The controversial decision to cast Tilda Swinton as a female Celtic version of the Ancient One, a male Tibetan character in the comics (see “Tilda Swinton Up for ‘Doctor Strange’ Role”), in Marvel’s Doctor Strange may have been about preserving access to the lucrative Chinese market, according to the film’s screenwriter. The casting decision has been characterized as “whitewashing” by critics of the move, who argue that giving an Asian role to a white person amounted to discriminatory hiring. 

Marvel responded with a statement released to multiple news outlets today, in which it said, “Marvel has a very strong record of diversity in its casting of films and regularly departs from stereotypes and source material to bring its MCU [Marvel Cinematic Universe] to life. The Ancient One is a title that is not exclusively held by any one character, but rather a moniker passed down through time, and in this particular film the embodiment is Celtic. We are very proud to have the enormously talented Tilda Swinton portray this unique and complex character alongside our richly diverse cast."

But screenwriter C. Robert Cargill told the website Double Toasted in an interview (as reported by the New York Times) that the decision was less about story than about access to the increasingly critical Chinese box office, currently the second-largest movie market in the world.  China is very touchy on the issue of Tibet, which it conquered in the 50s, and where there is currently a struggle over whether the Tibetan or Han cultures will predominate.  There was concern that if the character was cast as Tibetan, the Chinese government could refuse to allow the movie to be shown in China. 

Cargill said that there was a risk of “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.’” 

Cargill said the gender switch was an attempt by the director to ameliorate the negative aspects of the changes in the character.  He said Doctor Strange director Scott Derrickson thought that “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.”

Cargill also ridiculed the suggestion that an ethnic Chinese actress, such as Michelle Yeoh, be cast as Tibetan.  “If you are telling me you think it’s a good idea to cast a Chinese actress as a Tibetan character, you are out of your damn fool mind,” he said.    

The importance of a single casting decision to Marvel’s strategy may be due to the fact that Doctor Strange isn’t just another Marvel movie, it’s an attempt to open up a third, supernatural, side of the Marvel Cinematic Universe (see “Marvel Opening Third Side of Marvel Universe”), joining superheroes (Avengers et. al.) and science fiction (Guardians of the Galaxy).