Much has been made lately of Hollywood’s tendency to whitewash characters in movie adaptations, including the casting of Scarlett Johansson as “The Major” in the live-action anime adaptation Ghost In The Shell and the casting of Tilda Swinton as the Ancient One in Marvel’s big-screen adaptation of Doctor Strange. Some excuse the practice as just part of the cost of doing business in Hollywood, where investors want to be assured of a maximum return on their investment by seeing the biggest-name actors cast in the movies they’re bankrolling, while others see it as an outmoded practice that needs to be stopped.

Either way, the casting choice has already been made and production has already wrapped on Doctor Strange, so Marvel will be continuing forward with Swinton as the Ancient One despite the public pushback. According to the movie’s co-writer C. Robert Cargill, however, they did not take the decision lightly when writing the part or casting for it.

Cargill spoke to Double Toasted in a video interview posted to YouTube. During the interview, the subject of the Ancient One’s casting was brought up, and Cargill likened the decision to the Kobayashi Maru, an unwinnable scenario for Starfleet cadets in the Star Trek universe first presented in Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan.

“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. 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. 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 bulls**t 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 f**k you’re talking about.”

Doctor Strange the Ancient One Tilda Swinton Doctor Strange Writer Says Ancient One Was Changed To Avoid Upsetting China


Tibet is indeed a very hot-button issue in China, and the Chinese government has been quick to ban artists or art that display any sympathy for the Free Tibet movement. This could have been a serious blow for Marvel given the size of the market (in the case of Captain America: The Winter Soldier, for example, China accounted for over $115 million in ticket sales – a quarter of the total international box office). Cargill is not incorrect when he says that no matter who they cast in the part, someone was going to be angry about it. Removing the Tibet/China connection from the character altogether was one way to handle it. Whether or not it was the best way in light of all the recent controversy about whitewashing is debatable. The screenwriters could have left the Ancient One out of the picture altogether given that he is not the most culturally sensitive character in the first place, but he is also a very important one to the backstory of Doctor Strange.

Marvel found themselves in a similarly unwinnable situation with The Mandarin in Iron Man 3. The Mandarin is another character who started out as an offensive racial stereotype in the comics, and some were not happy that Marvel cast British actor Ben Kingsley in the role. The movie sidestepped the race issue almost entirely by taking a huge left-turn with the character and making him absolutely nothing like the Mandarin of the comics. The filmmakers of Doctor Strange appear to be attempting something similar, but no doubt the controversy about their choice will continue as we get closer to its release.

Captain America: Civil War will release on May 6, 2016, followed by Doctor Strange – November 4, 2016; Guardians of the Galaxy 2 – May 5, 2017; Spider-Man: Homecoming – July 7, 2017; Thor: Ragnarok – November 3, 2017; Black Panther – February 16, 2018; The Avengers: Infinity War Part 1 – May 4, 2018; Ant-Man and the Wasp – July 6, 2018; Captain Marvel – March 8, 2019; The Avengers: Infinity War Part 2 – May 3, 2019; Inhumans – July 12, 2019; and as-yet untitled Marvel movies on May 1, July 10 and November 6, 2020.

Source: Double Toasted