On Tuesday, Marvel Studios released a statement through Mashable, defending its choice to cast Tilda Swinton as the Ancient One in this November’s Doctor Strange. According to the company, in this iteration of the comic story, The Ancient One is not Asian, but Celtic.
In the statement, Marvel explained, “The Ancient One is a title that is not exclusively held by any one character, but rather a moniker passed down through time, and in this particular film the embodiment is Celtic.” It’s the latest move from the studio to curtail the talk of “whitewashing” that sprung up after Swinton’s casting announcement.
It should be noted that in the comics, the Ancient One initially encountered by Stephen Strange is Tibetan. But, as the statement from Marvel notes, the title of “Ancient One” is actually ceremonial, a fact confirmed by Swinton herself, who told the Hollywood Reporter, “[the Ancient One is] not actually an Asian character.”
Over the weekend, Doctor Strange screenwriter C Robert Cargill appeared on the Double Toasted podcast and said that real world politics conspired to make the Ancient One’s casting a no-win scenario.
According to Cargill, making the film’s version of Ancient One a Tibetan was a non-starter. “[If] you acknowledge that Tibet is a place and that he’s Tibetan, you risk alienating one billion people who think that that’s bullshit and risk the Chinese government going, ‘Hey, you know one of the biggest film-watching countries in the world? We’re not going to show your movie because you decided to get political.”
Historically, Cargill’s assertion is true. The incredibly restrictive Chinese film scene limits its foreign films to just 34 carefully chosen movies a year. Given the level of friction between China and Tibet, no foreign film that’s even remotely pro-Tibet stands a chance of admission to the increasingly lucrative Chinese film market — one that Disney has dominated of late with The Jungle Book and Zootopia.
Cargill essentially knew that the Ancient One would draw ire, no matter how the character was written, saying, “If you are telling me you think it’s a good idea to cast a Chinese actress as a Tibetan character, you are out of your damn fool mind and have no idea what the fuck you’re talking about. Oh, ‘she could be Asian!’ Asian? She should be Japanese, she should be Indian, really? The levels of cultural sensitivity around this thing is, everyone is staking out their one particular place and not realizing that every single thing here is a losing proposition.”