Marvel Studios may have a fairly good track record critically and at the box office, but the same can definitely not be said when it comes to diversity in their movies. A huge female character like Black Widow doesn’t even get her own movie (or even worse, gets left out of her own merchandising), and we will have to wait until 2018 and 2019 – a decade after the Marvel Cinematic Universe began! – until we see a person of colour or a female respectively headline a solo film (in this case, Black Panther and Captain Marvel).
And in 2016, that’s simply not good enough. With hugely public outcries like #OscarsSoWhite, and the hotly debated issue of female wage disparity in Hollowyood, any infringements upon diversity is certainly going to get noticed and picked on. And boy were the pitchforks and torches out en masse when it was revealed that Tilda Swinton would be taking on the role of the Ancient One in the upcoming Doctor Strange.
In the comics, the Ancient One – mystical teacher to Stephen Strange and the former Sorcerer Supreme – was always traditionally depicted as an elderly Tibetan man, so picking a white English-Scottish lady for the role was definitely going to raise eyebrows. But according to Doctor Strange screenwriter C. Robert Cargill, it didn’t actually matter who they chose, those eyebrows were always going to be vertically inclined.
“The thing with the Ancient One is that it is Marvel’s Kobayashi Maru. There is no other character in Marvel history that is such a cultural landmine, that is absolutely unwinnable,”
For the non-geeky, the Kobayashi Maru is a piece of Star Trek lore: the name of a starship used in a Starfleet Academy exam which is specifically designed to not offer cadets any options that can actually lead to victory. In this case, had Marvel actually cast an Asian man in the role, it would have drawn ire as Hollywood studios were once again typecasting Asians as nothing more than either wizened old mystics or martial artists.
Marvel had actually been through this exercise already on Iron Man 3, when they decided to cast Ben Kingsley as the Mandarin and reinvent the classic villain (plot twist and all) as a mix of cultures and iconography, instead of using the derogatory Asian cliche-filled character of the original comics. Which of course upset hardcore fans who wanted the movie to stick closer to the source. And just like then, they knew that this was another no-win situation, as Cargill elaborated.
“Most of the people who have thoughts about it haven’t thought it all the way through and they go, ‘Why didn’t they just do this?’ And I can tell you why. I can tell you why every single decision that involves the Ancient One is a bad one. And just like the Kobayashi Maru, it all comes down to which way you’re willing to lose.”
“So what [director Scott Derrickson] decided to do… He said, ‘There is no real way to win this so let’s use this opportunity to cast an amazing actress in a male role. And sure enough, there’s not a lot of talk about ‘Aw, they took away a job from a guy and gave it to a women.’ Everyone kind of pats us on the back for that but then scolds us for her not being Tibetan.”
And in this case, the folks doing the scolding probably didn’t know how correct they actually were, because in the first official statement released by Marvel (via Mashable) on the matter, the studio actually decided to divulge previously unknown details about the film to help explain their decision. And it turns out that this Ancient One isn’t Tibetan.
“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.”
Okay so clearly that first line disagrees with my own up top, but the rest of the statement is actually a pretty level-headed response. If they throw some kind of Easter Egg into the movie hinting that there was a Tibetan Ancient One, then it would still be holding true with the character while updating it for modern sensibilities.
This sidestepping of the issue could be a clever one on Marvel’s part. They have previously shown though that they would rather stick to the core tenets of most of their characters than try to modernize them, irrespective of how differently their ideals may be to the world we currently live in. It’s why Iron Fist was still cast as a white man, despite some public outcries that the opportunity should have gone to an Asian actor – which in my opinion would not just have been just problematic because of those previously mentioned Asian stereotypes, but then undermines the appeal of other Asian characters like Shang Chi.
Irrespective though, there’s no denying that race in movies based on characters that were created in a time when society had a vastly different and less-inclusive view of pop culture, is always going to be a hot button topic (look at Michael B. Jordan’s casting in Fantastic Four), and I honestly don’t see a solution that is ever going to satisfy everybody. Any of you have any bright ideas?
You can watch the full interview with C. Robert Cargill below. The Doctor Strange casting controversy talk starts at around the 18-minute mark.
Doctor Strange is currently in production and is scheduled for release on 4 November 2016. It stars Benedict Cumberbatch in the title role and also stars Rachel McAdams, Madds Mikkelsen and Chiwetel Ejiofor (who is a black man playing the traditionally white Baron Mordo, by the way).
Last Updated: April 28, 2016