Better almost five years late than never.
While Marvel’s Doctor Strange was mostly meant to bring proper magic to the MCU ahead of the Avengers’ confrontation with Thanos, the movie also brought renewed attention to some disappointing, racist truths about Silver Age comic characters like Stephen Strange who were products of their time. When Marvel Studios announced it planned to bring Doctor Strange to the MCU, Marvel’s comics had already been in the process of shifting the character away from some of the more problematic elements of his lore for some time.
The studio, on the other hand, needed to figure out how to adapt him for the big screen and in a way that would play to modern audiences while also incorporating enough elements from the comics to satisfy fans allergic to deviations from canon. Tilda Swinton’s (who is white) casting as the Ancient One (who is a Tibetan man in the comics) ended up being the most visible change the studio made, presumably out of the assumption that simply by making the character a white woman, it was dodging a bullet.
While many people pointed out how that move did not send the message Marvel thought it was sending, Swinton’s Ancient One came, and went, and came back briefly in Avengers: Endgame, and what’s done is done. But Marvel head Kevin Feige would now like to go on the record stating that, looking back on how things played out, he understands that some poor choices were made.
In a recent interview with Men’s Health, Feige admitted that he and the rest of the studio really thought they’d pulled something clever off with Swinton’s casting, but that their desire genuinely was to try and avoid putting a racist caricature in a movie. “We thought we were being so smart, and so cutting-edge,” Kevin Feige said. “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.”
There is no real way to fully decouple the Doctor Strange brand as a whole from the original comic’s overt Orientalism, which was crystallised in key parts of the character’s mythos — like his journey to the Himalayas where he meets a mystical Tibetan man who teaches him the skills to become the most powerful sorcerer on the planet.
Both the Ancient One’s being a magical person from a secret, mystical city, and his ultimately agreeing to teach a white Westerner how to wield magic are parts of Doctor Strange’s canon that have always been shot through with the kind of casual racism that’s quite common in genre fiction. As much as studios and publishing houses might not want to acknowledge that chunks of their IP are tainted with racism, that’s one of the pitfalls of being a Big Player in the game that’s been around for decades, and it’s something these companies honestly should be more cognisant of as they continue to mine that same IP for new adaptations.
Trying to run away from the ugliness of the past is one option present, but it doesn’t really do much to address the deeper issue at hand, and it doesn’t really speak to much thoughtfulness about how else these kinds of characters could be reimagined. That being said, Feige acknowledging the studio dropping the ball with the Ancient One is the right move if only to let the public know that the studio’s aware of its missteps and intends to course-correct going forward. Of course, we’ll have to actually see how that plays out in Marvel’s future actions rather than its words after the fact.