Doctor Strange Wong

So far, Doctor Strange has released plenty of footage of Benedict Cumberbatch as the title character and Tilda Swinton as the Ancient One, as well as Chiwetel Ejiofor as Baron Mordo and Mads Mikkelsen as Kaecilius. But what about Wong, played by Benedict Wong? A Doctor Strange international TV spot gives another glimpse at this character.

First, here’s the Doctor Strange international TV spot that gives us our first look at Wong. It’s a short video so he doesn’t get a whole lot to do, but at least it confirms he exists.

Wong is most definitely not the “tea-making manservant” of the comics. What he is instead, according to the actor who plays him, is “more of a drill sergeant,” and a “master of sorcery” in his own right. It sounds like quite a reinvention. But director Scott Derrickson reveals Wong almost didn’t make the cut at all. The reason he’s in the film now is to help quell the outcry over the decision to cast a white woman as the Ancient One, who’s typically portrayed as an Asian man in the comics. (For more on that controversy, here’s our earlier story about it.)

So let’s talk about Wong. Or rather, let’s let Derrickson talk about Wong. Speaking to the New York Daily News, Derrickson acknowledged the whitewashing controversy and defended his decision to cast Swinton.

Diversity in movies is absolutely the responsibility of producers and directors. In this movie, we have about as diverse a cast as I think you can get, and that was a very conscious decision. Tilda was a way of adding diversity in terms of not just an ethereal, enigmatic, otherworldly actress playing an ethereal, enigmatic, otherworldly character, but we’re bringing a middle-aged woman who’s not 28 years old in leather pants into the Marvel Universe in a major role.

As Derrickson says, it’s nice to see a middle-aged woman play a prominent role in a major comic book movie. But it’s a real shame that her casting had to come at the expense of an Asian actor’s. The director went on to explain that he was conscious of that erasure, and therefore decided to include Wong to balance the scales a bit.

I was very happy with that, but I was also very conscious that in doing that I was erasing a significant potential Asian role. I was going to leave Wong out of the movie at first; he was an Asian sidekick manservant, what was I supposed to do with that? But once the decision was made to cast Tilda, we brought Wong back because, unlike the Ancient One, he could be completely subverted as a character and reworked into something that didn’t fall into any of the stereotypes of the comics.

Okay, sure, it’s nice that Doctor Strange realized it had a problematic lack of Asian characters and added a new character in an effort to try and fix it. It’s also nice that Doctor Strange realized the classic comic book portrayal of Wong as a subservient sidekick wouldn’t fly in the year 2016, and took pains to rework him in a way that would avoid ugly old stereotypes.

On the other hand, let’s not forget Doctor Strange helped create its own problem by casting a white woman in a traditionally Asian role in the first place. It’s disappointing that Derrickson couldn’t think of any way to subvert the Asian One beyond making her white, and also that it apparently never occurred to anyone involved with the production that they could just have two subversive Asian characters.

Granted, it’s too early to make any definitive statements about the Asian characters, or lack thereof, in Doctor Strange. None of us have seen the movie yet so we don’t know what kind of twists or turns Derrickson might have in store for us. For all we know, there could be an Iron Man 3-style shocker lurking inside Doctor Strange. For Derrickson’s sake and ours, let’s hope Doctor Strange has something more interesting up its sleeve than limp excuses.

Doctor Strange arrives November 4 in the U.S.

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