Doctor Strange

Marvel’s decision to cast Tilda Swinton as the Ancient One in Doctor Strange was always bound to attract controversy. The character is an Asian man in the comics, so putting a white woman in the role led to complaints about whitewashing. But the Doctor Strange team is standing by its choice. Last week Swinton went on record insisting that there were “very good reasons” for the change, and now Doctor Strange screenwriter C. Robert Cargill and Marvel Studios have weighed in as well. 

Here’s how Swinton explained the change:

The script that I was presented with did not feature an Asian man for me to play, so that was never a question when I was being asked to do it. It all will be revealed when you see the film, I think. There are very great reasons for us to feel very settled and confident with the decisions that were made.

In an official statement to Mashable, Marvel defended its decision:

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.

Cargill offered a more comprehensive response during an appearance on Double Toasted (via ScreenRant):

The thing about 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. Like, 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. You know, 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 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.’ If we decide to go the other way and cater to China in particular and have him be in Tibet. […] If 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.

As Cargill points out, the decision was not up to him — it was made before he came on board — but he’s happy to back up director Scott Derrickson‘s choices. He’s not wrong that the Ancient One would have inspired grumbling no matter who won the part. It’s also worth pointing out that since no one has actually seen Doctor Strange yet, it’s impossible to say anything definitive about the way the movie navigates these tricky racial and political issues.

It is unfortunate that the Doctor Strange trailer looks full of Asian influences but no actual Asian characters (Benedict Wong is in the movie, but hasn’t appeared in any of the marketing so far). And it doesn’t help that Marvel’s track record with Asians in general is so poor to begin with — there are almost no Asian characters in the MCU, and meanwhile there’s another probable controversy brewing with Iron Fist. I’m on record as not loving the Doctor Strange trailer, but I’m also on record as being a huge Marvel fan in general. Here’s hoping the movie itself does a better job of addressing that Ancient One problem.

Doctor Strange arrives November 4.

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