Marvel’s Kevin Feige Speaks on MCU’s Diversity, China, and Female Directors

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As you can imagine, Marvel’s Kevin Feige is doing a lot of interviews lately (just like the stars of his films). He recently was asked about the studio’s diversity issues, what he thinks is the cultural impact of Black heroes, and directorial edicts.

Hollywood in general has been under fire for diversity both on screen and off but Marvel Entertainment has been a particular focus thanks to their casting of Doctor Strange (more on that here and here). Writer/director Scott Derrickson finally spoke out about it and Marvel went so far as to issue a statement which read in part, they “have a very strong record of diversity in its casting of films.”

In a lengthy interview with Deadline recently (in which Feige also discussed a Black Widow solo film again), they really dug in on this issue.

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.

You may recall Doctor Strange co-writer C. Robert Cargill saying “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.’” Everyone knew this was true, I was glad someone finally came out and said it. “Those original statements were my own personal musings about a character,” he later told the NY Times, “[I] was not part of any casting discussions or decisions so I had no right or knowledge to speak about them as if I was.” The interview went on:

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.

Well, to be fair, people do expect words AND actions. Both are good to show you’re actually listening, taking criticisms to heart, and learning. Staying silent on important issues like this is a bad idea.

DEADLINE: It sounds like you deny any suggestion that Marvel or Disney didn’t want to offend China?

FEIGE: That story was completely erroneous.

Sure, let’s go with that story for now. To my surprise, Deadline didn’t let up here.

DEADLINE: These are pretend stories, with superheroes. They’re not real. How sensitive do you feel that you have to be in terms of ethnicity or sticking to or hiring actors or directors of a certain color or gender?

FEIGE: Well, I think it’s incredibly important. I think when we adapt any of these stories we don’t go…which I know is not really what you meant… but we don’t go oh, look it’s just a cartoon. It’s the funny pages, we can do whatever we want. We, of course, treat them very seriously, like they’re sacred texts from which to pull stories and adapt and modernize. But we want people to watch our films and see themselves reflected in the heroes, in the villains, in the storylines. That means being as diverse as our world is. I’m a giant Star Trek fan. You know what IDIC means? It was Gene Roddenbery’s mantra: infinite diversity in infinite combinations. I think that’s just the facts of our world right now.

Let’s hope we don’t have to wait until warp drive is invented for the Marvel Cinematic Universe to be as diverse as our world actually is. You can do better. You are a leader in the industry and you have the power to actually make change.

Deadline went on to list the few diverse castings Marvel has made but used it as a jumping off point to ask Feige about some behind-the-camera decisions.

DEADLINE: Marvel has shown diversity by making Thor a female character in the comics. You mentioned Chiwetel Ejiofor, playing a character who was white in the comics; Nick Fury, played by Samuel L. Jackson, and Thor’s gatekeeper Heimdall, played by Idris Elba, were white in the comics; and Marvel cast an Hispanic actor, Maximiliano Hernandez, in the TV series Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D. Now, you’re mobilizing Captain Marvel as a female-driven hero tale, and several agents have told me that they’ve been told only a woman will be considered to direct this. Why lay down an edict like that? Was there a similar one when Ryan Coogler was hired for Black Panther?

FEIGE: That’s not true. We didn’t lay down any edict like that. When it came to Ryan Coogler, we loved both of his films and in particular, most recently, Creed. It coincided exactly with the start of our director search for Black Panther. Luckily for us, he was very interested and pursued it and we signed him up relatively quickly. There was not a particularly large search. We got very lucky. In terms of Captain Marvel, we don’t send out edicts. That being said, we are meeting with many, many immensely talented directors, the majority of whom are female. I do hope they will have announcements certainly by the summer, before the summer’s end, on a director for that.

So, probably San Diego Comic-Con.

They pressed further, asking Feige about the importance of representation on screen. Something many privileged people can’t comprehend.

DEADLINE: I didn’t mean to be insensitive with Coogler, whose first two films were inclusive and full of heart. But you think about what it might mean for a child of color, to feel a stake in a movie like that, with a black actor and director. It seems important. We haven’t really seen a superhero of color carry a movie since Wesley Snipes was doing the Blade movies.

FEIGE: Well, you’ve seen a lot but you mean in title roles.

YES, OF COURSE TITLE ROLES. You can’t honestly expect people to throw you a parade for making POC the sidekicks all the time, can you? They continued:

DEADLINE: I’m talking about a freestanding film like Coogler is making. Are you thinking of the cultural impact that might have?

FEIGE: I think that would be nice. We always set out to just make a great movie. I know that’s what Ryan is setting out to do but even the introduction that the characters had in Civil War and the reactions to that character…my daughter, a little redhead, 7-year-old girl was running around all weekend wearing the Black Panther mask. I love that and I think we’ll see much more of that when that movie comes out I think even this Halloween. But certainly the Halloween following the release of Ryan’s film I think you’re going to see lots of kids, of many ethnicities, dressing up as that character because he’s unbelievably awesome. The fact that he will be an African American actor portraying an African hero up on that screen, and a target of wish fulfillment for the audience? I think it is great.

Feige is hearing the audience (and Deadline) but seems to be only halfway there in terms of understanding diversity doesn’t stop with one hire or one character. It’s a process you have to be actually working on constantly. He thinks excitement for a character like T’Challa will cross ethnic barriers, and that’s true, but to not recognize the huge importance of a Black child seeing a Black hero on screen is disappointing. Visibility is vital.

It’s clear Marvel is hearing fans and to be sure, they’re hearing and responding better than most of Hollywood right now, but only time (and the next several Marvel movies) will tell if they truly understood the lessons being taught by a frustrated audience.

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  • Zefram Mann

    “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?”

    You do realize, Mr. Feige, that Asians come in male and female varieties, don’t you? They are human beings, like us, not some mono-sexual Lovecraftian species that reproduce via polyps and spores.

    Why is it that so many people can’t seem to wrap their head around the idea that “woman” and “non-white” are not mutually exclusive?

  • the silver ravens

    maybe they should have just gone in a totally different direction and made the AO a black woman from wakanda and then they could have used the excuse that they were connecting it to the larger MCU or tie it to that woman in thor’s nightmare from age of ultron

  • I think the choice to make AO a woman is a smart idea, having the wisest person in the world be a woman is cool. That said white washing is a big issue and this movie doesn’t exist in a bubble. If we pretended like there was tons of roles for Asian Woman to play old wise people then I’d be like okay cool yay, who cares if they changed the race of this character but the fact is there isn’t.

    I think the diversity problem at Marvel is really the Feige see’s diversity as any time any kind of character exists in any movie even if the white guy is the main hero. All the time I hear straight white dude talk about their kid dressing up as X diverse character but we need more. Really things like LGBT+ characters aren’t even being considered for film (*cough* china *cough*). Also them pretending like Thor 3 will make more money or something then them doing like any other hero is pretty crazy. They could announce freaking crazy stuff and because it’s marvel it will make money. Thor is their lowest seller (*cough* because only Loki is interesting *cough* (from what they have shown) ). There was no reason to have this block of films be so straight white dude loaded and they proved they always have room for more straight white dudes. They moved movies over for Antman 2 and Spider-man. Today if they wanted they could cancel Inhumans, cancel Thor 3, etc and announce some more diverse movies. They just don’t want to.

  • someladyontheinternet

    Great breakdown of the interview.

    I’ve been wondering about the idea of Marvel being in a no-win situation wrt The Ancient One. Feige seems to think their choices would have been Stereotyped Asian or White Woman, but that’s a false dichotomy if there ever was one. When you have something problematic and you want a way around it, you call for help. If little known authors can consult with people about other cultures to make sure they get them right, a company as big as Marvel sure can. Think of the positive press they would have gotten if they had worked with an advocacy group to get the part right.

  • Stephen “Soup” Strange

    I can’t wait for the Captain Marvel movie. As for Doctor Strange, the new comic has really been interesting me and I need more magic in my entertainment, so I’m looking forward to it.

  • wondercube

    To be honest, I’m still excited for Dr. Strange despite all of the controversy surrounding it. It’s one of those things where being critical, for me, doesn’t have to detract all the joy/interest in the film. From an objective perspective, the Ancient One being literally ANYONE (male, female, Asian, white, Hispanic, etc) makes sense to me, and perhaps they all go on a pilgrimage to live in the same locale. But seeing these films from the outside, when they have so few characters of color in big roles, it seems a bit absurd to not feature an Asian actor. Michelle Yeoh. Sandra Oh. Hell, even Lucy Liu. There are plenty of options they could have gone with, but didn’t. I’m excited to see Tilda Swinton, but they could have made a better choice. You’ve already got Mighty Whitey up the wazoo with Strange anyway, why double that with The Ancient One?

    • TBH there is nothing they could do to entice me to see this movie.

      • wondercube

        Thankfully no one is going to force you to see it. :P

        • If my wife is overcome with a sudden Cumberbatchian need, there won’t be much I can do to dissuade her, but aside from that…I’ve never been much of a Doctor Strange guy.

    • Nerdy McNerdface

      Assuming that casting a Tibetan actor wasn’t an option because China, I can certainly understand deciding not to cast an East Asian actor.

      But East Asians aren’t the only Asians. In particular, since they’ve moved the Ancient One to Nepal anyways, surely a Nepalese/Nepalese-American actor would have been good choice?

  • bandit_queen

    I want to believe the MCU is headed for better things, but I just don’t trust Feige to really understand these issues. And I certainly don’t forgive the whitewashing in Doctor Strange just because they also made the character a woman: representation for white women is not interchangeable with representation for people of color. At this point, I’ll give his PR people credit for feeding him better lines, and I’ll wait and see if anything changes.

    • Jason Rye

      Well, he is also lying about China, when it’s plain as daylight. But I do wonder if he is covering for Perlmutter again, since he was ousted after the movie’s casting of Tilda and by then, I bet contracts were set into stone to late to fix it.

    • Is there a Wikipedia page for how much people are worth? Like, a white woman is worth X points but a black man is worth X points and if you cast a Chinese man but he has one arm, then there’s a multiplier? I’m not sure if points is the best system, if there is. Ooh, we could say people instead of points. Anyway, I’m just wondering if there’s a table for which people are worth the most people cuz Google isn’t helping.