Doctor Strange in a Strange Land, or The Transnational Logics of Blockbuster Casting (part one)

Last week, my Tumblr dashboard was flooded with opinions about the casting of Benedict Cumberbatch as Marvel’s Doctor Strange in the upcoming film of the same name. While some were excited, there was also substantial backlash to the announcement that was echoed in other corners of online fandom. On my own Tumblr dash, concern centered on the casting of a white actor in a role that some had argued should instead go to a non-white actor – a rare breed within the Marvel cinematic universe. That the role ultimately went to an actor already associated with ‘whitewashing’ (Cumberbatch’s casting as Khan Noonian Singh in 2013’s Star Trek Into Darkness) seemed to add insult to injury, and resulted in – at least in my small slice of fandom – quite a few people proclaiming their disillusionment with the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

Still others reflected frustration with the conservative studio logic that seemed to fuel this casting decision. With three films – The Imitation Game, The Penguins of Madagascar, and The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies – opening in the space of one month, as well as his much-discussed engagement to theater director and actress Sophie Hunter occurring during this same period, Cumberbatch recently has been the ‘it’ man of Anglo-American media. Much of this publicity has at least touched on the subject of his female fans, and the hyperbolic rhetoric of such reporting has – as with matinee idols past – infused his public persona with a certain flighty feminization that further taints him in the eyes of comics and genre film fans. For these people, his casting appears to reflect an idea of what fans want that seems singularly ignorant of who the fans of the Marvel Cinematic Universe actually are and what they desire.

Which might be true if Doctor Strange was being targeted to a domestic US audience of Marvel comics and MCU fans.

Certainly they figure in to production decisions: we are in the age of the ‘fan demographic’, in which San Diego ComicCon is a multi-million dollar enterprise, in which fan funding gave the Veronica Mars Movie Kickstarter 200% more donations than originally requested, in which film and television merchandise garnered $51.4 billion in revenue in 2013, in which consultants are pouring out of the woodwork to instruct hapless corporations on how best to cultivate and keep brand fans. Within such a context, fans – and especially fans of not only Disney’s Marvel franchise, but of the original comic book characters on which those films are based – can be forgiven for thinking it’s all about them. But the numbers tell a somewhat different story.

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As this table illustrates, the market for Disney’s Marvel franchise has, since 2008, tipped from the United States and Canada to overseas territories. While the domestic market remains the largest individual market for these films, it’s countries outside the US and Canada that collectively are generating the greatest revenues. And among these, China has pulled into the lead.

This wasn’t always the case.

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As this table illustrates, it wasn’t until 2012’s Marvel’s The Avengers that China asserted itself as the leading overseas market for films of the Marvel franchise. Yet, China has held on to this enviable position to the present, with Disney attempting to strengthen it through a typical – and unevenly successful – range of localization strategies, including co-financing Iron Man 3 with China’s DMG Entertainment and inserting ‘local’ scenes included in Chinese prints that primarily consisted of the stuntcasting of Chinese star Fan Bing-bing, Chinese product placement, and the (unmotivated) extending of scenes featuring the character Dr. Wu – strategies that fell flat with filmgoers.

More successful, and far more attuned to fan culture in China, were Robert Downey Jr. and Tom Hiddleston’s China junkets to promote Iron Man 3 and Thor: The Dark World, respectively. It’s no exaggeration to say that there’s nothing so quintessentially mainland Chinese as the greeting of foreign VIPs with great pomp and circumstance; in the case of Robert Downey Jr., he was feted in a manner befitting Tony Stark himself:

But it’s not enough to simply make an appearance; here, it was RDJ’s active and enthusiastic participation in the festivities that made this a particularly successful event. He played up aspects of his film character, spoke a few words of Mandarin, ‘clumsily’ attempted kung fu stances, and in all, managed to both shill for the film and flatter his hosts at the same time. Tom Hiddleston’s appearance at a Beijing press conference for Thor: The Dark World was equally, if idiosyncratically, gracious.

Not only in China, but in South Korea as well – a stable, if smaller, market for the MCU – both RDJ and Hiddleston gamely appeared on local television

and, perhaps most importantly, engaged in the kinds of fan service valued throughout East Asia.

It was their good-natured willingness to go along with whatever their East Asian hosts threw at them that earned both RDJ and Hiddleston no small amount of goodwill; goodwill that translates – however intangibly – into positive word of mouth for the films they’re promoting (in much the same way that Hiddleston’s appearance at the 2013 ComicCon similarly set a new bar for fan service in the United States). The significance of their appearances in China and South Korea cannot be overstated: star power is always a powerful thing, and no less so in East Asia, which is home to robust celebrity cultures that hew to certain modes of fan-star interaction that both RDJ and Hiddleston performed to perfection.

So, too, does Benedict Cumberbatch.

Throughout his Japanese junkets for 2013’s Star Trek Into Darkness, Cumberbatch proved equally game to participate in precisely the kinds of promotional activities so valued in East Asia, ranging from a rather theatrical press conference (beginning at 16:30)

to appearances on local television programs

to genial airport fan service on the occasions of both his December 2012 and July 2013 junkets.

In this sense alone, and given his already-demonstrated acting chops, Cumberbatch seems a shrewd addition to a franchise that has its sights set firmly on East Asia and, in particular, China. But there’s one other critical thing that Cumberbatch brings to the equation: synergy.

(continued in part two)

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