A lack of diversity in race and gender among superhero movies and an increasing number of controversies surround major Hollywood films "whitewashing" their casts (see: Exodus: Gods and Kings and Gods of Egypt) or lead characters has led to a few in-production geek-focused (see: Ghost in the Shell) adaptations earning spotlight attention, in a way filmmakers can't be pleased about.
And so here we are in 2016, the beginning of Phase 3 of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and the next new Marvel Studios superhero origins movie is caught in the thick of it. Oscar-winning British actress Tilda Swinton is playing The Ancient One in Doctor Strange and this live-action film adaptation of the character is very different than the character from the source material, and not everyone is pleased with the creative decision-making behind this choice.
The Ancient One, the mentor to Doctor Strange, is a male character born in Kamar-Taj, Tibet centuries ago, and this version of the character from Marvel Comics was created in 1963 (Strange Tales #110) and was subject to the racial stereotypes of that era - Fu Manchu mustache and all. So in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, we knew this would be changed. Marvel Studios boss and producer Kevin Feige explained that part of it in discussing the casting of the Ancient One last year:
“I think if you look at some of the early incarnations of the Ancient One in the comics, they are what we would consider today to be quite, sort of, stereotypical. They don’t hold up to what would work today. Also, within the storyline of the comics, and our movie, ‘the Ancient One’ is a title that many people have had. We hit very early on on, What if the Ancient One was a woman? What if the title had been passed and the current Ancient One is a woman? Oh, that’s an interesting idea…”
Tilda Swinton is playing The Ancient One, the current leader of the magical faction that the Doctor Strange movie will introduce into the MCU where Stephen Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) will learn to open his mind. And as I revealed on the Total Geekall podcast discussing the first Doctor Strange teaser trailer, this character is a Celtic one, centuries old. We don't know who the previous Ancient One was or their country of origin, but the Celtic character currently occupying the title of "The Ancient One" and the issue of diversity or "whitewashing" was addressed officially by a Marvel Studios spokesperson who gave the following statement to Mashable yesterday:
"Marvel has a very strong record of diversity in its casting of films and regularly departs from stereotypes and source material to bring its MCU to life. 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."
Marvel's words come on the heels of Doctor Strange's co-writer C. Robert Cargill appearing on an episode of the Double Toasted podcast this week where he was asked about The Ancient One's change in ethnicity. Cargill was asked why the character in the movie is a Celtric white woman instead of a Tibetan man and he explained that this was a decision made before he joined the project, but that it was "Marvel’s Kobayashi Maru," an unwinnable scenario.
He explained that they couldn't realistically touch the Tibetan origins - or substitute another Asian background - because of the political issues it could cause with China, the studio's second largest market, and a region where Disney is building a theme park which will feature a section dedicated to Marvel. So instead they took the opportunity to introduce another major female character, one who just so happens to be white.
It's important to note that of the magical masters we know are in the film, Doctor Strange's cast of powered individuals is actually quite diverse. Strange himself is an American character; we can confirm that The Ancient One is of Celtic descent, and the other three magic leads are played by Chiwetel Ejiofor (Nigerian ancestry), Benedict Wong (whose parents emigrated from Hong Kong), and Danish-born Mads Mikkelsen. In that respect, this statement from Cargill is important:
"We made one of the most multicultural films most people have seen in years."
While avoiding racial stereotypes in modern adaptations is easy to get behind, and the business side of these decisions makes sense purely looking at numbers, casting to avoid the political side of Tibetan sovereignty debate is something that will always be controversial, especially given Disney's recent willingness to publicly stand up against anti-gay political movements in Atlanta, Georgia where they threatened to boycott the region for filmmaking.
But it's always possible another Ancient One character, past or in the future, hails from Tibet. And we do know Doctor Strange will explore some international locations... and other dimensions. But Tilda Swinton playing a Celtic magic master (think about that sentence on its own) is something we can all get behind.
In “Doctor Strange,” famous neurosurgeon Stephen Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) suffers career-ending injuries in a devastating car crash. Seeking help in the furthest reaches of the world, Strange uncovers the hidden world of magic and alternate dimensions! Witness the powerful doctor in the poster above.
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.
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