When Tilda Swinton was cast as the Ancient One in #DoctorStrange, the Internet went ablaze with fury. The word #whitewashing was thrown out — why was Marvel turning an Eastern mystic into a white Celtic female? Gradually, the reasons for the changes became known; and, with Doctor Strange gradually airing worldwide, it's time to ask whether or not those changes have worked out.
WARNING: MAJOR SPOILERS FOLLOW!
The Politics of the Ancient One
Back in April, at the height of the fury, the movie's co-writer C. Robert Cargill unwisely went public on the decision to reinvent the Ancient One.
"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.”
In other words: this isn't whitewashing. It's politics.
As little as western audiences may like to admit it, he has a point. Most commentators are expecting the Chinese box office to become the most important one in the world, overtaking even the American box office, by 2020. Last year saw the Chinese box office experience an unprecedented 50% growth. With the benefit of hindsight, 2016 isn't looking to work out the same way; the Chinese economy is slowing down, and the Chinese box office with it. Still, you can't blame #Marvel's decision makers for not knowing that. And even factoring in that slowdown, the market is still enormous — and important for Doctor Strange's performance.
In fact, C. Robert Cargill is absolutely right when he says the Chinese government would be, shall we say, 'sensitive' when it comes to a Tibetan mystic. Back in the 1990s, Marvel's now-parent-company Disney made the film Kundun, a biography of the Dalai Lama (who is strongly linked to Tibet). The Chinese government was so furious that it actually threatened to ban Disney outright, and incredibly, it's only in the last couple of years that Disney has managed to patch things up! There's no way that Disney would allow a repeat of this, meaning that the Ancient One simply had to be changed as a character.
It's worth noting that Doctor Strange was always going to be a hard-sell for China anyway; in the past, the Chinese government has had times when it banned any films depicting sorcery! So the filmmakers needed to tread with real care so as not to get this particular movie banned. They've clearly been successful, with Doctor Strange debuting in China on November 4th.
Why the Narrative Needed the Ancient One to Change
Watching Doctor Strange, though, I'm struck by another reason that the character needed to change; the film deepened the Ancient One beyond all recognition. Tilda Swinton's Ancient One is simply unrecognizable when compared to the comic book version; originally just a simple teacher and mentor-figure, this reimagined Ancient One is soon fleshed out and humanized in a way the original never was.
Unlike the comics, Doctor Strange gives us a sense of the character's backstory. We ultimately learn the secret of her power is that she has drawn on the energy of the Dark Dimension itself to hold back death — an act that she would never advocate for anyone else! As Benedict Cumberbatch's Stephen Strange comments, she is a "complex" woman — wonderfully so, as he learns standing beside her astral form as she finally embraces death.
There's a sense in which Doctor Strange's Ancient One transcends race and gender, and that shows in the shortlist for the role; Tilda Swinton may have become the Ancient One in the end, but she competed with Morgan Freeman, Ken Watanabe and Bill Nighy! Appropriately, the Doctor Strange Prelude comics presented the Ancient One as an almost androgynous, sexless figure, with artist Jorge Forné deliberately giving no emphasis to her gender or biological sex.
Was Tilda Swinton the Right Choice?
I have to be frank that I don't think anyone else could have pulled off the Ancient One quite so well. In a film that's overwhelmingly male — Rachel McAdams's Christine Palmer is the only other major female role — she brings a sense of balance to the movie. She plays the part in a wonderfully serene way, conveying a sense of emotional strength and ageless wisdom.
Lampshading the changes made to the Ancient One, when Stephen Strange first enters her presence he assumes a male mystic — Topo Wresniwiro's Master Hamir — is actually the Ancient One. Master Hamir is deliberately clothed in a way that's reminiscent of the comic book version of the Ancient One, and it's fascinating to see the two concepts in contrast. You definitely get the sense that Tilda Swinton's Ancient One is the stronger of the two.
As Doctor Strange progresses, Tilda Swinton allows cracks to develop in the Ancient One's facade — first hints of anger, at being questioned, and then serene acceptance as she finally faces death. Her last conversation with Stephen Strange is powerful and moving, and Tilda Swinton channels real depths of emotion in that scene. In that moment, I knew that there was nobody I'd rather see cast as the Ancient One.
Sometimes Rewrites Can Work
When the changes to the Ancient One were first announced, fans cried 'whitewashing'. The reality was always more complex than a mere case of whitewashing, though; after all, Tilda Swinton competed with Morgan Freeman for the role! The sad truth is that the ethical side of this decision is difficult to evaluate. Had Marvel chosen to defy China, the Chinese government's response would have been simple; Doctor Strange would never have aired in China. Marvel would have made a statement that nobody in China would ever have even known about, and that the Chinese government wouldn't really have cared about either. Frankly, I can understand why Marvel chose to take a step back on that one.
For me, a more interesting aspect of this is the fact that I find Doctor Strange's Ancient One to be a far more interesting character than I do in the comics. I think we comic book fans sometimes get too caught up in the excitement of seeing comics translated on to the big screen. We seem to act as though 'comic book accuracy' is the only measure of success, as though directors and writers should restrict their imaginations in a way comic book writers and artists never did when originally creating these stories and characters.
Doctor Strange reminds me that this attitude is a foolish one. Sometimes a change can be for the best; the Ancient One of Doctor Strange is a far more fascinating character than the one I meet in the original comics, with an infinitely greater emotional depth. I don't say that lightly; I love the source comics, and I'm more than a little surprised to be writing these words. But maybe sometimes we comic book fans need to take a step back, and cut the studios some slack.
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In my view, the Ancient One is one of the greatest successes of Doctor Strange. I won't lie and pretend that the ethics of all this aren't troubling; they are. But they're also maddeningly complicated, and I can understand Marvel's final decision. Given the excellence of Tilda Swinton's performance, I think Marvel made the right choice.
Doctor Strange releases November 4th. Don't miss it!