doctor strange whitewashing

Tilda Swinton is an ethereal being who has temporarily taken on our form so she can grace us with her presence and quietly exude psychic waves that hint at the true nature of the cosmos, so it’s a bit of a shame that she’s currently at the center of a very human controversy. She plays the mystical mentor to Benedict Cumberbatch’s Sorcerer Supreme in Marvel’s upcoming Doctor Strange, a character known as the Ancient One…a character who was originally depicted as an Asian man in his 1963 comic book debut. As you’d expect, the arrival of the trailer two weeks ago sparked a controversy over the whitewashing of this character and now, Swinton herself has responded to it.

Speaking with Den of Geek, Swinton promised that the film itself will explain the reasoning behind her casting, noting that the screenplay given to her never deliberately referred to the character as an Asian man:

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.

The truth is that Marvel Studios and director Scott Derrickson were faced with a damned if you do, damned if you don’t situation when it came to casting the Ancient One. The original incarnation of the character was a horrifying stereotype that leaned hard on racist tropes of another age. If they cast an Asian actor in the role, there would have been a controversy about the film playing into outdated and politically incorrect stereotypes. So instead, they went in another direction, cast a white woman (who appears to be playing the role somewhat androgynously) and now they face a completely different controversy. This character was always going to stir the pot and ignite passions across comic book movie fandom. There was no easy way out of this.

I sympathize with both sides here. The casting of Swinton feels like a careful move to avoid playing into embarrassing tropes (the production reportedly considered Ken Watanabe, Bill Nighy, and Morgan Freeman for the role as well), but it’s also completely ludicrous that there aren’t any Asian heroes in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Now that Iron Fist will be played by the whitest white guy who ever whited, this is more more clear and disappointing than ever.

And yet, I eagerly await Doctor Strange and find Tilda Swinton to fascinating casting. There is no completely right choice here, but at least we’re getting a seemingly bonkers Swinton performance out of this and that’s something.

Doctor Strange opens on November 4, 2016.

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