Bringing to life some Marvel’s comic book heroes from the 20th century becomes a bit of a problem when some of those characters are steeped in stereotypical, “oriental” exoticism. It was a no-win scenario, then, when Marvel began production on Doctor Strange, based on the mystical superhero Doctor Strange, a wealthy New York surgeon who is exiled east and learns magic from a Tibetan monk called the Ancient One.
Playing the Ancient One in Doctor Strange, however, isn’t an Asian actor, but English actress and Academy Award-winner Tilda Swinton. Some wondered if it Swinton’s casting, though admirable for gender-bending, was also an extreme case of whitewashing. Though previous statements made by Kevin Feige reveal that is not the case on a technicality, we’ve now got an official statement from Marvel about Swinton’s character.
In it, Marvel reveals that Swinton’s Ancient One is not only Celtic, but that the “Ancient One” is now a ceremonial title.
Marvel has a very strong record of diversity in its casting of films and regularly departs from stereotypes and source material to bring its MCU to life. 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. We are very proud to have the enormously talented Tilda Swinton portray this unique and complex character alongside our richly diverse cast.
Marvel isn’t wrong — it is a very diverse brand, and its Captain America: Civil War releasing on May 6 sports a robust ensemble cast with many actors of color, for a blockbuster superhero flick.
But diversity, or lack thereof in Hollywood has become a hot-button topic, and it’s especially tumultuous when the international box office — mainly China, the world’s second largest market — is factored in. China’s refusal to acknowledge Tibet’s independence means Doctor Strange, which Marvel of course wants released in China, could not cast a Tibetan nor Asian performer for the role. The whole matter was explained by the film’s screenwriter C. Robert Cargill, talking on the podcast Double Toasted:
“The thing with the Ancient One is it is Marvel’s Kobayashi Maru. There is no other character in Marvel history that is such a cultural landmine, that is absolutely unwinnable. I’ve been reading a bunch of people talking about it and the really frustrating thing about it this week is that most of the people who have thoughts on it haven’t thought it all the way through and they go, ‘Why didn’t they just do this?’ And it’s like, I could tell you why. I could tell you why every single decision that involves the Ancient One is a bad one, and just like the Kobayashi Maru, it all comes down on which way you’re willing to lose.
“The Ancient One was a racist stereotype who comes from a region of the world that is in a very weird political place. He originates from Tibet, so if you acknowledge that Tibet is a place and that he’s Tibetan, you risk alienating one billion people who think that that’s bulls—t 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.’ If we decide to go the other way and cater to China in particular and have him be in Tibet… if you think its 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 f—k you’re talking about.”
And that’s all fine, until Cargill begins to sound exactly like the Facebook-commenters peanut gallery, deriding “social justice warriors [who] would be angry either way.” Are we really at a point in film marketing where creators have become cavalier about cultural concerns?
While I now understand Marvel’s decisions and find the whole situation unfortunate and, as Cargill said “unwinnable,” it’s still Marvel’s fault for not predicting and planning for the backlash.
If the company knew people would be angry, why not be honest about it? Instead of playing smoke and mirrors like how Feige and Swinton did shortly after the trailer was released, why not be upfront? “We changed the Ancient One to a ceremonial title because of a super crazy political environment.” Boom! Done! Really, how hard would have been? It certainly would have saved us all the trouble.
Doctor Strange releases on November 4.