DOCTOR STRANGE Casting Controversy: Why It Matters More UPDATED

Doctor Strange Tilda Swinton as Ancient One

You get the impression that Doctor Strange screenwriter C. Robert Cargill was given a stern talking to.

On April 17th, the writer spoke with Double’s The Sunday Service podcast. Video from that interview was posted to You Tube on April 22nd, which can be seen below:

In the interview, Cargill made some frank and controversial comments about the casting of Tilda Swinton as the Ancient One in Doctor Strange. Here’s a transcript of what he said, courtesy of the Guardian and Bleeding Cool:

There is no other character in Marvel history that is such a cultural landmine, that is absolutely unwinnable. I’ve been reading a bunch of people talking about it, and the really frustrating thing about it is that most of the people who have thoughts on it haven’t thought it all the way through and they go, ‘Why didn’t they just do this?’ And it’s like, I could tell you why. I could tell you why every single decision that involves the Ancient One is a bad one.

The Ancient One was a racist stereotype who comes from a region of the world that is in a very weird political place. He originates from Tibet, so if you acknowledge that Tibet is a place and that he’s Tibetan, you risk alienating one billion people who think that that’s bullshit 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.” If we decide to go the other way and cater to China in particular and have him be in Tibet – if 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-ck you’re talking about.

Needless to say, these comments stirred up quite the ruckus, and everyone went into damage control mode. On Aprl 26th, Marvel issued a statement about the controversy:

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.

Then a seemingly chastised Cargill e-mailed the New York Times on April 28th to make sure everyone knew that he wasn’t speaking for Marvel, and he didn’t even have the right to:

I’ve made a lot of mistakes in my life, but none that I regret as much as choosing to answer a question to which I had no place in speaking. I tried to make it right by clarifying my position on Twitter Monday but unfortunately — perhaps ironically, given that this story gained so much steam on social media — those comments were not picked up by those reporting on my statements from the original podcast. Those original statements were my own personal musings about a character, and although I worked on the film script, I came to the project after the first draft and was not part of any casting discussions or decisions so I had no right or knowledge to speak about them as if I was. It was a moronic decision, and worst of all, I embarrassed my friends and colleagues by coming across as if I were speaking for them. I was not.

That should be that, right? These statements should clear up the entire casting controversy once and for all and we can all go back to anticipating the film.

Well, perhaps, if this were a normal casting controversy. Lord knows that comic fans are not shy about letting people know that they are not satisfied with casting decisions that change the color or race of their favorite characters (ask the powers that be behind Fantastic Four about that). But this isn’t an issue about a white, British actress playing a role that should have gone to an Asian, male actor. It’s an issue that raises questions about the dark road Hollywood must travel down in order to make a profit.

Notice in Marvel’s statement, how they focus on the casting decision itself and ignore Cargill’s comments on Tibet and China. There was not even a perfunctory “No comment” or “That’s silly” aimed in its direction. There probably a reason for it, and the reason might be that Cargill’s point hits close to home.

There are two facts that give weight to Cargill’s China/Tibet statement. First, that the state of the modern day blockbuster movie is that a majority of their success comes from overseas grosses. And, second, the biggest audience overseas for American films is China. No one knows this better than Marvel Studios.

Once upon a time, Marvel Studios films never grossed more that $15.3 million in China, and that’s if they opened there at all (Thor and Captain America: The First Avenger weren’t released in China).  But the one-two punch of The Avengers and Iron Man 3 opened up the country in a big way. The former forced its way in by the pure spectacle that it was. The latter had help breaking into China.

Doctor Strange Iron Man in ChinaFor Iron Man 3, Marvel partnered with Chinese film distributor DMG Entertainment to use DMG’s good relationship with China’s government (because China controls what western films are shown in the country) help it get a foothold in the Chinese  market.  In order to help the process along, Marvel created a special version of the film to be shown exclusively in China. This version added scenes expanding the presence of popular Chinese actor Wang Xueqi (who appears in all versions of the film as Dr. Wu) and include popular Chinese actress Fan Bingbing (who appears only in the scenes added in the Chinese release and who would later play Blink in X-Men: Days of Future Past). They included a product placement for a Chinese milk drink in the added scenes, and partnered with Chinese companies for ads that ran before the film.

Oh, and they also took the Mandarin, who in the comics was a Chinese villain in the mold of Fu Manchu, and presented him as a vaguely Middle Eastern man before revealing that as a front for an American businessman. I’m sure that’s a coincidence and has no bearing on the current controversy at all.

This sort of pandering might leave a bad taste in some people’s mouths, but you can’t deny it worked. From Iron Man 3 on, every Marvel film was approved for viewing in China, and none of them made less that $55 million at the Chinese box office. And these grosses helped turn more than one Marvel film into a smash hit.

ant-man poster

If you want an example of this in action, let’s use Ant-Man as an example. If we go by the rule of thumb that a movie has to earn twice its budget back to be successful, then this film’s $180 million domestic gross would be a disappointment in relation to its $130 million budget. There would be no Ant-Man and Wasp, and Entertainment Weekly would be writing articles about the demise of Marvel Studios.

However, the film made $105 million in China alone. Those grosses were enough to put the film over the “double the budget” threshold and make the $224 million it earned in the rest of the world pure profit.

Taking this into consideration, it seems safe to say that not only does Marvel need China as a revenue stream for its films, but also it actively pursued it as one. So Cargill’s observation about Marvel not wanting to anger China seems on point.

But would making the Ancient One Tibetan really anger China that much? That comes down to what Cargill said about calling Tibet “a place.”

China gets a lot of criticism for a lot of things, everything ranging from human rights violations to its environmental policies. But its relationship with Tibet is one of the most contentious topics connected with China.

Putting it as simply as I can, a main component of the conflict about Tibet is this: the Free Tibet movement claims that Tibet was a independent country until 1949 when Communist China invaded, conquered and occupied the country. They have been systematically destroying Tibetan culture and religious freedom ever since (More on that here).  China, on the other hand, claims that Tibet has always been a part of China, and the occupation of 1949 was merely an attempt to help modernize and liberate the backward, feudal part of their country (more on their stance here).

Doctor Strange Ancient One OriginAcknowledging Tibet as an independent state was a hot-button topic even back as far as 1966, when the Ancient One received his origin and backstory in Strange Tales #148. His birthplace was given as Kamar-Taj, a non-outwardly advanced land hidden high in the Himalayas. Much like Metropolis and Gotham are meant to be a surrogate to New York City, Kamar-Taj appears to be a surrogate for Tibet. However, this was odd for Marvel of the day, which was never known for shying away from real world locales in their books.

Regardless, if you say that the Ancient One is Tibetan, you’re saying that they come from Tibet, not western China. You’re saying that the narrative China is presenting that Tibet was never independent is wrong, and essentially calling them imperialistic bullies forcing a smaller country to their will. It’s a lot to hang on the nationality of a Doctor Strange supporting character, but there you go.

Would China really get upset? Well, Jigme Ugen, president of the North American branch of the Tibetan National Congress, one of the many groups advocating Tibetan independence, tweeted this about the controversy:

If its an issue big enough for a Tibetan independence group to make comment on it, it would have most likely have been an issue for China as well.

While the political ramifications of Marvel’s casting decision should get more attention, even prominent members of the Asian community like George Takei diminish the Tibet angle to focus prominently on the skin color issue:

Takei continues his rant in the comments to the piece:

Marvel already addressed the Tibetan question by setting the action and the Ancient One in Kathmandu, Nepal, in the film. It wouldn’t have mattered to the Chinese government by that point whether the character was white or Asian, as it was already in another country. So this is a red herring, and it’s insulting that they expect us to buy their explanation. They cast Tilda because they believe white audiences want to see white faces. Audiences, too, should be aware of how dumb and out of touch the studios think we are.

That explanation is a bit shortsided by Takei on two counts. One, even a Tibetan living in Nepal would have originally come from Tibet, which still plays into the quandary I mentioned above, and two, it ignores the fact Marvel cast Kenneth Choi, an actor of Korean descent, as Japanese-American Jim Morita, and made him a member of Captain America: The First Avenger‘s Howling Commandos, breaking with the comic book version of the team just to add diversity.  That is not something that a company who believed white audiences want to see white faces would do.

But regardless, focusing purely on the casting of a white woman in the role of an Asian mystic puts Marvel in the easily defended position of whether their approach to casting is colorblind or not, as Marvel has numerous examples of adapting white characters from the comics to the screen with actors of a different skin color. Glossing over the political implications of this particular bit of casting is a missed opportunity to continue the discussion of the Tibet situation and the ethical implications of Marvel relying on China to generate so much of its profits. The latter is a position is one that is not so easily defended and one Marvel seem unwilling to discuss.


In an interview with Deadline’s Mike Fleming, Marvel Studios addressed the controversy:

DEADLINE: It feels like the only real question with Captain America: Civil War is, how high? But there have been questions on Doctor Strange and the casting of Tilda Swinton as The Ancient One, the mentor to the title character played by Benedict Cumberbatch. Fanboys noted the character was Tibetan in the comics, and The New York Times reported the suspicion of an ulterior motive to not offend China. Can you clear this up?
FEIGE: We make all of our decisions on all of our films, and certainly on Doctor Strange, for creative reasons and not political reasons. That’s just always been the case. I’ve always believed that it is the films themselves that will cross all borders and really get people to identify with these heroes, and that always comes down to creative and not political reasons. 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? We made changes to some of the other key character in the comic for similar reasons. Specifically, casting Chiwetel Ejiofor as Mordo and there’s a character named Wong, who is a very big part of comics, and we cast this amazing Asian actor [Benedict Wong] and modernized that role and his talents people will begin to see as materials on the film begin to come out.

DEADLINE: As an Irishman myself, having the smartest person in the world be Irish seems OK.
FEIGE: The truth is, the conversation that’s taking place around this is super-important. It’s something we are incredibly mindful of. We cast Tilda out of a desire to subvert stereotypes, not feed into them. I don’t know if you saw [Doctor Strange director] Scott Derrickson’s tweet the other day. He said we’re listening and we’re learning, every day. That really is true. As long as we’re starting on this topic, it means so much to us that people know that. We also know that people expect actions and not words in a Q&A, and I’m hopeful that some of our upcoming announcements are going to show that we’ve been listening.

DEADLINE: It sounds like you deny any suggestion that Marvel or Disney didn’t want to offend China?
FEIGE: That story was completely erroneous.

Take that for what it’s worth.

Avatar für William Gatevackes
About William Gatevackes 1985 Articles
William is cursed with the shared love of comic books and of films. Luckily, this is a great time for him to be alive. His writing has been featured on Broken, and in Comics Foundry magazine.
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