Doctor Strange first appeared in the 1963 Marvel Comics anthology Strange Tales as a crippled neurosurgeon apprenticed to a wise Tibetan sorcerer, the Ancient One. After ascending to the position of Sorcerer Supreme, Strange went on to defend earth from magical attackers and, eventually, chill with the Avengers. As recently as 2011, Strange was loaning the Avengers his manservant, a Chinese man named Wong. It was kind of fucked up.
Now the action-packed, eye-popping Doctor Strange movie reboots Dr. Stephen Strange’s origin story, and Marvel is finally trying to make good on that bad. This Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) learns about Eastern mysticism from an Ancient One (Tilda Swinton) who’s now Celtic and who lives at a monastery in Kathmandu. And now, as Strange ascends to Sorcerer Supreme and sports his jaunty red cape, he butts heads with the monastery’s librarian, Wong (Benedict Wong).
Sure, it’s nice to see Wong liberated from his manservant status, but there’s something unsettling about Swinton’s Ancient One: It’s clear Marvel made the casting change not due to the Ancient One being a ridiculous stereotype of Orientalism (he was), but because removing all mention of Tibet means they can release Doctor Strange in China—tapping the lucrative Chinese box office in the process.
I was pondering these things as I went into Doctor Strange, and then—as frequently happens with any really well-made, really enjoyable movie, as Marvel’s tend to be—I kind of forgot about them. The psychedelic visuals, the clever asides, the pure pleasure of having as good an actor as Cumberbatch at the center of a silly superhero epic—all of that cast a spell on me, and I came out of the theater utterly content. Doctor Strange might have a lot of baggage, but more than anything else, it’s fun.