Marvel Studios head Kevin Feige has directly addressed the controversy over changing the race and ethnicity of the character of The Ancient One in the Doctor Strange movie in an interview with Deadline, calling the New York Times story in which screenwriter C. Robert Cargill said that Marvel made the decision to avoid angering the Chinese government (see “Screenwriter Spills the Beans on ‘Doctor Strange’ Casting Controversy”) “completely erroneous.”
Feige said that the casting decision for 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,” he said. “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 story line.”
Feige pointed to the decisions to cast Chiwetel Ejiofor as Mordo (see “Chiewetel Ejiofor to Play Baron Mordo”) and the development of the Wong character as based on criteria similar to the decision to cast Tilda Swinton as The Ancient One.
Doctor Strange director Scott Derrickson finally commented, sending out a Tweet this week in which he said, “Raw anger/hurt from Asian-Americans over Hollywood whitewashing, stereotyping & erasure of Asians in cinema. I am listening and learning.”
Feige echoed the sentiment in his interview, and suggested that upcoming announcements would show that they had been listening.
Meanwhile Cargill backtracked on his characterization of the decision, via a statement released to the New York Times. “Those original statements were my own personal musings about a character, and although I worked on the film script, I came to the project after the first draft and was not part of any casting discussions or decisions so I had no right or knowledge to speak about them as if I was,” he wrote. “It was a moronic decision, and worst of all, I embarrassed my friends and colleagues by coming across as if I were speaking for them. I was not.”
But the fact that Cargill, a friend of Derrickson’s who had collaborated with him prior to Doctor Strange, wasn’t authorized to speak for the production and wasn’t there when the decisions about The Ancient One were made doesn’t mean his “musings” weren’t accurate. Feige didn’t directly address the question of why the race and ethnicity of the character were changed, and in the shots from the film released so far, scenes with The Ancient One are taking place in what looks like an Asian setting (see “First ‘Doctor Strange’ Trailer”). It would strain credulity that the people making the decisions about the character were not aware that Tibet is a hot spot with the Chinese government and audience, and that artistic decisions could affect the global box office receipts.
It is unlikely (barring a Sony-style hack and data dump) that we will get more than we’ve heard so far about the rationale for the decision. But it seems clear that Marvel Studios, which has been responsive to the ebb and flow of social media on its films in the past, is acutely aware of the reaction it’s spawned, and less likely to take actions that would produce similar results in the future.