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The backstory and controversy behind Marvel's 'Doctor Strange'

Tilda Swinton and Benedict Cumberbatch in a scene from
Tilda Swinton and Benedict Cumberbatch in a scene from "Doctor Strange."

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"Doctor Strange" features the lesser-known Marvel magic man who was created back in 1963 by comic book legends Steve Ditko and Stan Lee.

Directed by Scott Derrickson and starring Benedict Cumberbatch, the new film is tracking to open big this weekend – by some reports upwards of $80 million. That’s a high number considering
"Doctor Strange" is not a well known superhero.

To give you a brief rundown of who exactly this goateed, cape-wearing man is, we called on Abraham Riesman. He’s an associate editor at and their resident comic book nerd. He said early fans of "Doctor Strange" weren't exactly the clean-cut type.

"Doctor Strange" really caught on among the psychonauts of the late '60s and early '70s. You know, Ken Kesey was really into his comics. Tom Wolfe wrote about that in "The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test." So he was very popular as a character among people who did do all kinds of weird substances. 

Now, Riesman says, Marvel is looking for a new audience for "Doctor Strange" — China. 

There's a huge set piece set in Hong Kong. Whenever a movie of this size has a scene that abruptly is in China for no particular reason, it's kind of a dog whistle telling you that this is something they're trying to push on the Chinese market.

Marketing toward China may have had a hand in the controversial choice of Tilda Swinton in “Doctor Strange.” The character she plays was originally Tibetan, an attribute of which the film makes no mention. At the same time, Asian-American activists and actors have spoken out about her taking over the role of an Asian character.

Tilda Swinton and Chiwetel Ejiofor in a scene from
Tilda Swinton and Chiwetel Ejiofor in a scene from "Doctor Strange."

Ellen Huang is the director of Equal Employment and Diversity at SAG-AFTRA. She finds the issues surrounding Swinton's casting to be somewhat opaque.

I think there was an intention there to do something different. They were talking about the cast being very male-geared in terms of their leads, so what can they do to have more female representation — and not just in stereotypical roles — so they though about doing this. Unfortunately, they stepped into the history of what has happened with Asian characters on screen. 

There's no easy solution to problems of diversity. But Huang hopes that when directors or screenwriters sit down to write, they "think about characters that aren't necessarily written in a particular way with a particular agenda, disability or ability. And think about casting in a more open fashion."


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