Recently, a topic that has received a lot of attention is the discussion of films casting white actors in roles that were originally intended for of played by actors of color; this is best known as whitewashing. Although it’s not a new issue in the film industry, it seems these instances of whitewashing are happening more often, especially with adaptations (whether from television or literature), such as Scarlett Johansson’s casting in the live-action adaptation of the classic anime Ghost in the Shell. As we are currently living in the era of superhero blockbusters, these are not immune.
The most recent example of whitewashing in the world of superhero movies is that of Doctor Strange, in which Tilda Swinton was cast as the Ancient One, a character written as an elderly Asian man. While the first reactions to Swinton’s casting were primarily focused on the gender-swap, the attention has now shifted to the origins of the character. Doctor Strange co-writer C. Robert Cargill said this change was made in order to avoid upsetting China, while director Scott Derrickson recently addressed the controversy saying he is “listening and learning.” Still, the discussion surrounding Doctor Strange has continued, and now Marvel Studios president Kevin Feige has opened up about this topic.
In an interview with Deadline, Feige addressed the whitewashing controversy as well as the rumors about political motives being behind their casting choice. Feige said it was a creative decision instead of a political one, and they saw this as an opportunity to break a “typical storyline” by gender-swapping the role:
The casting of The Ancient One was a major topic of conversation in the development and the creative process of the story. We didn’t want to play into any of the stereotypes found in the comic books, some of which go back as far as 50 years or more. We felt the idea of gender swapping the role of The Ancient One was exciting. It opened up possibilities, it was a fresh way into this old and very typical storyline. Why not make the wisest bestower of knowledge in the universe to our heroes in the particular film a woman instead of a man?
Feige went on to explain that the casting of Tilda Swinton came as a “desire to subvert stereotypes,” though the result turned out to be the opposite. He reiterated Derrickson’s response about “listening and learning” and shared he is hopeful that some of Marvel’s upcoming announcements will show that they have, in fact, been taking all these criticisms into account.
However, this is not the first time Marvel has been criticized in terms of whitewashing; Ben Kingsley’s casting as the Mandarin in Iron Man 3, Elizabeth Olsen and Aaron Taylor-Johnson as Wanda and Pietro Maximoff (who are half-Jewish and half-Romani) in Avengers: Age of Ultron, and recently Finn Jones’ casting as Iron Fist for the character's Netflix series are a few examples that fans have highlighted with regard to the origins of their characters.
For now, the only thing left to do on this matter is wait to see how audiences react to Swinton’s portrayal of the Ancient One and see if Marvel’s creative team has indeed paid attention to these complaints for future casting decisions, such as the rest of the cast of Black Panther and the highly anticipated casting announcement regarding Captain Marvel.
Captain America: Civil War is now playing in theaters. Doctor Strange arrives on November 4, 2016, followed by 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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