When Doctor Strange debuted in 2016, it expanded the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Stephen Strange’s magical abilities and connections to the mystical opened new doors. But the casting of Tilda Swinton as the Ancient One stalled some of the enthusiasm for the film. It put a white woman in the role of a character the comics depicted as an Asian male. And now Marvel Studios president Kevin Feige has discussed that it was a mistake that they chose to whitewash the role.
Preceding the film’s release, both Feige and Doctor Strange director Scott Derrickson addressed Swinton’s casting. They decided their version of the Ancient One would have Celtic origins. Feige told Entertainment Weekly in 2015 that they wanted to avoid the ways the character has been written in the comics. He said, “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.”
Derrickson echoed that statement in various interviews and added he didn’t want to cast an Asian woman and fall into the “Dragon Lady” stereotype. But of course, it would have been possible to cast an Asian actor in the role and avoid stereotypes. That’s what Feige admits in an interview with Men’s Health about Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings.
He said, “We thought we were being so smart, and so cutting-edge. We’re not going to do the cliché of the wizened, old, wise Asian man. But it was a wake-up call to say, ‘Well, wait a minute, is there any other way to figure it out? Is there any other way to both not fall into the cliché and cast an Asian actor?’ And the answer to that, of course, is yes.”
We’re glad Marvel has reflected upon this decision and that Feige made this comment publicly. But they are only words, and we’ll see how and if Marvel Studios’ future actions support them. And we’d be remiss not to note that Marvel Comics’ current editor in chief, a white man, C.B. Cebulksi, wrote comics under a Japanese name (Akira Yoshida) and personality with seemingly no consequences.