The casting for Marvel’s “Doctor Strange” has been dogged with controversy, from weariness of yet another rich white man finding superpowers to backlash against whitewashing. Marvel’s trying to walk the line between adhering to the core of Doctor Strange’s mythos while shedding the most offensive “exotic otherness” stereotypes about Asian cultures. But in an attempt to avoid the pitfalls of racism — particularly in their handling of the Ancient One — they’ve merely fallen into another one.
We’re never afraid to change. In the comic books, Jarvis is an elderly butler. In the movies, he’s an A.I. system which becomes Paul Bettany’s Vision. We are always looking for ways to change. I think if you look at some of the early incarnations of the Ancient One in the comics, they are what we would consider today to be quite, sort of, stereotypical. They don’t hold up to what would work today. Also, within the storyline of the comics, and our movie, ‘the Ancient One’ is a title that many people have had. We hit very early on on, What if the Ancient One was a woman? What if the title had been passed and the current Ancient One is a woman? Oh, that’s an interesting idea. [Clicks fingers.] Tilda Swinton! Whoah! And it just hit.”
The best of intentions for sure, but you know what they say about those. The comparison to Jarvis in “Iron Man” just doesn’t hold water. Paul Bettany was always the voice of J.A.R.V.I.S. before becoming The Vision. Marvel even added the original Jarvis to the mix with “Agent Carter.” So while Iron Man’s butler might not have had a body until recently, he was always in essence a white man. To say the only way to remove the stereotype of “otherness” from the Ancient One is to make him white is just whitewashing under the guise of progressiveness, that actors of Asian descent are inherently “othered” regardless of how a role is written.
Casting Swinton in the role also opens the floodgates of appropriation. Doctor Strange will still be traveling to Asia after his accident to gain his powers. But now instead of at least a tentative link to Tibetan culture — or more likely the fictional country Madame Gao of “Daredevil” hails from — you’ve got a white woman teaching a white man the secret mysteries of an Asian culture. That’s…not okay.
The choice is particularly jarring as Marvel has made attempts in the past to abide by the Bowl of Chocolate Covered Raisins rule for major fictional characters: it’s okay to make white characters in non-white characters, but not the other way around. Marvel even cast Chiwetel Ejiofor as Baron Mordo for “Doctor Strange.” Yet no matter how they spin it, and no matter how marvelous of an actress Tilda Swinton is, her role as the Ancient One is what it is.