Throughout the first two phases of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, the powers of superheroes like Captain America and Iron Man have been explained through science – even the nine realms of Thor’s mythology were explained as a science humans haven’t discovered yet. But all that will change with the premiere of Doctor Strange and the film’s titular hero in the Sorcerer Supreme as well as Stephen Strange’s (Benedict Cumberbatch) mentor, the Ancient One (Tilda Swinton).
As part of the mythology of Doctor Strange, we know that the Ancient One will be the leader of a group of sorcerers called the Masters of the Mystic Arts in their training community Kamar-Taj near Tibet. The Ancient One has additionally been introduced in trailers for Doctor Strange, teaching the former surgeon about the mechanics of the MCU’s magic and urging him (and the viewer) to question reality. During an interview while on the set of Doctor Strange, Swinton opened up about the film’s interpretation and how it differs from the comic book character.
In an interview with Screen Rant on the set of Doctor Strange, Swinton spoke about the film’s take on the Ancient One character, which has been adapted as a mantle that has been passed down from master to master. As a result of the Ancient One being a mantle, Swinton explained it allows the character to not be “fixed” as any one gender, race, or from a certain “spiritual discipline.” She said:
This is the launch of the Doctor Strange film interpretation, of — in my view — a classic, which has been interpreted many times by other graphic artists and this is just our graphic interpretation of The Ancient One.
I would say the whole approach is about a kind of fluidity. There are many graphic artists who have interpreted The Ancient One as a Tibetan Buddhist Lama, we’re kind of shifting that a bit. We’re trying not to be fixed, we’re trying not to be fixed to any one thing, any one gender, any one spiritual discipline, and any one race even; we’re just trying to wing it beyond that. So it’s a new gesture really, just another interpretation.
In the comics, the Ancient One title refers to a specific person, a sorcerer named Yao who was born in Kamar-Taj during the 15th century. The Ancient One also earned the title of Sorcerer Supreme prior to Stephen Strange and later mentored the hero who would become Doctor Strange. In terms of adapting the comics, though Doctor Strange is establishing the MCU’s own interpretation of the Ancient One mantle, Swinton assured the comic books still played a role in the process. Further, she said the film’s reinvention of the character was a compliment paid to the source material:
The comics are the root, that’s the source. … It’s just another interpretation. One of the wonderful things that I’ve always loved as an art student, what I always loved about comics, was that they are interpreted differently by different graphic artists all the time, so now film is doing that thanks to Marvel Studios. I’m a huge Marvel fan and the fact that they take the liberties that they do in filmmaking I think, if anything, that it dignifies the comics and it says, ‘Yeah. This is a strong enough, robust enough source. We can bend it, it’s elastic. It’s bouncy.’
In adapting the character to the big screen, it was previously stated that the creators behind Doctor Strange hoped to subvert stereotypes of the original incarnation of the Ancient One by casting a woman in the role. In fact, Swinton previously revealed that her version of the character is not meant to be Asian. Given her comments from the set of Doctor Strange, it would appear that Swinton’s role is not a reinvention of Yao but a new character entirely who simply takes up the Ancient One title.
However, the choice to cast Swinton as a character typically portrayed as Asian has been criticized as whitewashing since the creators took what could have been a major role for an Asian actor in a big blockbuster film and cast a white actress. The film’s co-writer C. Robert Cargill compared the situation to Star Trek’s Kobayashi Maru in that it was a no-win situation – Marvel could either cast an Asian actor in a role that would be viewed as stereotypical, or subvert the gender ideas of the Ancient One and cast a woman.
That said, there is a larger issue within Hollywood in terms of the lack of roles available to Asian actors, especially if studios choose to eliminate roles in big films or cast white actors. Doctor Strange kicked off its marketing lead up to the film at a time when the conversation about diminished and/or whitewashed Asian roles hit a boiling point since a number of anime/manga properties were in various stages of development or production with white leads, including Ghost in the Shell in particular.
Since the conversation around Doctor Strange drew attention to whitewashing, director Scott Derrickson assured fans he is “listening and learning” while Marvel Studios head Kevin Feige reiterated the sentiment and said the MCU was hoping to diversify with many of its upcoming releases. In comparison to previous Marvel Studios films, Doctor Strange is more diverse and the studio has worked to showcase the movie’s diversity. Stephen Strange’s sidekick Wong (Benedict Wong) has been more heavily featured in marketing, recently appearing on the cover of Empire Magazine along with Doctor Strange, Karl Mordo (Chiwetel Ejiofor), and the Ancient One.
Still, the conversation around the film will likely depend on how Wong and the new take on the Ancient One are received by audiences. Certainly, Swinton’s performance seems to be inspired by the comics, if not strictly adapted from the source material. But, with Doctor Strange’s interpretation of the Ancient One under scrutiny, how the public reacts once the movie hits theaters remains to be seen.
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; Untitled Avengers – May 3, 2019; and as-yet untitled Marvel movies on July 12, 2019, and on May 1, July 10, and November 6 in 2020.