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

Simply put, synergy is the combination of two or more things to create something that’s bigger than the sum of its individual parts, and Disney was thinking in synergistic directions long before the concept caught fire in American corporate circles.

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copyright 1957 Disney

Today, one powerful nexus of synergistic activity at Disney involves

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Promotions for ABC’s The Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., an Avengers spin-off that premiered in September 2013, foregrounded the participation of showrunner, writer, and Avengers director Joss Whedon, both in name and through flashes of ‘Whedonesque’ humor:

While Whedon’s involvement in the show itself is relatively limited, he was the writer and director of the pilot episode; together, its narrative (and production) ties to the Marvel Cinematic Universe combined with Whedon’s own popular fanboy-auteur persona to place #2 in the Nielsen ratings for the 8:00 pm time slot on September 24, 2013, delivering 12.12 million viewers to this

and, in a deft tie-in to this

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this.

So, what does all of this have to do with the casting of Benedict Cumberbatch as Doctor Strange? This interview with UK Prime Minister David Cameron on the occasion of his visit to Chengdu, China helps to explain (from 2:00, if you don’t want to watch the whole thing):

The video buries the lede bit here; in fact, of over 17,000 questions posed to Cameron on his then-new Weibo account, it was one asking for Cameron to help speed up the completion of Sherlock S3 that attracted the most ‘likes’. Sherlock has enjoyed considerable success in China, particularly with the streaming of the show’s third series on Internet video streaming service Youku. Released with BBC-provided Chinese subtitles on the same days of their British broadcast, the three episodes of the third season of Sherlock ultimately attracted over 67 million hits on Youku. While the show remains niche programming at best, in a country of 1.3 billion people, even a niche can bring in substantial numbers of viewers (compare 67 million hits with the roughly 9-11 million people who tuned in for each of the three episodes in the United Kingdom, not to mention the roughly 4 million viewers of each episode on the US’s PBS).

More than this, Sherlock has entered into the popular consciousness in China, which boasts a BBC Sherlock-themed Shanghai cafe called 221B Baker St.,

copyright 2014 Shanghaiist
copyright 2014 Shanghaiist

as well as a famously prolific fandom of so-called ‘rotten girls’, or Sherlock/John slashers. The Sherlock soundtrack has been adapted to Chinese instruments, both at the individual

and orchestral level,

and Cumberbatch himself has featured in a series of Dunlop tire commercials in China as well.

And it’s not just China. The show has been the subject of parodies in Norway

and the Ukraine,

a student play in Taiwan,

and now there’s news that the look of Bollywood actor Karan Mehra’s character in the upcoming film Badmaashiyaan will be based, at least partly, on Cumberbatch’s Sherlock.

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In Japan, Cumberbatch became the fuel for what’s currently being called the ‘Second British Boy Boom’ (the first occurred during the Merchant Ivory era in the late 1980s and early 1990s, featuring – among others – Sherlock‘s own Rupert Graves), the result of a concentrated effort to capitalize on heretofore untapped (and unrecognized, until Cumberbatch’s December 2012 arrival in Tokyo) niche interest in the actor by Japanese entertainment and women’s magazine editors, anxious to fill the void left by a waning Korean Wave. His ubiquity in these magazines between January – July 2013 led to his being crowned the “King of Magazines” by the general editor of the foreign film-centered movie magazine Screen during his STID junket,

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where he was photographed in the company of the editors of magazines whose covers he had graced over the course of the previous seven months.

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Notably, as his second Japan junket coincided with shooting on series 3 of Sherlock – suspended while Martin Freeman was in New Zealand doing pickups on The Hobbit – Cumberbatch sported a full head of Sherlock hair; in many ways, while ostensibly an STID junket, this tour was as much about Sherlock as about Star Trek.

So, Sherlock (and, by association, Benedict Cumberbatch) is enormously popular overseas. This raises two questions: why Sherlock, and how does this benefit the Marvel Cinematic Universe?

Why Sherlock is one of those vaguely intangible things that’s hard to really get a firm grip on, but there are two things that can be safely posited. One, Sherlock Holmes – both the character and the stories by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle – have circulated globally for over 100 years. Long before BBC Sherlock, there were translations, adaptations, pastiche, and brands that all centered on the character and the mysteries he solved. In Japan, writer Edogawa Rampo’s famous detective, Kogoro Akechi, was said to have been based in large part on the character of Sherlock Holmes; in China, according to the late Dr. George Demko, “Sherlock Holmes became especially popular and Chinese writers produced many local imitations of the Baker Street sleuth.” Second, Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss’s modernized version of Conan Doyle’s Victorian milieu exercises a uniquely transcultural hold on audiences in its mixing of both old and new. The 221B Baker St. of the show is not far removed from that of Sherlock’s Victorian predecessor

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and, as oft-proclaimed in the Japanese press, Cumberbatch himself is imbued with a certain old-world ‘gentlemanliness’ that seems to invoke for some a pleasing tension between old and new. Perhaps it’s no surprise, then, that the show and actor’s “combin[ing of] traditional values with modern sensibilities” (1), which Angel Lin and Avin Tong argue is a key node of Asian regional media flows, might make it particularly suited to transnational consumption, particularly in those places that still struggle to reconcile local (or regional) pasts with a global, cosmopolitan present.

As for the MCU, in the case of Benedict Cumberbatch, I believe we can actually hypothesize a tangible ‘Cumberbatch Effect’ that the actor synergistically brings to the franchise by comparing international revenues for Star Trek (2009) and Star Trek Into Darkness (2013):

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Parenthetically, and perhaps as a control of sorts, it’s worth noting that US fan disgruntlement with the reboot franchise was felt at the domestic box office, which dropped 12% between the two films. In contrast, the key East Asian markets of China, South Korea, and Japan all boasted substantial gains between Star Trek and Star Trek Into Darkness, with China coming in at a whopping 522% gain in box office.

The China case does need to be contextualized, insofar as the period between 2009 and 2013 saw a 285% increase in the number of movie screens in China. As Robert Cain, who writes on the Chinese film industry, explains, “There are three main factors driving this incredible growth:

  1. China is undergoing the largest and most rapid development of a middle class in human history. Hundreds of millions of people are moving up from subsistence to affluence before our eyes.
  2. Cinema construction is booming. Thousands of new screens are opening each year, affording millions of potential customers the opportunity—many of them for the first time ever—to enjoy the moviegoing experience in modern multiplexes.
  3. The Chinese population has embraced movies, both foreign and increasingly domestically made Chinese movies, with exuberance. High ticket prices and generally mediocre films haven’t deterred them from filling up theaters to capacity.

Yet, even if we adjust for this unprecedented growth in distribution outlets in China, there remains a substantial increase in revenue that seems to echo that of Japan and South Korea (where the number of film screens remained reasonably stable during the same period). These are countries in which Star Trek is a niche franchise at best, and one we can hypothesize did not see a substantial growth in of itself in the years between the releases of ST and STID.

As such, it’s Sherlock/Cumberbatch’s overseas – and Chinese/East Asian, in particular – popularity that I think is a, or possibly the, key impetus for his casting as Doctor Strange.

In the US and UK, those of us who spend time online are privy (or subjected, depending on who you talk to) to the wealth of interviews, photo ops, and news about Benedict Cumberbatch that have proliferated in the wake of Sherlock series 3 and in anticipation of The Imitation GameThe Hobbit, and The Penguins of Madagascar. Cumberbatch has become almost synonymous in the mass media with a stereotypically obsessive kind of female fandom in ways that have alienated some, while at the same time his involvement in clumsy franchise films such as Star Trek Into Darkness and two Hobbit films has had the effect of distancing him from some genre film and comics fans. Even Cumberbatch himself has recently expressed concerns over his mass media (over)exposure, telling Variety

“The more work you do, the more publicity you have to do,” he says. “That’s the only time I get worried — the idea that people might get sick of me not because of what I’m doing as an actor, but because of the proliferation of me in the media.”

Yet, such discourses, while not invisible or opaque to East Asian fans, are largely peripheral to their own fandoms. It takes effort (in terms of time, resources, and English language ability) to follow closely both Cumberbatch’s press and its ancillary fan discourses. Equally, it takes knowledge of the delicate ecosystems of Anglo-American genre, comics, and celebrity fandom in order to discern where dissatisfaction with Cumberbatch’s casting originates and flourishes. Unwillingness (or inability) to expend this effort, coupled with East Asian fans’ own, somewhat different modes of film and celebrity fandom (not to mention a very different relationship to American and British stars than within those stars’ own countries) results in East Asian fans being largely divorced from those issues of both diversity in and cynicism over American film casting that have characterized much of the critique of his casting. While there’s almost certainly awareness within these fan cultures of the ways in which his casting has been discussed since it was announced last week amongst some fans, I would hazard to guess that the vast majority of these fans – the ones in whom Disney is singularly interested – are simply looking forward to his participation in a franchise that, to date, has proven singularly entertaining.


(1) Angel Lin & Avin Tong, “Re-Imagining a Cosmopolitan ‘Asian Us’: Korean Media Flows and Imaginaries of Asian Modern Femininities,” in Chua B.H. & K. Iwabuchi, eds.,  East Asian Pop Culture: Analyzing the Korean Wave, p. 91-125, Hong Kong: University of Hong Kong Press, 2008; p. 110.

5 thoughts on “Doctor Strange in a Strange Land, or The Transnational Logics of Blockbuster Casting (part two)

  1. “anxious to fill the void left by a waning Korean Wave ”
    This is terrible misunderstanding.
    Japanese SHERLOCK fandam is unrelated to Korean Wave.
    In fact, Korean Wave is disliked very much from the first in Japan. It was advertised exaggeratedly by advertising agency.

    The popularity of SHERLOCK happened spontaneous in SNS.
    When Cumberbatch visited Japan, even media noticed that he was very popular for the first time.

    Like

    1. You misunderstand what I’m saying. I’m aware that the fandom itself was spontaneous; what I’m talking about here is how the mass media appropriated it for their own ends.

      Like

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