Hollywood whitewashing has been a very noticeable controversy over the past few weeks. Scarlett Johansson’s casting as the originally Asian protagonist in the upcoming Ghost in the Shell, including the supposed digital changes that were done to make her “look the part,” has been at the forefront. But another addition to the already heated conversation over Caucasian actors being given nonwhite roles came after the release of the first trailer for Marvel’s Doctor Strange.
Not only was it an upset in the casting of Tilda Swinton as the iconic male character known as the Ancient One, fans also questioned why Marvel did not maintain his Tibetan background. In an interview with Double Toasted that was submitted to YouTube, the film’s co-writer C. Robert Cargill explained some of the reasoning behind the casting, which revealed that it wasn’t done completely for what people may be thinking. He also stated that he and his fellow writing team did not take the matter lightly in making the final decision, realizing that the situation was a hard one to win.
The thing about the Ancient One is it is Marvel’s Kobayashi Maru. 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 this week 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, and just like the Kobayashi Maru, it all comes down on which way you’re willing to lose.
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 bulls**t 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**k you’re talking about.
So while the response may not entirely change how people may view the issue, at least there is some reasonable motivations behind it. China is a major market for blockbusters on this scale, particularly in some of Marvel’s recent films. Captain America: The Winter Soldier grossed over $115 million in China, with that being both a substantial number regardless but was also a quarter of the film’s total international box office earnings.
The studio dealt with whitewashing in casting Ben Kingsley as the Mandarin (an originally Asian character) in Iron Man 3. But, one of the smart decisions Marvel made about adapting the villain to the big screen was taking out the known racial stereotypes that the character had in the comic books, allowing them to take him in an entirely different direction. Doctor Strange seems to be doing something similar to that, although there will surely be a continuing argument leading up to its release.
Doctor Strange hits theaters on November 4, 2016.