This is the second part of a series I began almost exactly three years ago with “Asian Comic Book Fan Watches Thor: The Dark World Expecting Racial Representation, Deals with Crushing Disappointment by Writing Blog Post“. The Marvel sequel in question sidelined Hogun, played by Japanese actor Tadanobu Asano, almost completely, and as the title of the blog post would suggest I had been very excited to see him again.
With Doctor Strange, on the other hand, that anticipation was not present at all. Last June I covered the news that Tilda Swinton was in talks to play the Ancient One, the title character’s mentor, in “Celebrity Blind Spots and Fixing Racist Narratives [By Making Everyone White]“. The gist of that post was how, in an effort to be more “progressive” filmmakers have been choosing to “fix” problematic minority characters by simply casting them with white talent. That’s as opposed to simply amending what made them so racist and stereotypical to begin with.
At that point in 2015 Swinton starring in the film had not yet been confirmed, and absolutely nothing had been mentioned about the character of Wong, Doctor Strange’s manservant in the source material. With Benedict Cumberbatch already locked into the role it was a magical time in which there was still the possibility of Marvel releasing a movie with two prominent Asian characters.
Look, my hopes were never particularly high that Swinton wouldn’t land the part. As soon as it was announced she was in talks for the role support began pouring in. That she was a woman in her 50s in a genre that has helped shine a spotlight on men of all ages and women of a very particular age was laudable to many. The thing is, the optics are so bad.
Do you know what the film still above depicts? A white woman introducing a white man to mystic arts in Nepal. Doctor Stephen Strange travels all the way from New York City to Kathmandu only to kneel at the feet of a Celtic sorcerer, begging for her to teach him. And let me be clear, the movie does not hide the fact that a good portion of it takes place in Asia. The fictional land of Kamar-Taj is depicted as being explicitly Eastern in everything from the architecture to the clothing worn. I knew all of this going into the theatre, but didn’t realize how much uglier things would get. Please be warned, from this point on there will be mild spoilers.
In a scene that’s meant to be humorous Doctor Strange initially turns to address an elderly Asian man, thinking he’s the Ancient One, only to find that it’s the bald white woman serving him tea who bears the title. The man he’s mistaken the Ancient One for is revealed to be Master Hamir. It should be noted that while he does reappear later to assist in his magical tutelage he has no speaking lines whatsoever.
What’s more the many unnamed students in Kamar-Taj are such a racially diverse group that Asians are objectively in the minority. Of the zealots who follow Kaecilius, the film’s villain, almost all are white.
In fact, looking through the full cast list on IMDb reveals that there are a grand total of seven roles given to actors of East-Asian descent.
The uncredited roles which account for more than half are Shina Shihoko Nagai as Martial Artist/Waitress, Emily Ng as Restaurant Passerby, Clem So as Kamar-Taj Disciple, and Ruolan Zhang as Tea Lady.
Joining Master Hamir’s Topo Wresniwiro are Linda Louise Duan as Tina Minoru and, I’m surprised it took me this long to get to him, Benedict Wong as Wong.
It’s particularly fitting that it took me 3,500 words to mention Wong because his inclusion wasn’t even announced until January of this year. That’s a few months after filming had already begun. What’s more, Wong almost didn’t make it into the film. In September of this year director Scott Derickson revealed that:
“I was very happy with that [Tilda’s casting], but I was also very conscious that in doing that I was erasing a significant potential Asian role. I was going to leave Wong out of the movie at first; he was an Asian sidekick manservant, what was I supposed to do with that? But once the decision was made to cast Tilda, we brought Wong back because, unlike the Ancient One, he could be completely subverted as a character and reworked into something that didn’t fall into any of the stereotypes of the comics.”
Wong almost didn’t make it into Doctor Strange, and Wong is the only named Asian character who speaks in this entire movie. In a horrific reversal from the dream I mentioned earlier in this post, there was a brief period of time in which there were no significant Asian roles. No significant Asian roles in a movie that largely takes place in Nepal and has the setting of its climactic action setpiece in Hong Kong.
Wong, both the Chinese-British actor and the character, serves primarily as comic relief, not even able to garner a single action sequence for himself. While his performance is well-done and his presence is appreciated, what’s even more upsetting is how the Ancient One is portrayed. Which is to say, with nuance and multidimensionality.
Playing the Sorcerer Supreme allows Swinton to be mysterious and engimatic, which are hallmarks of Asian stereotyping to be sure, but later strips that away to reveal more about herself. It’s in that moment that the audience is allowed to see how human she is, that in addition to being both stern and kind, as evidenced by her mystic mentorship, she is also selfish. It’s a level of complexity rarely afforded to a character in a Marvel movie who is neither the hero nor the love interest.
I used the term “upsetting”, but really “heartbreaking” is more accurate. The Ancient One, as written in Doctor Strange, could have been given to any Asian actor with the ability to imbue the part with the gravitas it needs, as an opportunity for a poorly represented demographic to have a greater presence in a film shown around the world.
To refer once again to the title of of this blog post, I had very low expectations when it came to this movie. What I didn’t anticipate, however, was how just how well-rounded the Ancient One’s role was going to be, which only makes the loss of that part all the more palpable. It was also jarring to see, outside of Wong, just how poorly represented Asian characters were, especially for a film that chooses to take place in two distinctly Asian settings.
Only five days ago Kevin Feige, the president of Marvel Studios, stated that, “It’s definitely important to [them] that these movies reflect the world,” and while it may be the thought that counts, in Doctor Strange‘s particular case their efforts failed.