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Marvel has announced it cast Benedict Cumberbatch to play Dr. Strange in an upcoming movie. I don’t have a problem with it – I would have preferred Clive Owen, but he’s probably past his sell-by date to carry a blockbuster – and Cumberbatch certainly can do arrogant, which is a big part of Strange’s character.

A lot of other people do seem to have a problem with it, at least judging from the comment sections on various fan sites. There are quibbles about Cumberbatch’s acting style and general ubiquity, but the strongest objections are to his being yet another white guy playing the lead in a super hero movie. Here’s a typical comment on the Marvel website:

Ah, yes, because Marvel needed MORE franchises headed by white males.

Another:

wanna see the number of lineups for diversity in the superhero roster in MCU movies? White Men: 9 (Cap, Iron Man, Hulk, Hawkeye, Thor, Peter Quill, Drax (kinda he’s half Filipino), ant-man, now DOCTOR STRANGE) White Women: 2 (Black widow, Captain Marvel) Men of color: 2 Black panther, ??Falcon?? (he IS a superhero in comics but in MCU he hasnt had his own movie OR been inducted into an official superhero group yet) Women of color: 1 (Gamora) Misc: 2 (Groot, Rocket Raccoon) so with the addition of cumberface, 9 male white superhero leads, 2 white women superheroes, 2 black male superheroes, 1 green female superhero (played by a black actress), and 1 animal and 2 tree

(The above isn’t actually accurate, as it omits Nick Fury)

This is fraught territory, and sucks in race, politics, identity, and the history of both comic books and movies. The flap over casting Cumberbatch for Strange adds a new wrinkle in the debate over the  races of actors. It’s not new – I remember controversy over casting the white Jonathan Pryce as a Eurasian pimp in Miss Saigon – but it’s picked up steam in the age of the superhero flick as black actors were cast as white characters (or characters believed to be white). Samuel L. Jackson as Nick Fury, Idris Elba as Heimdall (a Norse God in Thor) and even Amandla Stenberg as Rue in the Hunger Games all provoked storms of mini-outrage. This, however, is the first example I can think of where people are upset by a black actor NOT being cast for a white character.

For those who live outside the nerd bubble, Stephen Strange was an asshole surgeon who lost the use of his hands in a car wreck. Desperate to find a cure, he seeks out the Ancient One, a Tibetan mystic, who teaches him the art of magic, and Strange becomes the Sorcerer Supreme, Earth’s preeminent wizard.

Dr. Strange first appeared in 1963, in a backup story in Strange Tales No. 110, and was created by Stan Lee, who had a hand in almost every Marvel character, and the great artist Steve Ditko, more famous for his work on Spider-Man. Dr. Strange stories were trippy excursions into alternate dimensions and universes, involving ancient artifacts like the Wand of Wattoomb, and epic battles with the Dread Dormammu and Baron Mordo.   STRANGE

Like virtually every character from that era, Strange was white. At least he was drawn as a white man, and while I’m not aware of any explicit discussion of his whiteness, Marvel was not subtle when it came to depicting minorities. If he was intended to be anything other than white, we would have known.

But does he need to be white in the movie? Actually, no. Unlike a number of characters whose racial identity is important to our understanding of them – ie., they come from Africa, they are part of a family of super heroes, they are masters of Kung Fu – Dr. Strange’s ethnicity isn’t tied down. He’s not really from anyplace in particular, and he has few connections to the rest of the world.  It’s not hard to picture a rich black surgeon with the same issues as Stephen Strange (Eriq La Salle played one for years). Casting a non-white actor would change our perception of him, but not the character.

So should Marvel have cast an actor of color? That’s the trickier question. Marvel and DC have gotten better about creating minority characters but there’s no denying that during the Golden and Silver Ages (roughly, from 1938 to 1970) the most prominent superheroes and villains were white, and they remain the tent pole characters for those companies. They didn’t accurately represent America or the world then, and they don’t now. While undoing the 50 or 70 year history of characters in the comics to correct the imbalance is problematic at best (and offensive at worst), one could argue casting the movies offers a chance for a fresh start.

That argument makes more sense if you approach these characters as primarily a movie goer, with little familiarity of the characters. Dr. Strange is, at best, a second tier hero – he didn’t have his own title for years at a time – and it’s a fair bet the general public has no idea who he is. For them, a black Dr. Strange wouldn’t be as challenging as, say, a black Batman. For Dr. Strange fans, though, undoing a key part of the character’s visual identity would be a lot harder to accept. They’ve followed him faithfully since 1963. Now, when he’s finally getting a movie, they’re told a big part of his appearance is being changed to accommodate a movie-going public that has no investment in the character.

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We will be faced with an extreme version of this problem with the casting of the black Michael J. Jordan as Johnny Storm, the Human Torch, in next year’s Fantastic Four. Unlike Strange, the Human Torch doesn’t exist in isolation. The Fantastic Four is a family. His sister is Susan Storm, the Invisible Woman. Tinkering with their races opens up issues so fundamental to the team that it risks invalidating the whole project (Marvel has experience with this: in the 1978 cartoon, it replaced Johnny with H.E.R.B.I.E the Robot) .

To avoid an all-white cinematic super hero universe, it makes sense to cast actors of colors in roles where the characters are less established, and their racial identity is not critical.  More importantly, Marvel and Warner Brothers (owner of DC) should identify their existing black characters and develop them into the anchors of potential movies. To an extent, that’s happening, with Black Panther and Cyborg movies planned.

The easiest solution, of course, is to ignore race altogether. The comics have dozens of red androids, green aliens and blue-furred mutants eager for their star turn. Let the debate over casting Red Tornado begin.

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