The casting choices surrounding Doctor Strange were always bound to attract comments, discussion and polar opinions, whatever the role. Given that the movie was a highly anticipated addition to the Marvel Cinematic Universe, every role was under scrutiny; including the titular one, which eventually went to Benedict Cumberbatch. However, few castings caused as much controversy as Tilda Swinton as The Ancient One.
Originally portrayed as a wizened old man in the comics, The Ancient One was undoubtedly Asian. However, not only did Marvel cast a woman in the role, they cast a white woman at that, and many people weren’t happy, accusing Marvel of whitewashing the role. At the time, Swinton responded to the backlash, insisting that in the Doctor Strange movie, The Ancient One was not written as an Asian character – saying (among other things) “You just have to wait and see, because it’s not an Asian character.”
However, Swinton, clearly knowing how volatile and divisive fans opinions are on the matter of her casting, has also teased the gender of her character, saying she was unsure whether to play The Ancient One as male, female, or gender neutral. Depending on your views on the subject, the end result, as seen in the trailer, seems to be gender neutral; or certainly not overtly female, anyhow, so that may or may not be seen as a good thing. Now Swinton has come out in defense of her casting once again, speaking to EW and saying that fans will be surprised in many ways:
“Anybody calling for more accurate representation of the diverse world we live in has got me standing right beside them. I think when people see this film, they’re going to see that it comes from a very diverse place, in all sorts of ways. Maybe this misunderstanding around this film has been an opportunity for that voice to be heard, and I’m not against that at all. But I do think that when people see the film, they’ll see that it’s not necessarily a target for that voice.”
Part of the diversity to which Swinton refers could be the gender orientation of The Ancient One, or she could be referring to the casting of Chiwetel Ejiofor as Baron Mordo (since that character is usually depicted as a white man in the comics). Doctor Strange co-writer C. Robert Cargill has argued that casting The Ancient One was always going to be a no-win situation; or, as he put it, “Marvel’s Kobayashi Maru.” It’s certainly possible that Swinton being a woman playing the typically-male Ancient One has only stirred up the hornet’s nest all the more, too. Marvel President of Production Kevin Feige, for his part, has stated that The Ancient One is actually a title handed down, and at the point where Doctor Strange takes place, “the embodiment is Celtic.” Note no mention of gender there.
However Marvel casts any of its movies, there is always going to be a backlash of sorts. The MCU has been labeled as too white and too straight previously, but any inroads made with more inclusive casting tends to prompt controversy too – from those who want their comic books brought to life exactly as they were originally drawn. Doctor Strange promises to break the mold of the Marvel Universe by exploring the more supernatural elements of the MCU, and it seems as though the studio behind the movie is happy to push the boundaries with its casting selections, too.
Doctor Strange opens 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 – May 4, 2018; Ant-Man and the Wasp – July 6, 2018; Captain Marvel – March 8, 2019; Avengers 4 – May 3, 2019; and as-yet untitled Marvel movies on July 12, 2019, and on May 1, July 10, and November 6 in 2020.