Last week, it was announced that Benedict Cumberbatch had been cast in the lead of Marvel Studio’s Doctor Strange. However, when the #MarvelEvent – which announced the next five years of movies for us to geek out over – hit, they confirmed the talk that Cumberbatch was not in fact a given, and the leaked information wasn’t an official announcement. It’s murky waters, because we’ve seen people who work for Marvel post the news as if it’s fact, so it’s unclear if Cumberbatch is going to certainly be Doctor Strange, or if he’s still negotiating.
Either way, the Internet did what the Internet does when such things leak. It exploded. I was surprised by a lot of the reactions, but the heat with which the pro- and anti-Cumberbatch sides fought was so very impressive, and so very Internet. As we wait for confirmation either for or against the casting of the man with the most British name in all of the land, let’s take a look at both sides of the argument.
PRO: The Gravitas
It’s undeniable that Cumberbatch brings a theatrical style of gravitas, and his screen presence is strong enough to hold up against the instantly likable cast of the Avengers. While Chris Pratt’s Starlord brought a youthful energy, Cumberbatch cuts a striking figure, casting long and dark shadows. I see the appeal here, and I also see why this aspect of his prior work has made people unsure about his casting. Marvel flicks, as intense as they get, aren’t the brooding and humorless movies that DC has been putting out, and that’s what makes them stand out as the bar for which comic book movies have been attempting to reach. However, Cumberbatch has chops, and I can see him making Doctor Strange a household name, much in the way Downey Jr. did with Iron Man.
CON: “His Face Is Stupid. I Hate His Face”
I remember the first time I saw an episode of Sherlock. When Benedict first showed up as the world’s greatest detective second greatest detective, I laughed out loud. It was a silly reaction, but I remember thinking from the awkward way he stood and strode about, paired with his… well, his face, I thought he looked very much like a male model who had wondered into a television show and didn’t know what to do now that he’d gotten there. It turns out that his demeanor was very much part of the character, but I had to take a second to remember my initial reaction to Cumberbatch – who I do believe is a fine actor – when I saw that his face was a gigantic part of the negative reaction to his casting.
I saw multiple tweets about how folks can’t stand his face, can’t stand his name, and think he’s the worst because of those two things. Some hated his acting, and some conceded that his face prevented them from making heads or tails of what he’s doing on screen. While that hasn’t been my experience, I was surprised by how widespread the reaction was. I’d thought the geekdom, nearly as a whole, were all for Cumberbatch, but this announcement showed me I was wrong for reasons that I’d never expect.
But this is a bad reason.
PRO: He’s Likeably Odd
So, yes, he’s brooding and he’s Sherlock and he’s Khan, but he’s also had some lighter moments in Sherlock. His relationship with Watson has inspired arguably more fanfic than can be read in a lifetime – but gah, a misstep of his was to publicly ridicule said fic, which lost him a few fandom points – and he has made a character than many would find intolerable to be around in person work very well on screen. His charm would work well with Doctor Strange, who, while not rude like Cumberbatch’s Sherlock, is surely on the… erm, stranger side of Marvel heroes.
CON: But Joaquin Phoenix!
What Marvel has done better than anyone so far is casting actors who vibe really well with their line-wide tone that celebrates the comic bookiness of the Marvel heroes, allowing them to be big and bright and funny, while never taking away from the weight that sits on these characters shoulders, as heroes and as people. Each lead has hilarious moments, heroic moments, and heartbreaking moments. When the rumors that Joaquin Phoenix was in the lead to become Doctor Strange began circulating, I thought he was the perfect choice to bring a darker edge to the same type of hero that Marvel has done so, so well. I pictured a flawed and troubled Doctor Strange who can smile and help the helpless, while his eyes burn with pain that he doesn’t let us see. That’s Phoenix to me, and I think he has something extra that I don’t think Cumberbatch brings, as solid of a choice as he may be. When envisioning Phoenix’s Doctor Strange, I thought of Bendis’s depiction of the character in New Avengers – a man whose personal life is constantly interrupted by his need to do good, who misses life’s connections in pursuit of the right thing.
Fandom aside, Cumberbatch has made Sherlock compelling in a way that would be very, very difficult for many actors. Sherlock’s seasons are notoriously short, but both Cumberbatch, Martin Freeman, and the writing staff have worked together to create tight stories that leave fans begging for more, even though they’re not getting much content to begin with. Cumberbatch carries the iconic role well, which speaks volumes for his talents. I suspect the less than warm reception of Star Trek into Darkness is responsible for much of the naysayers, but it’s hard to deny the talent on display in Sherlock.
CON: More of the Same
I mentioned this in an earlier piece about the excellent Guardians of the Galaxy, but the most powerful and biting of critiques is that Marvel has had five movies starring white guys names Chris before releasing a movie starring a woman or a person of color. With Captain Marvel coming out, we know that Carol Danvers will have her time, but it’s been publicly noted by many that Doctor Strange, a relatively little known property, would’ve been an excellent opportunity to break from the expected choice of a white male lead in a superhero movie. Folks argued back that Stephen Strange is a white man in the comics, but the answer to that is Sam Jackson’s brilliant portrayal of Nick Fury. I am inclined to agree that Doctor Strange would be a chance to show that Marvel’s films – which have been about people doing the right thing – are supportive of diversity.
PAT SHAND is a writer best known for his work on Robyn Hood, Charmed: Season Ten, and the pictures of his cats on Instagram.