

Grade: Wax on outta here with this

USA Today: Review: ‘Doctor Strange’ casts marvelous mojo

“…Swinton adds sass, emotional depth and a little frailty to the wise-warrior archetype. Her performance will put to rest any remaining concerns about the character not being the Asian man of the comics.”

I get this, having been raised with another example of a great performance atoning for racial bias: Point Break featured a Gary Busey role so good that my grandmother was finally able to forgive the United States for interning over 100,000 Japanese American citizens in camps.

Grade: 100% pure poop

The Hollywood Reporter: ‘Doctor Strange’: Film Review

“Looking like some kind of exquisite alien rather than a leftover Hare Krishna, [Swinton], too, has trippy phrases at her disposal…”

Via math, every Asian’s native language: Looking like a non-human alien > looking like a religious brown person.

“Politically correct casting alarmists may stamp their feet about a white woman being cast as the supreme custodian of knowledge at a Himalayan retreat, which is, in fact, a thoroughly interracial establishment. But this is obviously nothing like Sam Jaffe playing the High Lama in 1937’s Lost Horizon…”

Erasure via mislabeling, name-calling, infantilization, “you’ve already got enough diversity,” and “it’s not as bad as this other thing.” Just because I’m a literal toddler with a subscription to Politically Correct Casting Alarmist Monthly doesn’t mean that I deserve to be condescended to, sir.

Grade: Two stamps of my tiny feet

ScreenCrush: ‘Doctor Strange’ Review: Marvel’s Familiar Formula With Some Really Cool Visuals

“In practice, [Swinton] delivers a very strong performance… On the other hand, it is a little disconcerting that a movie set almost entirely in Nepal, with characters dressed in Asian-inflected costumes, features so few Asian actors.”

Critic Singer nearly makes a point good enough for me to forgive this quote’s appearance in the footnotes section, rather than in the main body of the review. While the passive lack of Asian performers in the cast is certainly a problem, here Singer addresses the issue without confronting the active replacement of an Asian person with a white woman.

Grade: C+

The Daily Beast: The Mind-Bending ‘Doctor Strange’ Is Marvel’s Trippiest Movie Yet

“…Doctor Strange, the latest comic book movie that ensures that the entitled white heroes of the Earth and beyond will keep inheriting the Marvel Cinematic Universe.”

“…[Doctor Strange] is yet another white male Chosen One destined to excel within an exotic culture not his own, an issue the film doesn’t bother trying to address. (It doesn’t sit quite as glaringly tone deaf, at least, as Marvel’s upcoming small-screen series Iron Fist whose white male protagonist inherits the MCU’s only other Asian-influenced mantle.)”

“Anyone looking for an answer to Doctor Strange’s streak of Orientalism won’t walk away satisfied…”

“Swinton is effortlessly excellent in her role — one that was gender-flipped, in a progressive move for strong female representation in the genre, at least…”

It’s almost as if allowing an Asian American, Jen Yamato, to review a film called out by Asian Americans, can result in a nuanced, complete piece that separates the art from the politics but aptly and handily addresses both.

Consider this a standing offer to buy Jen a drink; I’ll need all the alcohol I can get my hands on to make it through the next few weeks of passive-aggressive white critics telling me how to handle my Asian feelings.

Grade: A… ZN

31 thoughts on “Reviewing the Reviews of Marvel’s Doctor Strange

  1. Check out “Dr Strange: Beginnings and Endings” for an example of the Ancient One who’s non-stereotypical and still Asian.

    1. Ditto. Actually I’ve read a lot of reviews (by White people) that completely gloss over the whitewashing, or ignore it entirely.

  2. This has to stop right here and right now. As a fellow Asian-American, the first generation of my family to be born here, graduate here, have a career here, start a family here, and bury my grandparents here, I am ashamed to be reading of such nonsense “white washed agenda” articles.

    I’ve been a comic fan since I was a child and to finally see these characters come to the big screen has brought me immense joy, but the issue of white washing characters and whatnot is no big issue…at all. I’m serious. The Ancient One is asian in the comics, but he follows the stereotypical trope of “asian masters” that is embarassing and played out. Yet you people complain of this character not being played by an asian actor? Are you so bent on making sure us asians are more portrayed in the media that you would forego a stereotypical character be played by an asian, further solidifying how we can only play “old chinese masters” in American media? Isn’t that contrary to the agenda you people write about? If i want an asian out there in the media, I want him to play a different trope then what we’ve been playing for years! We’re you in an uproar when Yinsen was changed to a middle-eastern man in Iron Man 1? Or how a white guy played the Mandarin in Iron Man 3? I’m glad you support stereotyping asians, because all these characters are based off of old, outdated tropes that were fine in the 60s and 70s (because it was all child’s play anyways), but are just insulting nowadays.

    The Ancient One’s character development, philosophy, and role in Doctor Strange’s life DOES NOT depend on whether they are asian or not. Though I have not seen the movie yet, I’m pretty sure the Ancient One will still serve the role of teaching Strange the ways of the mystical arts, but will be performed excellently by an excellent actress such as Tilda Swinton. Did the Ancient One in the comics brag about being asian? Did he hold so tight to his asian identity as a Master of the Mystical Arts that the very core essence of his character, powers, and role in the MCU relies on him being asian? Spare me, the character is still the character in all essence and liberties have to be taken into consideration when creating a live action adaptation. I’m totally okay with that as long as the character works in the movies and respects the source material. And when I say source material, I mean essence of the character. By all means, Batman can be made black and I could care less as long as the movie is good.

    And that’s the thing, you’re reviewing whether or not a movie critic agrees or at least adresses the asian issue with what you believe in, but the point of a movie critic isn’t to make calls like that. Though they very well can, they are to see if the movie works coherently: doest the story work? effects? character motiviations? acting? dialogue? etc…The point is, why care when the goal is to make a good movie that will bring these characters to life and make the movie studio millions of dollars? Everyone wins, so why care and try to push this agenda of keeping typically asian characters asian, when other asians like me, my family, my wife, my parents, my coworkers, my comic shop buddies, my friends, and every other normal person does not give a rats ass if the Ancient One is Asian.

    Stop making non-issues and proliferating this “white hollywood agend,” it’s there, sure, but I dont care and dont’ need to care as an Asian American that it exists. My asian identity is found in my family and our traditions, not the need to look up to heroic asians in fictional media. Is it cool, yeah? but a hero can be any body, regardless of race, gender, ethnicity, or culture…a hero is a hero as long as at the end of the day they are willing to do good and be good for the betterment of humanity. I know we’re both entitled to our opinions, but when it comes down to it, does it really matter?

    1. so you are saying those characters as they were portrayed in the films couldnt have been played by an asian actor?
      why is it a stereotype/bad when an asian man is a villain/scientist/teacher but not when its a white man? unlike most you im not a marvel film whore, so i watch these films after the fact and yeah it was BOGUS that they keep replacing our asian brothers and sisters. and its so cool you only read comics in 1960 but if you read beyond that mandarin for example is shown as a business man, hair and mustache cut to fit a “modern” look (not that there is anything wrong with an asian man with long hair, ive been with plenty). there is also this place called hong kong that has a movie industry full of what you so negatively call “stereotypes”. you eggs with your whitexplaining. yall need to follow your white masters to a faraway island. DUST!

    2. I think you’ve missed the point of the uproar entirely if you’re leading with “but the canon depiction is stereotypical and that’s bad” argument. I’m saying this respectfully, as an AsAm myself, because I’ve legit got those concerns as well, but that’s not really what’s happening here. In fact, you completely gloss over Shaun’s point in the text that indicates the real crux here: there’s a false dichotomy being created – that it’s EITHER the stereotypical role OR a non-Asian taking that spot as the only possible solutions. We know that’s not true because whole characters can be fleshed out that don’t pander/toy with Orientalism and instead be fully developed people. That’s what the “agenda” you are decrying is about: humane representation in media for POC broadly and AsAms specifically. It starts with not being whitewashed but if the response is, “but I don’t want to be offensive” my response is now “then, don’t.” Write a good character, FFS.

      1. This reaction is…Warranted at best, but not necessarily a GOOD reaction. I’m not Asian American by any capacity, but being Black, I do 100% understand what it’s like having a negative stereotype trotted in front of you like some show pony and you’re expected to be okay with it because it’s “based on real experiences.” The problem isn’t so much “Why do you want to pigeonhole our actors into those stereotypical roles?” but more so “You’re telling me you couldn’t get this role to be done by someone of the same original ethnicity?” or even still “It doesn’t HAVE to be as stereotypical as the original iteration.”

        There have been plenty of black characters written that have had their dialogues littered with AAVE, just because it felt “normal” at the time, while being, unknowingly, a bit racist. To write a Black character in our current society whose speech is reminiscent of the old shuck and jive days in the mid 60’s and 70’s, or the late 80’s early 90’s days of things being “wack” or my favorite additions to words, -iggity, -izzle, and -izzy, would immediately scream foul play. As a writer, unless that specific stereotype is 100% crucial to that character’s development or story, it doesn’t have to be kept the same, or at least not to the original degree it once was.

        Now with that having been said, to change those negative qualities about the character, why should that have been okay, all the while, changing the character to no longer be East Asian? You’ve eliminated the negative stereotypes from the character, but you’ve also eliminated their identity, thereby saying that their heritage as East Asian was either just as bad as the stereotype, or that the character wouldn’t be believable without it if they were still East Asian.

        Here’s another superhero example for the Marvel Universe here. Luke Cage. The original concept for the story came from the era of Blaxploitation films. While widely accepted and embraced by the Black community at large, it was a bad time for Black actors, because it was the only way we could get movie roles, and all of the roles were the same. Gonna stick it to the man, gonna take out these big time drug dealers that are ruining my neighborhood, but guess what they’re all white. Uplifting for us back then, sure, but it also meant that they HAD to be low budget and shoddy because no studio in their right mind at the time was looking to publish a film about white people being evil. Luke Cage, even back then, was a gamble. But look at the evolution behind Luke Cage then and now. He went from bell bottoms, plunging necklines, gold chains and a ghetto blaster afro, to being some guy in jeans and a t-shirt, maybe a hoodie if it’s kinda chilly. But that’s FINE. Because he’s just a regular guy. He doesn’t need the stereotypical depiction to prove his heritage. You can tell just looking at him that he is a black man, so why all the crazy accouterments that were indicative of Black culture? But let’s take that a little further here and say all of those things are fine, but instead of getting a Black man to play Luke Cage, we get a White person? I’m fine with the genderbend, that’s cool to me honestly, but erasing ethnicity and blaming it on “we didn’t want it to come off as stereotypical” is a cop out.

    3. Yes, it does matter. Representation matters. Appropriating cultures and placing white faces and bodies matter on Asian culture matters. It perpetuates white folks humanity, dominance and othering PoC. It makes Asian folks, PoC secondary, peripheral. It results in Asian Americans not having a vital voice in telling their stories. American stories. Diverse stories. I get it, you don’t want to be disruptive/combative to the white centric world of story telling. You probably fear confrontation.

      LOL to the Batman could be Black comment and you’d still watch. My arse.

      You should have just began this missive w/AllHeroesMatter which inevitably means white.


  3. Forbes did a decent job of recognizing it, but they should have more explicitly condemned it. “Tilda Swinton has moments of nuance and levity, but there is no reason this role couldn’t have been played by a more ethnically appropriate actor/actress without making it an ethnic stereotype.”

  4. “Swinton adds sass, emotional depth and a little frailty to the wise-warrior archetype.” Okay, I know not everyone enjoyed the Smith version of The Karate Kid, but Jackie Chan did an EXCELLENT job of adding sass, emotional depth and frailty to just that. I’m sure there’s plenty other examples, but that was the first one that popped into my head. I’d say also Melinda May in Shield (as problematic as that show is when it comes to POC) does a great job of being a wise warrior and having tons of depth, and hey, being a woman too!

  5. oooh! i need a fan for all this shade! LOVE IT! lol this is the closet i’ve come to reading any reviews for dr. whitewash and it was so funny and accurate. TWO THUMBS UP!

  6. Sorry for block of text: Loved this compilation, tho sad that critics cared as little about it as the director. I heard and read some (from Variety, I think) of the Director on his process of first gender swapping The Ancient One, then after numerous failed writing attempts for an Asian female, made the hard choice of struggling on and choosing Tilda Swinton for the role.(sarcasm there). But seriously, The creative process needs its own review. The director was a fan of the original comics, and yet didn’t have enough knowledge contemporary Asian actresses and roles to be able to write what should have been fairly easy role for an Asian actress. (for anyone who has followed martial arts superstars and movies from the 90s onward that deal with mysticism, martial arts, tai chi, and mentors and teachers). The director himself is not one of those people, otherwise he wouldn’t have had the writing troubles he had, and wouldn’t have thought “Tilda Swinton is the ideal I’m looking for). Because the qualities Tilda Swinton has are qualities found in many Asian actresses.

    So the logical conclusion is the director has no knowledge of Asian films and culture, couldn’t write it, and so cast Tilda Swinton instead of researching it more, consulting with people who knew more about the subject. And Marvel Studio gave him the greenlight that instead of telling him “No, research it more, or we’ll hire consultants to help you to give you better knowledge to represent authentic Asian people and characters in your movie so you get it right.” So to me it was a lack of creativity and lack of commitment to and valuing of diversity failure by the entire Marvel Studio executives. They lacked the knowledge, creativity, and perserverance to create an Asian Ancient One that would have worked great. Instead Tilda Swinton popped into the directors head and they went with her. And the Studio executives OK’ed it. This part of the “history” of the production of the movie is worth exploring by critics and reviewers such as this website.

    Even imagine the amount of white people who are fans of Asian culture, philosophy, and even the ones who only like martial arts and action movies(but also maybe historical dramas, contemporary examples in many genres, including horror) but then also like the philosophy of the martial arts. Obviously, none of those white people work at Marvel Studios in any position that has power over the content of Marvel Studio films. You see this repeating loop of my argument where there are people with the knowledge(and love of) decades of movies, pop culture, ancient culture, and cross-cultural productions, and then you read about how Marvel couldn’t create a cross-cultural film and you realize how deep that failure goes, when it is almost practically a mainstream kind of phenomenon now in the year 2016 and has been so for more than a decade, and it shows just how behind the times the entire studio must be. (And the same must be said of the above reviewers who make no mention of any of these points or argue that Marvel could have tried just a little bit and create movie with an Asian actress playing The Ancient One.)

    Its not just whitewashing this one movie, but erasing the entire history of Asian actresses in Asian films (1960s-present) and Asian actresses in western films(2000s-present). 16 years of examples just in western movies (and TV) alone. (not even mentioning the sheer number of Asian movies that have strong female leads and examples of ensemble characters). That entire history was ignored by Marvel Studios who opted to go with Tilda Swinton instead of doing their homework (since they had nobody in any position of creative control who said “wait, Asian women have had countless good roles in western movies, we can follow these previous examples.” This to me answers the question of the numerous reasons for “WHY” whitewashing happens.

  7. I love this article. Do people really think that “alien-looking” (wtf) is an excuse to put a white person in a non-white role? Is that the best they can come up with? lol

  8. Looks like they wanted Tilda Swinton’s androgynous “otherness” to help sell the movie. To me: it’s just another tired and glaring example of white-washing and it’s a real turn off.

    1. RDJ said sometime ago that eventually superhero movies will decline in popularity and I tend to agree with him our pop culture should change with the times. I find people are liking more and more apocalyptic genre. You have the Walking Dead, an FX show by Guillermo Del Toro about vampires taking over the world and humanity reduced to cattle.

      As for the whole whitewashing of it, my thoughts on that is we have lost our passion for everything look at some of the stuff we’re making nowadays, once upon a time we used to take great passion in our work. A good, well written character is hard to come by these days writers tend to overcompensate. Hollywood is placing too much emphasize on these remakes of classic movies apparently no one has any new ideas? The old ways do not work anymore, we need new ideas.

      And in my view, these so called ”progressives” like to be ”diverse” without actually being so they try to hard. They throw something together like with Tilda Swinton and call that ”diversity” Not disrespecting Tilda Swinton or anything I’ve seen some of her work she’s a good actress but they didn’t bother to look at any Asian actresses? There’s a ton of them in Asia alone.

  9. With Ghost In the Shell, the outcry was understandable but with this, I don’t get. The character of the Ancient One is a joke and wanting someone Asian to play that part would not have advanced AA portrayals in film. The larger issue at hand is that American culture is dominated by whites and therefore the business execs will want to cater to them because white celebs draw more. White people promoting “diversity” is nothing more than lip service and pandering. It’s all about the money, people. Don’t know what the solution is.

  10. TBH, I’d only give the last one an A-. It does well, but actively whitewashing a character is in fact worse than Iron Fist which is just (boringly) maintaining the status quo of its main character and casting at least one Asian in a supporting role that was originally white. I don’t think we should give Netflix a pass on this (at all, coughDaredevilcough), but it’s tiring to see Dr Strange which seems to be boring, unoriginal, and actively making things worse to be ‘[not] as glaringly tone deaf’ as Iron Fist which no one has actually seen.
    Though I don’t really hope it’s not going to be another pile of evil Asian crime bosses either. But that’s something that Netflix has actually done. And I am seriously pissed about that.

  11. I was preparing myself to write a review on this film but I think you just summed up my point to a tee. Very simple yet very effectively expressed. Thanks for sharing! If you’re interested in reading some film reviews, I would really appreciate it if you could take a few minutes to check out my reviews! Thanks

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