As popular as comic book movies are right now, there are plenty of challenges when it comes to adapting them – not least because many comic book characters were created half a century ago or more, and certain elements of their original stories are no longer considered politically correct. Moreover, since superheroes were generally written as white by default, expanding the diversity of comic book movie casts can be a challenge.
As the current biggest name in comic book movies, Marvel Studios is under a lot of scrutiny when it comes to casting, which is perhaps why the upcoming adaptation of Doctor Strange has faced so much criticism for casting Tilda Swinton as the Ancient One, Stephen Strange’s (Benedict Cumberbatch) mentor in sorcery. In the comic books the Ancient One is the stereotypical wise Oriental master of the mystical, living in the Himalayas, and despite the character being a bit of a cliché many moviegoers were disappointed that the role had not gone to an Asian actor. The backlash was amplified by the fact that, shortly after the first trailer for Doctor Strange was unveiled, Paramount revealed the first image from the live-action adaptation of manga series Ghost in the Shell – featuring Scarlett Johansson as a character who, in the source material, was called Major Motoko Kusanagi.
The two casting choices meant that the ongoing discussion about whitewashing reached a boiling point; after all, in an industry where roles for Asian actors are rare enough already, two major Asian characters being played by white actors has a significant impact on representation. In the case of Doctor Strange there were plenty of thorny issues surrounding the original depiction of the Ancient One, not the least of which was the fact that his Tibetan ties weren’t ideal for maintaining Marvel’s friendly relationship with Chinese censors, and screenwriter C. Robert Cargill suggested that casting Swinton was a way of dodging all the potentially racist pitfalls of the character while also adding another powerful female character to the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Now, director Scott Derrickson has also responded to the criticisms on Twitter.
Raw anger/hurt from Asian-Americans over Hollywood whitewashing, stereotyping & erasure of Asians in cInema.— Scott Derrickson (@scottderrickson) May 4, 2016
I am listening and learning.
It obviously can’t be easy for the creative team behind Doctor Strange to see so much negative talk swirling around their movie, particularly before people have had a chance to see it, so this is a pretty mature response from Derrickson. With that said, there’s not much that can be done to diversify Doctor Strange‘s cast now that the film has finished filming, so Asian-Americans who are pushing for better representation can only hope that Benedict Wong, who plays Stephen Strange’s sidekick Wong but was not seen in the teaser trailer, at least gets some substantial screen time, and that Marvel takes the message on board when casting future MCU movies.
While a common argument against casting Asian-American leads in movies is that there just aren’t many huge Asian-American movie stars in Hollywood right now, it’s worth noting that actors like Chris Hemsworth and Chris Pratt weren’t hugely well-known before they were cast in their respective Marvel movies; the studio has a talent for turning actors into big stars. Perhaps if Doctor Strange is a success and gets a sequel, and Derrickson returns to direct it, he can apply some lessons from this experience to making that movie.
Captain America: Civil War opens in theaters May 6, 2016, followed by Doctor Strange – November 4, 2016; Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 – May 5, 2017; Spider-Man: Homecoming – July 7, 2017;Thor: Ragnarok – November 3, 2017; Black Panther – February 16, 2018; Avengers: Infinity War Part 1 – May 4, 2018; Ant-Man and the Wasp – July 6, 2018; Captain Marvel – March 8, 2019;Avengers: Infinity War Part 2 – May 3, 2019; and as-yet untitled Marvel movies on July 12, 2019, and on May 1, July 10, and November 6 in 2020.
Source: Scott Derrickson