The Ancient One (Tilda Swinton) teaches sorcery to Stephen Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) in a scene from Marvel’s “Dr. Strange.”
The Media Action Network for Asian Americans (MANAA) is criticizing the new Marvel Studios motion picture “Dr. Strange” for whitewashing “the Ancient One”—an important Asian character in the original 1960s comic book series upon which the movie is based — and casting Tilda Swinton in the role.
In the comic book, there were two prominent Asian characters assisting Dr. Strange: The Ancient One and Wong, his “manservant.”
Director Scott Derrickson said he was initially not going to use the latter character because he was a stereotype, telling The LA. Daily News that Wong “was an Asian sidekick manservant. What was I supposed to do with that? But once the decision was made to cast Tilda, we brought Wong back because, unlike the Ancient One, he could be completely subverted as a character and reworked into something that didn’t fall into any of the stereotypes of the comics.”
Founding MANAA President Guy Aoki doesn’t buy his rationalization: “You’re a writer. You could modify any problematic, outdated character and maintain its ethnicity, especially when it’s a minority to begin with. So the Ancient One was racist and stereotyped but letting a white woman play the part erases all that? No, it just erases an Asian character from the screen when there weren’t many prominent Asian characters in Marvel films to begin with.
“In fact, I could argue that in his set-up for the movie, Derrickson perpetuated another stereotype: A white man making a pilgrimage into the Himalayas to get trained by a white person. That’s what happened in “Batman Begins,” where Bruce Wayne is taught not by an Asian — who would naturally live in that area — but by Frenchman Henri Ducard. Now Stephen Strange gets trained by an Irish woman? The film never even explains how she ever got there in the first place. Yet she lives in an Asian temple surrounded by Asian people.
“And in Marvel’s upcoming Netflix series ‘Iron Fist,’ it may happen again (despite a petition to make the character Asian American, thereby giving Marvel its first leading onscreen Asian American superhero). Once again, Hollywood’s practicing cultural appropriation — taking Asian elements but placing white people at the forefront of it all, not the Asian people who created it.”
“Given the dearth of Asian roles, there was no reason a monk in Nepal could not be Asian,” says MANAA President Rob Chan. “Had Derrickson cast an Asian as the revered leader who guides the main character to become a better human being and to develop his sorcery powers, it would’ve given a big boost to that actor’s career. While actresses deserve the kinds of bold roles usually reserved for men, white actresses are seen onscreen more than Asians of any gender. And Tilda Swinton can afford to turn down roles.”
Referring to 1984’s classic film “The Karate Kid,” which landed Pat Morita an Oscar nomination, Chan points out, “Asians can’t even be the Mr. Miyagi to Daniel-san anymore!”
Says Aoki, who’s been collecting comic books since 1972, “90 percent of Marvel and DC characters were originally white. So in order to be more inclusive in their movies, both companies have tried to change these characters to minorities. But they’re almost always black: Baron Mordo (Chiwetel Ejiofor in “Dr. Strange”), Heimdall (Idris Elba in “Thor”), Gamora (Zoe Saldana in “Guardians of the Galaxy”) and Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson in “The Avengers”).
Of the few Asian characters that originated in the comic books, they were changed from Asian to white: the Mandarin (Guy Pearce in “Iron Man 3”), Talia Al Ghul (Marion Cotillard in “Batman Rises”) and now, the Ancient One. Jason Mamoa’s part-Hawaiian ancestry may be reflected in his Aquaman role in DC’s upcoming “Justice League” film.
“In answer to critics, Marvel Studios previously said they were proud of their record of diversity. Name one memorable Asian character in any of the movies they’ve produced,” challenges Aoki. “Just one!”
In April, Robert Cargill, co-writer of the film, revealed the probable real reason for the casting decision: Fear of offending China, the second-biggest movie market in the world. “[The Ancient One] originates from Tibet, so if you acknowledge that Tibet is a place and that he’s Tibetan, you risk alienating one billion people… and risk the Chinese government going, ‘Hey, you know one of the biggest film-watching countries in the world? We’re not going to show your movie because you decided to get political.’”
Cargill argued that if they’d cast a Chinese actor as a Tibetan, it would’ve angered Tibetans as it would be a member of the oppressing group playing the underdog. They felt it was a no-win situation, so they opted to cast a white person.
“That makes no sense,” says Chan. “Marvel could’ve created a fictitious Asian country, then cast any kind of Asian they wanted without any political fallout. In fact, they changed the setting from Tibet to Nepal. So the rest of Cargill’s argument falls apart. It’s just a continuation of the whitewashing legacy illustrated recently by movies like ‘Aloha,’ ‘The Martian,’ and the upcoming ‘Ghost in the Shell.’”
MANAA, the only organization solely dedicated to advocating balanced, sensitive, and positive depiction and coverage of Asian Americans, was founded in 1992.