Arts & Entertainment

Marvel's 'Doctor Strange' faces accusations of 'whitewashing' an Asian character

Tilda swinton as the Ancient One and Benedict Cumberbatch as Stephen Strange in a scene from
Tilda swinton as the Ancient One and Benedict Cumberbatch as Stephen Strange in a scene from "Doctor Strange."

The upcoming Marvel Studios movie "Doctor Strange" has faced controversy for casting "the Ancient One," a character who is Asian in the original comic, with white actress Tilda Swinton. Comments by one of the film's screenwriters about the decision have only served to stoke concern.

"In the larger context of what's going in Hollywood, and how it's OK to basically whitewash Asian characters specifically in feature films, it's really disturbing," Asian-American blogger Jocelyn "Joz" Wang of 8Asians told KPCC.

One of the film's writers, C. Robert Cargill, said the casting of  the Ancient One posed difficult, if not unsurmountable difficulties in a recent interview with the podcast "Double Toasted."

"There is no other character in Marvel history that is such a cultural landmine, that is absolutely unwinnable," Cargill said. He called it a scenario where there's no way to win.

"He originates from Tibet, so if you acknowledge that Tibet is a place and that he’s Tibetan, you risk alienating 1 billion people who think that that’s bulls — 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 said.

China doesn't recognize Tibet's independence, an assumption implicit in "Dr. Strange"'s storyline.

"I can't deny that China is a giant market, but I think time and time again China becomes a reason of why things are or aren't happening," Wang said, adding that 'Strange' isn't the only film in which Chinese actors are cast in order to appeal to its enormous market.

Marvel responded to the controversy around Swinton's casting in a statement to Mashable:

"Marvel has a very strong record of diversity in its casting of films and regularly departs from stereotypes and source material to bring its [Marvel Cinematic Universe] 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 said in its statement.

Watch Swinton as the Ancient One in a trailer for the film:

Doctor Strange teaser trailer

Another problem with the comic's depiction of the Ancient One: the character has been seen as an Asian stereotype in the past.

"You can't win by presenting a stereotypical character from decades ago. But that said, it's very sad to say, 'Here's an Asian character, and the best person to play it is a white woman'," Wang said.

She added that Swinton's casting as the Ancient One is the latest in a long-string of "whitewashing" of Asian roles, each of which seem to have their own justifications.

She points to the casting of Scarlett Johansson as an Asian character in the upcoming film based on the "Ghost In The Shell" manga, as well as the blowback over casting Emma Stone as a half-Hawaiian, half-Chinese character in "Aloha."

"In this case, they're saying, 'Well you know, we're damned if we do, damned if we don't,' but is Tilda Swinton the best person to play [the Ancient One]? Could they have thought outside of the box beyond a white person playing the role of an Asian?" Wang said. "Year after year, time after time, when we know that the origin stories — the characters are supposed to be Asian, and then it turns out to be a white person — it gets really, really frustrating."

Cargill said on the podcast that he didn't think casting the role with a Chinese actress would have been a good idea either.

"If you are telling me you think it’s a good idea to cast a Chinese actress as a Tibetan character, you are out of your damn fool mind and have no idea what the f--- you’re talking about," Cargill said.

Cargill also argued that shifting the role to another non-Tibetan, non-Chinese but still Asian actor would still cause problems with cultural sensitivity. He used the term "Social Justice Warriors" to describe those upset about the casting.

"We knew that the Social Justice Warriors would be angry either way," Cargill said.

Cargill declined to talk about his comments when reached by KPCC, but followed his podcast comments on Twitter clarifying that his thoughts on the character and her casting were his alone, not Marvel's.

"Doctor Strange" director Scott Derrickson declined to comment when reached by KPCC.