Despite the incredible amount of anticipation surrounding it, #DoctorStrange, as with most comic books movies nowadays, has been subjected to its fair share of controversy. From people wanting Stephen Strange to be played by a person of color to the race-swapping of the traditionally Asian character of The Ancient One (who will now be played by Tilda Swinton), Marvel was accused of white-washing and not giving other ethnicities their chance to shine on the big screen, particularly those of Asian descent.
And while all of that is absolutely valid, and has been an ongoing issue in the movie end of the #MCU that deserves discussion, Marvel does deserve credit for how it has approached the issue of a different Asian character in the film: Wong. Marvel is already taking steps for equality with the portrayal of Stephen Strange's loyal friend: Wong, played by Benedict Wong (Whose name is right next to Marc Webb when it comes to awesomely coincidental names). During a recent interview with Marvel, Benedict Wong talked about the new direction in which Marvel is taking his character:
“Things like ‘manservant’ and ‘sidekick,’ we’re just going to leave back in the past now. Wong is now a master at Kamar-Taj training the fellow disciples and sorcerers, and the protector of the Sanctum relics, and these ancient ritual books.”
He reveals that Wong sees Strange as "the lucky disciple" and as "very much a rookie." While Marvel does deserve some scrutiny for its mishandling of certain characters and the issue of diversity, they also deserve credit when credit is due. Their update of Wong gives us an insight into something Marvel is doing to address the issue of fair representation in their movies.
Changing The Perspective Of Wong As A Character
In the comics, Wong is the loyal servant of Stephen Strange and their relationship is mostly based on the usual quirky master-doting servant dynamic. He doesn't really have big aspirations other than being Strange's servant, despite being highly intelligent and an amazing martial artist. On the big screen, that portrayal would limit the possibilities for an enjoyable dynamic between the two (and I have written many times about the need to break away from tired character dynamics). Thankfully, Marvel is giving us a different spin on the character for Doctor Strange.
In the film, he is his own man. Even before Stephen Strange enters the picture, he already has a place as a master, warrior, and sorcerer and doesn't depend on anyone else. You might be asking, "Why does that matter? We see strong ethnic characters in other movies all the time."
Well, that may be true to some extent (though there is still a long, long way to go), but it's important because he is evolving from a character known for serving others to a powerful leader in his own right. They didn't need to change another character's race to accomplish that. Instead, they took Wong and gave him a great update. He is even responsible for training Strange in the film. About that and the result, the actor said this:
“It’s where we’ll see how Wong and Doctor Strange come together and become really allies to fight against these dimensional forces."
This way, they open the door for a much more interesting relationship between Wong and Stephen Strange on the big screen: Two experts in their field facing threats together. This will fortunately give audiences a different perspective on a character that, if they hadn't made the effort to revamp, could have unfortunately just been seen as a mystical manservant.
Presenting Diversity Seamlessly
There have been many arguments made about how certain characters' races should be changed to reflect diversity. This has particularly been true of Asian-Americans and actors of Asian descent; while Marvel has had more representation on TV (Ming-Na Wen and Chloe Bennet in Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., Jessica Henwick and Lewis Tan in the upcoming Iron Fist series), the studio is still badly lagging behind in the movie end of the MCU. Some of the biggest examples of many fans feeling Marvel missed an opportunity to cast a person of color were with the characters of Doctor Strange and Iron Fist.
While race-bending normally does not change the inherent spirit of a character as it rarely has anything to do with their character, I am of the mindset that instead, we should get adaptations of characters, whether superheroes or supporting, that are already people of color without making their ethnicity the focus. Just treat them like people, not stereotypes, as capable and strong and flawed as anyone else.
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Marvel did this wonderfully with Black Panther in Captain America: Civil War. With Chadwick Boseman, they gave us a regal, elegant and likable character of color that stood on his own without depending on his appearance. The interesting thing is that Black Panther was already presented that way in the comic books and the Russo Brothers and Marvel simply translated it to the big screen.
But for all their missteps, #Marvel has always been very good about keeping its finger on the pulse of its fanbase and adjusting accordingly. They are aware of their goofs and should be given credit for trying to rectify it. And that starts with taking Wong, someone known mostly as a manservant throughout his long history, and making him more three-dimensional and well-rounded. The best thing is that they are doing it for the sake of the character in order to properly represent audiences. We have to give Marvel props for that, because it's not an easy task. Fortunately, by listening to Wong's reasoning for what they do in Kamar-Taj, it seems they are pulling it off.
This is something I really appreciate because I've seen many times, in both comics and movies, how we are given a diverse line of characters but the fact that they are diverse is constantly referenced as a way to highlight their "acceptance." Growing up, I was taught to look at people as people, no matter their skin color or appearance, so it's nice to see that Marvel knows how to include various ethnicities without alienating them at the same time by pointing out they look different from the — in this case — white protagonist.
This smart approach to diversity, paired with how awesome everything from the movie looks, makes me not being able to wait for Doctor Strange to hit theaters.
Which upcoming MCU Phase Three movie are you most excited for?