In addition to pointing out that Benedict Cumberbatch’s American accent sounds exactly like Hugh Laurie’s, one of the biggest discussions about the Doctor Strange teaser trailer centered on race. Specifically, the fact that the character of the Ancient One, a mystical Tibetan man in the comics, would be played by Tilda Swinton, a mystical white British woman in real life. Though the trailer seems to dress her in Asian garb and place her in an Asian city, Swinton clarified that she’s not playing an Asian character in the film. Still, her casting (and the first photo of Scarlett Johansson in Ghost In The Shell) has led to a lot of debate about how frequently Asian characters are white-washed in Hollywood. And now Doctor Strange screenwriter C. Robert Cargill is weighing in on the controversy.
The Sinister screenwriter stopped by the Double Toasted podcast to discuss working on Doctor Strange, and was asked via a listener email to explain why the Ancient One is played by a white woman. Cargill—one of three credited screenwriters on the project (all of whom are white men)—clarifies that he wasn’t actually working on the film when the decision to cast Swinton was made. But given that the film’s director/co-writer is Cargill’s friend and frequent collaborator Scott Derrickson, he still has some insights into the process. (The discussion of the Ancient One starts around 17:54.)
Cargill calls the character of the Ancient One “Marvel’s Kobayashi Maru”—referring to the unbeatable test put before potential commanders in Star Trek. Cargill explains, “There is no other character in Marvel history that is such a cultural land mine. That is absolutely unwinnable… I could tell you why every single decision that involves the Ancient One is a bad one and just like the Kobayashi Maru it all comes down onto which way you’re willing to lose.”
Cargill argues that not only is the character in the comics an unfortunate “racist stereotype,” his Tibetan origin makes him a potentially problematic character on a geopolitical scale. After all, China—a major factor in a film’s international box office success—doesn’t acknowledge the independence of Tibet. Cargill explains his biggest frustration is hearing people suggest potential Chinese actresses like Michelle Yeoh for the role, arguing, “If you are telling me 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 fuck you’re talking about.”
He also runs through other potential “fixes” for the characters, all of which he claims have their own downfalls: Casting an actor of a different Asian background—say Japanese or Indian—would be seen as “disrespecting the original ethnicity” of the character. Regardless, having the Ancient One be an Asian character at all would further perpetuate the “white hero” narrative in which a white protagonist learns a skill from an Asian character only to surpass all of the Asian characters in that skill (i.e. The Last Samurai). And to simply remove the Ancient One altogether, he argues, would be seen as eradicating a character due to his race. So as Cargill puts it:
Scott [Derrickson] decided, “There’s no real way to win this so let’s use this as an opportunity to cast an amazing actress in a male role.” And sure enough, there’s not a lot of talk about, “Aww man, they took away the job from a guy and gave it to a woman.” Everyone kind of pats us on the back for that and then decides to scold us for her not being Tibetan. And that’s just the way it’s gonna go… The social justice warriors were gonna get mad at us for something this week. They were just gonna do it, there was no way to avoid it. So the hill Scott decided to die on was the one of feminism.
Of course, Cargill doesn’t really explain how Marvel decided that the backlash against casting a white woman would be preferable to the backlash against casting an Asian actor. However, he does note that although it’s not apparent from the teaser trailer, Doctor Strange will be “one of the most multicultural films most people have seen in years,” with speaking roles for characters of almost every single major race. And while he uses the pejorative term “social justice warrior” a couple of times during his interview, he also admits, “Everyone has a right to be upset because [of] the fact that this [racist Marvel comics character] even exists.”
Cargill later commented further on Twitter, noting that he speaks only for himself and not for Marvel and that potential concerns about the Chinese box office are just his own speculation.
During the rest of the 26-minute interview, Cargill also discusses what it’s like to work with Marvel (“a bunch of cool ass nerds hanging out doing cool nerd shit and making cool movies”), reveals that the company is looking to add more individuality to its Phase 3 and Phase 4 films, and argues that any similarities between Batman Begins and Doctor Strange is because Batman Begins ripped off the Doctor Strange comics to begin with.
You can find an unedited version of the podcast—which, ironically, also features a discussion in which the hosts note Asian viewers have “a right to complain” about Hollywood whitewashing—over on Double Toasted’s website.