On Doctor Strange
The image of the studio system has not been so tangible since the 40s, where the mass-produced film enjoyed vertical integration between production, distribution and exhibition. The modern popular actor seems to gravitate toward this all-inhaling system, filled with novice-to-intermediate directors, make-up production lines, and overarching plans for franchises over the next decade or so. The film world seems to split in half: a deep chasm forms between the Marvel studio system and the “other”.
It is never by chance that a particular actor is chosen to enter the Marvel assembly line, which has been carefully calibrating itself since the release of 2012’s Avengers. As an exercise in worldwide-scale nihilism and disinterest, the film’s content was fully realized to mean nothing for anyone, but its aesthetic choices (location, make-up, costume) beguiled audiences all over the globe. And most importantly, the actor has become the total soul of a meaningless product. Their voice and personality bring to a stone its rigid, machine-carved face.
The Marvel studio system relies on its presentation – among other items – to sell audiences a film that will effectively incapacitate for two to three hours. If the actor is indeed paramount to this presentation, then what needs to be determined is the economic and very popular science utilized for maximal revenue. For almost a century, this has been a traditional notion for broadcast mediums: the Nielsen ratings, determined by audience input or television monitoring devices, have helped to kill unpopular entertainment products or re-invest revenues into rampant successes. Nielsen can also provide the statistics on demographics, from gender, income, age, to race.
Once important for advertisers (and still are), the Nielsen demographics have come to develop a new understanding of American entertainment: marginalized races and classes are entering the middle-class consumer market, and they should be specifically marketed to and not precluded from entertainment products for risk of losing this growing potential consumer-base. As a result, we find that Doctor Strange is filled with ideas, actors and aesthetics that carefully take into account the population subsets to whom they are attempting to sell.
What better symbolic object of European rationalism than the U.K.’s contemporary face of Sherlock Holmes and Hollywood’s latest go-to “British person”. If the Avengers did not suffice in attracting white, Anglic audiences, perhaps Marvel should dredge up a B-list comic book character that would encapsulate a great actor within the mediocrity of a superhero’s “origin story”.
But let’s not just state opinions here:
Cumberbatch’s Sherlock Holmes television series captured around 10 million(https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sherlock_(TV_series)) viewers in its 2014 return. That’s a great number; the U.S. Office series peaked in its first season at 11 million viewers and never hit above 9.7 for years afterward.(https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Office_(U.S._TV_series) This comparison highlights that U.K. audiences are partially untapped, except for the general assumption that Western audiences are inclined to watch other Western films (that globalization bubble popped decades ago).
That’s just the tip of the iceberg; in China, the YouTube-alternative site Youku found another 10 million(http://www.businessinsider.com/the-unreal-popularity-of-sherlock-in-china-2014-1) viewers of the television series. There are other reports that the 2014 season was witnessed by 69 million viewers(http://www.ibtimes.co.uk/benedict-cumberbatchs-sherlock-holmes-huge-china-despite-being-banned-1449044) in total. Due to some type of U.K. obsession or simply U.K. television enjoyment, there may be more Chinese fans of Benedict Cumberbatch than the U.S. and U.K. put together.
China is still a potential market that is gradually being saturated by Hollywood cinema. The United States continues to be the domineering portion of income for Marvel studio films, and as such Cumberbatch – despite his “Britishness” and the total lack of necessity to remove such “Britishness” – donned a questionable American accent – nowadays seemingly the global neutral English accent. The choice behind Cumberbatch and the choices around Cumberbatch are guided by the dull thump of the Nielsen hammer.
Is there any other way to further legitimize the Marvel brand than to continue inhaling great-but-still-not-globally-popular actors that may include the likes of Julianne Moore, Jason Schwartzman, or Tilda Swinton. Only the latter has dutifully signed up so far, but the Pokémon-collection game that Marvel is playing will assuredly catch ‘em all.
Might I propose the cynical but very possible reason that Swinton has taken over for the comic series’ racial-stereotype-otherwise-known-as-the-Ancient-One assteeped in half-baked feminism and avoidance of the Ancient One’s embarrassing “Chinese grandmaster” Orientalist upbringing that so easily filled Stan Lee and co’s mind in the 70s when attempting to categorize foreign populations into arbitrary images that self-replicate as Chinese actors were set into the mold through the 80s and 90s Hollywood cinema assembly line, morphed into its own self-hatred, and passed through the third-wave feminist revival of “hear me roar” and transmuted into the echoing hallways of mass media gossip, amounting to a “free” product for fans and detractors of the Marvel franchise to mull over in mundane proclivities for “side-taking”, that the Doctor Strange “Ancient One” doll sold in early February (in time for Q2 2017) was not built for a child’s hands but for the coffee table?
Swinton did exactly well in the film; but the half-nakedness of the actor’s existence in Doctor Strange comes from the more cynical approach to conversation-setting that necessitates itself in discussions on Twitter, Facebook or Reddit. Whereas Tilda Swinton could have been part of the roster for the sake of her pedigree, she is subject to the symbolism of feminism or anti-feminism, a concept that is hypocritically discussed by myself at this very moment.
For Marvel, it seems that the best way to integrate a high-pedigree actor such as Ejiofor is to put him into a reluctant sidekick imbued with a failed character arc and timid writing. Judging from the lacking demographics of the main cast, one can understand why Ejiofor is squandered in this digital cash cow (just as Jeremy Renner has been deemed the perpetual “everyday (white) man”).
Benedict Wong has existed in some of my favorite sci-fi films, but now he is the punchline of a very tired joke. The script’s non-joke of using the name Wong – combined with the “serious masculine character who unexpectedly laughs at the end” is a dance around racial stereotyping that is comprised of mundanity and the deepest of yawns.
There is a blossoming of “Oriental” aesthetics in current and future franchise films, all dedicated to the tantalization Chinese and other East Asian audiences. There is nothing “good” or “bad” about this situation, but it deserves the thought process because it is important to track how global media is leading the attempt to globalize culture. The question of why “Hollywood movies feel so generic nowadays” is that American audiences have become a subset of demographics rather than the historical superset. Statistical data provided by Nielsen-like organizations have finally caught up with the technological foot-dragging of Hollywood’s middle-management – the data has revealed to them that the data lies in the lowest common denominator. How fortunate that the title “Doctor Strange” can be so easily translated into Mandarin.