Ancient One mistake

When actress Tilda Swinton was cast as The Ancient One for 2016’s Doctor Strange, lots of people raised their eyebrows. In the pages of Marvel Comics, that character was drawn as Asian – but that depiction also leaned hard into horrifically racist stereotypes, so Marvel Studios and Doctor Strange director Scott Derrickson decided to go in an entirely different direction and cast a white woman to play the role instead.

In advance of the company’s first Asian-led superhero film, Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings, Marvel super-producer Kevin Feige now admits they made a mistake when casting that role.

Speaking with Men’s Health for a cover story about Shang-Chi star Simu Liu, Feige was asked about that decision to cast Swinton in this traditionally Asian role.

“We thought we were being so smart, and so cutting-edge,” he replied. “We’re not going to do the cliche? of the wizened, old, wise Asian man. But it was a wake-up call to say, ‘Well, wait a minute, is there any other way to figure it out? Is there any other way to both not fall into the cliche? and cast an Asian actor?’ And the answer to that, of course, is yes.”

It took them a few years to cop to this mistake. When the backlash first began brewing, Marvel released a somewhat defensive statement justifying the casting, which read in part: “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.”

In a contemporaneous interview, Feige said, “We didn’t want to play into any of the stereotypes found in the comic books, some of which go back as far as 50 years or more. We felt the idea of gender swapping the role of The Ancient One was exciting. It opened up possibilities, it was a fresh way into this old and very typical storyline. Why not make the wisest bestower of knowledge in the universe to our heroes in the particular film a woman instead of a man?”

You can see how the people involved had good intentions here, but their biases gave them a form of tunnel vision and they couldn’t come up with a way to include an Asian actor in the part without courting even more controversy. So they did what they thought was best at the time. Now, years later, they seem to have come up with a way to finally embrace another Asian character, The Mandarin (as played by the legendary Tony Leung), in a way they feel will please audiences worldwide.

Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings opens in theaters on September 3, 2021.

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