A few weeks ago, Marvel Studios got caught up in a storm. The issue of #whitewashing has become far more visible in the wake of #OscarsSoWhite trending for the second year in a row, and #Marvel's casting of (white female) Tilda Swinton as the (male Tibetan) Ancient One seemed like a classic case.
C. Robert Cargill, Doctor Strange's co-writer, chipped in with his opinion. He spoke of a difficult decision in which the slightest acknowledgement of Tibet would potentially lose the Chinese market, leaving the studio to simply redesign the character from the bottom up. The claim made a lot of sense, and you can check out my earlier post for an in-depth look.
"We make all of our decisions on all of our films, and certainly on 'Doctor Strange,' for creative reasons and not political reasons."
Here Feige is flat-out denying that politics have influenced Doctor Strange's casting decisions. In Feige's words, decisions are made for "creative reasons." He then goes into further detail about why the Ancient One was turned on his (her) head:
"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?"
It's true that the Ancient One plays into a lot of traditional stereotypes, and it's also interesting that Feige wants to present the "wisest bestower of knowledge in the universe" as a woman. It's not uncommon to hear criticism of Marvel for weak female characters — where's that Black Widow film? — so, according to this argument, the Ancient One is part of Marvel's answer.
As the interview goes on, Feige keeps the focus purely on diversity. He admits that there have been mistakes, and promises that positive change is to come.
"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."
This puts us in an interesting position, where the film's co-writer and Marvel's visionary are saying very different things. I have to be honest that I find it hard to discount C. Robert Cargill's comments; they're too well thought through to be off the cuff. What's more likely is that there was an in between, with the politics having influenced the decision but not having dictated it.