When the news broke that Benedict Cumberbatch was beginning negotiations to play Doctor Strange, Marvel fandom exploded. But what was surprising wasn’t that Cumberbatch was picked for the part, but the way people reacted.
All over social media, Marvel fans were expressing their disgust at this casting news. For example, when we posted our article on the Daily Dot Tumblr, the vast majority of reblog comments went something like this:
“And I’m out. No more MCU stuff. What’s even the point anymore.”
“brb, throwing up in my mouth/soul”
“Well, that guarantees I won’t see the movie”
“Oh god, please no. Literally anyone but him. ANYONE.“
“I’m so depressed.”
Take a look at responses to the Cumberbatch news on Twitter, and you’ll see something similar going on.
IS IT REALLY FUCKING CUMBERBATCH okay that’s it that’s the absolute last straw i’m done i’m out
— Ko (@kokodokokoko) October 27, 2014
If Benedict Cumberbatch is Doctor Strange, I’m not going to bother watching it.
— Black Zodiac Arcon (@elegantruin) October 27, 2014
Cumberbatch as Doctor Strange? Well, I’m officially not watching it. Or any Marvel movie with him.
— Michell-o-ween M (@blkMYmorris) October 27, 2014
I’M SORRY BUT IF BENEDICT CUMBERBATCH IS DOCTOR STRANGE I’M OUT
— Gabi (@kkaebi) October 27, 2014
Isn’t Cumberbatch a fandom darling? Why does everyone suddenly hate him?
Well, to begin with, they don’t. Cumberbatch still has a huge and adoring fanbase, and his career is going incredibly well right now. He’s actually tipped for an Oscar nomination this year. Still, this Doctor Strange backlash was far more intense than the usual mini-controversy that happens when a comic book character is cast.
Considering the relative obscurity of Doctor Strange, this Cumberbacklash (sorry) seemed disproportionate. But as it turns out, there are two simple explanations for why it’s happening: Cumberbatch’s ubiquity in geek culture, and the fact that he’s a white guy.
Marvel’s race problem
If Cumberbatch signs on for Doctor Strange, he will be the sixth white male actor to headline a Marvel Studios franchise. That’s out of six franchises altogether: Iron Man, Captain America, Thor, Guardians of the Galaxy, Ant-Man, and Doctor Strange. The Avengers technically had an ensemble cast, but the main team is made up of five men and one woman, Black Widow, who has yet to get her own solo film. Marvel’s female movie characters are still only seen in supporting roles, and the studio’s track record with racial diversity is even worse. (Although this could change on Tuesday afternoon, when Marvel will hold a press conference that may include new franchise announcements.)
Man, that Avengers trailer is DARK! Oh, wait, I meant white. That trailer is super white.
— Chip Zdarsky I Guess (@zdarsky) October 23, 2014
Doctor Strange is typically assumed to be white, but some fans argue that his race is ambiguous. At any rate, there’s nothing stopping Marvel Studios casting a person of color in the role, since they can basically do whatever they want. Every single Marvel movie to date has made drastic changes when adapting characters and storylines from the comics, so why not give Doctor Strange a new ethnic background? This wouldn’t require any major changes to his backstory (Stephen Strange was originally a neurosurgeon from Nebraska), but would be a meaningful gesture to the huge number of Marvel fans who feel excluded by the franchise’s all-white lineup.
As a result of arguments like this, an increasing number of people have been hoping that a non-white actor such as Oded Fehr (The Mummy) or Pedro Pascal (Game of Thrones) would be cast. Right now the most-reblogged post on Tumblr’s Doctor Strange tag isn’t a news report, it’s a post bemoaning the death of this type of non-white fan casting. Post No. 2 is simply a photo of Oded Fehr and a reference to Adele. (“We could’ve had it all…”)
Of course, it doesn’t help that Cumberbatch is already the face of whitewashed casting, after being hired to play Khan Noonien Singh in Star Trek Into Darkness—another franchise dominated by white male characters.
When a celebrity reaches a certain level of fame, it’s inevitable that some people will start referring to them as overrated or overexposed. In the case of Cumberbatch, these accusations of overexposure are because his high-profile roles have mostly been clustered around iconic geek-culture franchises. Plus he’s an incredibly busy guy in general, splitting his time between TV, movies, theater, and radio work. He’s ubiquitous. And some people are getting sick of him.
We are approaching peak Cumberbatch. The Cumbercrash of 2016 will be devastating.
— Shame Spirograph (@TalkingStapler) October 27, 2014
Please refer to this handy chart to better understand our Peak Cumberbatch crisis pic.twitter.com/f5ZDk2tTPb
— boo medina (@Roobots) October 27, 2014
Sherlock won Cumberbatch an extremely vocal fan following, and this snowballed once he started working on bigger projects like Star Trek and The Hobbit. Since there’s a lot of overlap between Marvel fans and people who like Star Trek, Sherlock, or The Hobbit, it’s already very easy to be sick of him even if he isn’t directly a part of your fandom. Hence: Cumberbatch fatigue.
Without the influence of Tumblr and Twitter, many Marvel fans might have been happy to hear that a well-respected British actor had been cast as Doctor Strange. But since Cumberbatch fandom is seemingly everywhere, it makes a certain amount of sense to view this as an “invasion.” There’s also a certain amount of snobbery at play, because Superwholocks (Sherlock/Doctor Who/Supernatural fans) and Cumberbitches are perceived as somewhat embarrassing and obnoxious by the fan community at large.
Is anyone else utterly sick of Benedict Cumberbatch, or am I the only one? #geekfail
— Danie WareWolf (@Danacea) October 28, 2014
But while social media gives the impression that crowds of Marvel fans are waiting to jump ship as soon as Cumberbatch is confirmed, you have to remember that the majority of Marvel Studios audiences are not “fans.”
Famously, The Avengers made over a billion dollars. In the U.S., Guardians of the Galaxy was the biggest box office success of 2014. Most of those tickets are bought by people with a mild enthusiasm for superhero movies, not the kind of fanaticism that breeds serious emotional attachment to the franchise. This means they don’t feel a sense of betrayal when Marvel does something they dislike.
Cumberbatch fatigue is a phenomenon restricted to people who care deeply about fandom, Sherlock and geek-culture franchises, a demographic that makes up just a small fraction of consumers. Similarly, while discussions about diversity in popular media is now far more widespread, the average Doctor Strange customer is most likely unaware of the online controversy over casting a white man in the role.
To put it less kindly, it doesn’t matter to Marvel Studios if a few thousand devoted fans stop watching its movies. This studio has already proved it can bring mainstream audiences to anything, from Thor (a movie starring two unknown actors as alien vikings, directed by Professor Lockhart from Harry Potter), to Guardians of the Galaxy (which starred a tree and a raccoon).
Benedict Cumberbatch may alienate certain elements of the existing Marvel Studios fanbase, but he’s a recognizable Hollywood name and a well-respected actor, meaning that he has the potential to make Doctor Strange very, very profitable. Make of that what you will.
Photo via bellaphon/Wikimedia, (CC BY 2.0)