Marvel’s Doctor Strange Co-Writer Seemingly Reveals Casting White Actors Is For the Money, Less Headaches

DoctorStrangeAncientOne2

While people inside and out of the industry have been critical about representation for years, it seems as if the diversity in Hollywood conversation is finally making some headway. Unfortunately that’s thanks to a few whitewashed films in a row but the reactions of those working on the projects speaks volumes.

One of the more recent examples is Paramount’s Ghost in the Shell. While they received blowback after Scarlett Johansson was cast, it was revitalized after the first image of her was released. After a report from Screencrush surfaced alleging the studio commissioned visual effects tests that would have shifted the actor’s ethnicity, Paramount responded by saying tests had been done but only on a background actor.

The collective gasps from the internet was louder than anything I’d heard in a while. Here was a major film studio admitting to digital “yellowface” and not understanding why that was a horrific thing to do. But is it ignorance or is it a calculated choice?

Marvel’s Doctor Strange disappointed some fans when they cast Benedict Cumberbatch in the role of Stephen Strange. Many saw it as an opportunity for Marvel to diversify their leading lineup considering Strange’s ethnicity doesn’t play a vital role to his story. And then they chose Tilda Swinton to play the Ancient One, who’s ethnicity was certainly part of the character.  The Hollywood Reporter asked Swinton about this:

“Well, it’s not actually an Asian character — that’s what I need to tell you about it,” she told The Hollywood Reporter at a Thursday night screening of A Bigger Splash at New York City’s Museum of Modern Art. “I wasn’t asked to play an Asian character, you can be very well assured of that.”

She added with a smile, “You just have to wait and see, because it’s not an Asian character.”

Well that’s confusing, not to mention disappointing. When Swinton’s name was first rumored for the role I was of two minds. On one hand, casting her absolutely took away a role that could have been filled by a POC. On the other, I think her work as an actor is tremendous and I thought it was interesting they chose a woman to play a traditionally male role. But why couldn’t they have chosen a WOC and done two positive things towards diversifying their film slate? Well, writer C. Robert Cargill has some peculiar thoughts on that.

Cargill co-wrote the film along with Scott Derrickson and Jon Spaihts. In a video interview with Double Toasted he had this to say .

The thing about the Ancient One is it is Marvel’s Kobayashi Maru [Editor’s Note: He’s referencing Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan’s fictional test for Starfleet cadets featuring a “no-win scenario.”] Like, there is no other character in Marvel history that is such a cultural landmine, that is absolutely unwinnable. Like, I’ve been reading a bunch of people talking about it and the really frustrating thing about it this week is most of the people who have thoughts on it haven’t thought it all the way through and they go, ‘Well why didn’t they just do this?’ And it’s like, I could tell you why. Like, 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 onto which way you’re willing to lose.

Apparently Cargill and Marvel were willing to lose an Asian character. He went on to say:

The Ancient One was a racist stereotype who comes from a region of the world that is in 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.’

It’s important to note here how real Cargill just got. The Chinese market is very financially important to Marvel Entertainment. They’ve even gone so far as to add Chinese characters to their films (both from Marvel Comics and newly created for the MCU) specifically to cater to that market. So when you’re talking about the choice to specifically exclude a Tibetan character it is in its very nature a political move in order not to loose money.

But Cargill didn’t stop there. He decided to go through a few other scenarios:

If we decide to go the other way and cater to China in particular and have him be in Tibet…The thing that makes me pull my hair out is you know, some people like, ‘Well why not cast [Chinese-Malaysian actor] Michelle Yeoh.’ And I’m like, first of all, Michelle Yeoh is awesome! I would love to make a film with Michelle Yeoh. If you are telling me that 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 fuck you’re talking about. Oh what, oh well she could be Asian, she should be Japanese? She should be Indian? Like, really?

Yes, you really could have cast an Asian woman!

The levels of cultural sensitivity around this thing is everybody staking out their one particular place and not realizing that every single thing here is a losing proposition. We can pretend the Ancient One doesn’t exist and then we’re just eradicating one of the main characters from the story to just not deal with race. So what Scott decided to do, and this happened before I came on board so I wasn’t party to this decision at all, although there’s part of me that wishes I was was he was just like, ‘We can’t, there’s no real way to win this so let’s use this as an opportunity to cast an amazing actress in a male role.’ And sure enough, nobody, you know there’s not a lot of talk about ‘Oh man, they took away the job from a guy and gave it to a woman.’ Everybody kind of pats us on the back for that and then decides to scold us for her not being Tibetan and that’s just the way it’s gonna go. We knew that the Social Justice Warriors would be angry either way.

Yup, he went there. Just like Billy Corgan recently did. But I’ll let him go on a bit more before I get into that because there’s more here to unpack.

If we just kind of used a Tibetan actor and it was still an Ancient One but it was much less racist, or hopefully not racist at all, people would still be like, ‘Oh it’s another white guy goes to the Orient, and adopts their ways, and then comes back and is the great white hero story. It’s Avatar all over again, it’s The Last Samurai all over again.’ So you’re gonna get dinged on that. If you switch it to a Tibetan woman again, you’ve got a lot of problems with just the politics of the region. If you choose any other Asian race, any other ethnicity, you’re still disrespecting the original ethnicity of the race. So what Scott just decided to do was, let’s go with an actor who everyone loves and let’s make one of the most powerful characters in the Marvel universe a woman. And at the same time that also allowed us to do a lot of other gender-bending and playing around with the film.

I can understand it being a role surrounded by cultural issues. I get that. But from word one you can help yourselves by creating a cast that’s so diverse, few would find reason to complain if you wanted to change a traditionally Asian role into something else. But that’s not the environment Marvel has created for themselves. Not in this movie and not in any other MCU film production. Cargill says, “People would still be like, ‘Oh it’s another white guy goes to the Orient, and adopts their ways, and then comes back and is the great white hero story,” but it wouldn’t be that at all if you hadn’t cast a white guy in the lead role to begin with! You boxed yourself in by not thinking outside the box. Marvel’s Netflix series Iron Fist just fell into the same trap Cargill described here by casting Finn Jones in the lead role. On that, USA Today writer Hoai-Tran Bui expressed disappointment in Marvel:

Danny Rand is not Peter Parker. He is not a well-known enough character that a change in his ethnicity would confuse or anger a majority of Marvel fans. The outsider narrative could easily be applied to a second or third-generation Asian American who has lost touch with his roots. He could be an Asian man who was adopted by an American family as a child and raised in a life of privilege. The possibilities are endless.

“There wouldn’t be as much of an outcry over this loyal but ultimately disrespectful piece of casting if Marvel hadn’t been pretty proactive with its onscreen representation in the past,” he added to the consensus. More representation in your projects can only help you.

Now back to the Social Justice Warriors, a.k.a. SJWs, Cargill decided to call out. SJWs are people (mostly using their voice online) to spread awarenesses about perceived injustices in the world. It just so happens a lot of them are vocal about what Hollywood is doing these days, not that no one has spoken up before about the incredibly lack of diversity in U.S. film and television. To use the term as a negative only makes you appear as if you don’t care about these issues. And while there is a huge segment of online jerks who don’t care and use SJW as some sort of slanderous curse, there is another segment of people starting to use it to insult people for speaking out about something they care about, something Cargill himself seems to care about.

Sometimes I still can’t comprehend how people get mad at myself and others speaking out for positive change. When you frame your argument like “How DARE you care about POCs, women, or LGBTQ+ representation in the media you consume and spend a lot of money on!? Here’s this one token character!” you are the one who looks bad. And even in his own words Cargill says “The Social Justice Warriors were going to get mad at us for something this week, they were just gonna do it. There was no way to avoid it.” He thinks we’re mad just to be mad and not furiously angry and frustrated about a systemic issue we’re seeing people in power ignore over and over. But that’s fine, go ahead thinking we’re picking on you. Cargill started winding down with:

This needs to be said…No disrespect to anyone, except the idiots out there who are going ‘this is the only way to do it,’ but everyone has a right to be upset because this is…the fact that this even exists, the fact that there’s a problem that Marvel has a character like that that has fallen into a weird place. Like, the only way this character could be more awkward is if he had been made back in the 30s, like around the Superman time, and instead of going to the Orient he went to Palestine and learned from a Palestinian master…This was a really, really ugly piece of history that we wish there was an easy solution to and there wasn’t one.

There was. Diversity.

Whether Marvel has changed the background of the Ancient One as such that the character is no longer rooted in Asian culture (in which case, they could have done as Cargill said and eliminated the character entirely in lieu of a new one with the same powers) or Swinton is clueless as to how being dressed in long robes and standing in Asian-themed sets is perceived, I hope someone at Marvel is listening and truly understands the criticisms being thrown at them over this.

Cargill notes that what we’ve seen in the first trailer is just a small portion of the cast and story specifically noting that Benedict Wong’s Wong and Chiwetel Ejiofor’s Karl Mordo have yet to be highlighted. “We made one of the most multicultural films most people have seen in years,” Cargill said, bringing home one more time just how depressing the state of Hollywood diversity really is.

Here’s the whole video, this talk was started from a fan email at around the 17:50 mark.

[UPDATE] Cargill tweeted the following after people started covering this story.

[UPDATE #2] Check out “Marvel Responds to Doctor Strange’s Ancient One Controversy by Offering Origin Details” next!

[UPDATE #3] Cargill gave a statement to the NY Times:

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.

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  • MisterShoebox

    If I recall correctly, not alienating Chinese audiences is why they didn’t give the Mandarin his original ethnicity and origin and instead turned him into Jude Law.

    (However, I personally believe that Ben Kingsley’s character IS really the Mandarin and was manipulating Generic McEvilBritches or whatever the character’s name…Killian, that’s it…into thinking HE was the Mandarin. Kinglsey’s character did this so he could hide in plain sight, have some other schmuck carry out HIS agenda, and – bonus – if things went pear-shaped, he’d have same schmuck as a fall-guy. Killian dies, and “Trevor Slatterly” mysteriously vanishes from his jail cell a few months later.)

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  • WheelchairNinja

    See, I still think the way the 2000s Battlestar Galactica did their casting is the way to go: chose the best actors for the roles *regardless* of how much they looked like the original characters. And yes, that means you’ll sometimes have a white guy in a role that used to be a played by a minority, but 1: that will be offset by all the other characters who’ve been gender/race swapped and 2: that white guy will be hands-down perfect for the part. You can not convince me that *anyone* would have been a better Commander Tigh than Michael Hogan, just like it’s impossible to imagine any white guys who would have played the roles of Adama, the president, and Starbuck more perfectly than Edward James Olmos, Mary McDonnell, and Katee Sackhoff.

    • It was certainly better than casting Michael Hogan as Deathstroke in Smallville. Ugh, terrible choice. Not that I was holding that show up to any sort of standard, but…

      Loved the BSG cast. My geek heart exploded when EJO got cast as Adama and he did not disappoint.

      • WheelchairNinja

        I didn’t know he was on Smallville. Did they think they needed an actor who had experience with an eyepatch, I wonder? ;)

        EJO is beyond awesome. Here he is in one of my all-time favorite YouTube videos: http://youtu.be/iSFDrOxWCXY

  • Injectable Antibiotic

    This is a business, they make decisions that affect millions if not billions of dollars. If you want diversity you can start your own movie studio. Til then, you don’t have a right to force others to make business decisions based on your feelings. -That’s- why people get angry at the Social Justice movement, it demands to be appeased but when those appeasements cost other people money, freedoms, and/or whatever can be lost to cost the SJWs don’t care. Diversity might be something you want to see, but it’s not necessarily a virtue on its own. No matter how much a bunch of self-involved cultists might think it is.

  • ” ‘Oh it’s another white guy goes to the Orient, and adopts their ways, and then comes back and is the great white hero story. It’s Avatar [The Last Airbender movie] all over again, it’s The Last Samurai all over again.’ ”

    I think he actually meant the James Cameron Avatar here, since it was another “white savior” / “white guy learns foreign culture and outdoes them at their own culture” movie.

    • Heather N

      And yet given the whitewashing of the live-action The Last Airbender, it could really be either.

      • I don’t think there are enough PoC in The Last Airbender for Ong to go learn and “adopt their ways”. :p

        • Tiger Millionare

          ooooh BURRRRRRNNNN!! :D

    • Yeeeah. I…really, really think most people haven’t seen The Last Samurai and just guess the plot from the poster. If you watch it, it’s abundantly clear that Watanabe is playing the last samurai and Cruise is there as a chronicler.

      • Yeah, the closest I’ve come to watching it is passing through the room where my brother was watching it once.

        • What I remember of it is OK? It actually nails the “outsider” perspective really well. But…*shrug* Nothing of value is lost.

    • Ah thanks, I’ll edit that bit out. Still haven’t seen Avatar…

      • …how did you attempt that feat?

        • I almost watched it on the plane to Australia and Brad stopped me saying it had to be seen on a big screen/in 3D and I just flipped to something else because it wasn’t worth the effort for me. :)

          • Yup. The movie is goddamn gorgeous in 3DIMAX.

            On my TV it was…. meh. You stopped being blowed away by the stunning visuals and started paying attention to the little things. Like plot.

  • RBLeMoyne

    The root of the problem is that Marvel wants Doctor Strange to be a tentpole movie for the next wave of the MCU, and the entertainment industry is locked in a mindset that says the only way to do that is to have a white male as the lead actor. It’s a sad fact that no studio is willing to risk any percentage of their box office gross by allowing diversity into their films at anything more than a supporting role. :/

  • I 100% agree that it’s a no-win scenario.

    And that they should have alienated China.

    • Garfii Kartyk

      But again, then you’re perpetuating the wise old Asian stereotype. The Ancient One has been an offensive trope since it was created by naive white guys in the 1960s, and we should be applauding its elimination from this movie. The problem is that Asian actors aren’t getting roles that aren’t stereotypes. There’s plenty of Asian actors cast as martial artists, or wise old people, or Yakuza/Triad/other Asian gangsters… the last thing this push for diversity needed was yet ANOTHER high profile Asian sterotype in a AAA film. His dumb comment about SJWs aside, we’re dying on the wrong hill here in fighting over the Ancient One. We should instead be asking about the absence of Asian actors in different kinds of roles.

      • SCENE 6

        INT. COFFEE SHOP – DAY

        DOCTOR STEVEN STRANGE, stupid hair, shaky hands, tries to sip his coffee without spilling it on his IPad as he scrolls through a Reddit detailing rumors about the Ancient One, a wisely Tibetan monk in the mountainous region of – get this – Tibet.

        STEVEN

        No thanks, that’s RACIST. I’d rather shake-shake-shake it off.

        DANCE MONTAGE:

      • NinjinSteve

        I’m just curious here… since when is being WISE an offensive thing??? All this hubbub about the Ancient One being an offensive stereotype has me scratching my head a bit. I’d call it more of an archetype than a stereotype. I mean… there’s been plenty of wise old mentor characters in pop-culture. Obi-Wan Kenobi, Yoda, Uncle Ben etc. etc. But if they’re asian then it’s offensive?

        Other Marvel characters like the Mandarin and Yellow Claw were offensive for sure. But The Ancient One?? I don’t quite get it.

        • Phillip Olson

          THIS! And if it’s the combination of being both old and wise that’s the stereotype, cast someone young! The Ancient One doesn’t show his real age anyway. He’s centuries old and uses magic to stay alive. There’s zero reason he couldn’t look young.

      • MisterShoebox

        Yyyeah, I’m personally of the opinion that the Ancient One himself needs a retcon. Instead of him being the Wise, Ancient Monk Who Lives Atop Mount Yoda And Is Wise And All-Knowing, have him be a fat, jaded, angry office worker in an ill-fitting suit who smells heavily of cigarettes and cheap bourbon who didn’t even WANT to be the Ancient One in the first place, but was cursed by the demon Dormammu a few thousand years ago because of a deal he made to get his crops growing faster when he was a farmer. He learned all he could about magic not to set the balance, but to see if there was a way to get rid of the debt. And he teaches Dr. Strange because…”I’m bored, you’re here, and I arbitrarily picked your limey ass. So sit down, shut up, and learn something.”