Iron Man 3 Mandarin

What’s the Best-Case Scenario?

The best-case scenario for both of these films is something like Iron Man 3. The Mandarin was billed as the villain of that movie, to the irritation of fans who recognized his comic book counterpart as an ugly Asian cliché. When the film actually opened, though, it turned out that the filmmakers had played on those same stereotypes to completely subvert our expectations. It felt like a step in the right direction, taking the venom out of a racist caricature. Sure, the twist was totally unfaithful to the comics — but in a positive way that demonstrated that the filmmakers were well aware of the issues with the source material, and committed to moving past them.

So I’ll allow that Ghost in the Shell and Doctor Strange could have similar tricks up their sleeves. I’ll also concede that casting Asian people in cartoonishly “Asian” roles isn’t always the best way to move past stereotypes, especially if no efforts are made to broaden the role past the same old lazy tropes. The problem of Asian representation in Hollywood is too big and complicated for a single easy one-size-fits-all solution. However, from where we’re standing right now, based on what we’ve heard and seen of these projects so far, it sure looks like Doctor Strange dealt with its Asian problem by simply getting rid of its Asians, and like Ghost in the Shell has blundered into some tone-deaf casting. It doesn’t look like progress as much as it does indifference and erasure.

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Why These Missteps Matter

All of this is especially frustrating given the scarcity of Asian stories and Asian roles in mainstream Hollywood. The vast majority of big, splashy roles go to white stars, and occasionally to either black actors deemed to have “crossover potential” (your Denzel Washingtons, your Zoe Saldanas) or to actors of ambiguous ethnicity (your Keanu Reeveses, your Oscar Isaacs). Unmistakably Asian A-list movie stars aren’t just rare in America, they’re not-existent. There is no Asian-American equivalent of Brad Pitt or Will Smith or Michael B. Jordan, and at present it doesn’t look like anyone is trying to create one. And it’s a self-perpetuating cycle. Yes, you can argue that there are no Asian actors in Hollywood on the level of Johansson or Swinton — but why not? Well, because no Asian actor in Hollywood gets cast in Johansson- or Swinton-level projects. Why not? Because there are no projects demanding Asian actors in major roles.

Except, as we’ve just seen, there sometimes are. It’s just that even they go to the Johanssons and Swintons of the world, and get packaged by mostly white screenwriters, directors, producers, and studio executives. It may be tempting dismiss Doctor Strange and Ghost in the Shell as just two questionable decisions from an industry that churns out hundreds of films a year, but even minor missteps take on outsized importance when opportunities for representation are so rare to begin with. Doctor Strange and Ghost in the Shell aren’t two random faux pas. They’re part of a larger pattern of Hollywood telling Asians and Asian-Americans that we don’t matter, even as they strip-mine our cultures and traditions for parts and throw us under the bus during conversations about “diversity.” Speaking as an Asian-American person who’s also a voracious consumer of pop culture, that freaking hurts.

Questions of identity and authority and appropriation are mind-bogglingly complex. I don’t claim to have all the answers about how to separate Doctor Strange from its Orientalist origins, or who gets to enjoy Ghost in the Shell and why, or how Hollywood should fix their Asian problem. (Though hiring more Asian stars and filmmakers seems like it’d be a really good start.) And again, it’s impossible to offer a full reckoning of the racial dynamics in Doctor Strange or Ghost in the Shell when no one has actually seen them yet. But we’re not talking about leaked footage or set photos here — we’re talking about the materials that Marvel and Paramount and DreamWorks deliberately served up for moviegoers to judge, hoping to lure in everyone they want to watch their movies. And Asians, apparently, never factored into that equation.

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