Perhaps the most controversial casting choice in Marvel's Doctor Strange was the decision to cast Tilda Swinton as The Ancient One; it led to accusations of #whitewashing. The prospect of casting a white female as the male Asian mystic was an unusual one, and an explanation from Doctor Strange writer C. Robert Cargill really stirred the pot. Now, in the second issue of Marvel's Doctor Strange Prelude - a two-issue miniseries based in the Marvel Cinematic Universe - we've finally seen the Ancient One at work. Marvel has been justifying the casting choice by arguing that the Ancient One is being used in a very different way; how accurate is that?
The Ancient One is a Leader and Guide
In the comics, although the Ancient One is a teacher and guide, he's portrayed as a very solitary figure. The Ancient One in the #MCU is presented very differently; she stands at the heart of a community of sorcerers, and her role as Sorcerer Supreme is as much a teaching role as anything else.
The most telling scene can be found towards the end of the comic, where the Ancient One stands against a brutal warlord. There, rather than stand alone, she tells the warlord:
"You believed too fiercely in the shortsighted power of the one over the many."
My suspicion is that this dialogue is central to the character's reinterpretation. The Ancient One doesn't believe in hoarding power, but rather in sharing it. At the same time her role involves learning the truths her students are not yet able to, and protecting her students from powers that they are not yet ready to bear.
The Ancient One is Portrayed in an Almost Androgynous Way
At the heart of the Ancient One's casting controversy was the idea of the character being a white female. With that in mind, Jorge Forné's artistic choices in the Doctor Strange Prelude are fascinating. He presents the Ancient One in an almost androgynous way. Although the character is slim, no prominence is given to her sexuality; she's flat-chested, and the definition of lips and eyebrows is carefully done so as to conceal gender rather than display it.
This is an unusual approach for a superhero comic, where female characters are traditionally drawn through the use of curved lines, and where physical aspects such as the breasts are usually emphasized. It suggests that the reason Marvel was willing to cast a female Ancient One is because the character is viewed as being beyond sexuality. I felt that the comic would have presented the Ancient One in exactly the same way had the character been male, and that's very rare in comics.
The Ancient One is an Active Protector of the World
The first issue of the Doctor Strange Prelude introduced us to the concept of the Masters of the Mystic Arts. Explaining why we haven't seen magic in the Marvel Cinematic Universe before, the Masters of the Mystic Arts strive to protect the world from the power of magic. They look out for the use of dangerous and powerful mystic artifacts, and intervene to put matters right. Essentially, they're the mystical equivalent of S.H.I.E.L.D..
As the Sorcerer Supreme, the Ancient One is the most powerful of the world's defenders. Although she entrusts most missions to her students, she intervenes in cases where the magic is simply too powerful and too dangerous, where only she is able to withstand it. She's very much active in the world's defence.
But the Ancient One is Struggling
There's definitely a sense in this Prelude comic that the Ancient One's time is coming to an end. She's carried the burden of deep magic for a long time, and that burden is beginning to weigh her down. The comic shows us rituals becoming rote, and features dialogue that suggests she's beginning to lose her inner balance. It suggests that this balance is key to being Sorcerer Supreme, hinting that she cannot stand against the darkness for much longer.
In the comics, Doctor Strange inherited the mantle of Sorcerer Supreme. I'm not sure whether or not one film can leave him ready to shoulder those responsibilities; my suspicion is that Marvel is preparing an arc that will run through multiple films, where he enters the mystic world in this first film, takes on the role of Sorcerer Supreme in the second, and must stand as the world's greatest defender in a third. Whether I'm right or not, to my mind the comic hints very strongly that Doctor Strange will see the Ancient One beginning her quest to find a worthy successor.
Chiwetel Ejiofor's Baron #Mordo is presented as a logical second-in-command for the Ancient One. He acts as her deputy in this issue, and led the mission in Doctor Strange Prelude #1. Marvel fans know of Mordo as a powerful but evil sorcerer, but he isn't the villain in this film; Mads Mikkelsen's #Kaecilius, who will star in the upcoming digital comic, is. Again, my suspicion is that this film will prepare the ground for Mordo's fall, and that this will actually happen in the second film. I feel as though Marvel is playing the long-game with Doctor Strange.
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All in all, this is a fascinating issue, and one that I really enjoyed. Will Corona Pilgrim's script is simple but effective, while Jorge Forné's art is simply beautiful. With the MCU embracing a lot more than just films - these tie-in comics are part of the MCU continuity - this issue's pretty much a must-read if you're wanting to get a taste of the mystical world of Doctor Strange. It's certainly a must if you want to get a sense of the Ancient One!
Are you looking forward to Doctor Strange? Let me know in the comments!