Marvel Studios faced immediate backlash upon the casting of Swinton as The Ancient One, a character depicted as an Asian man in the original comic books.
It’s been five years since Marvel fans were outraged at the casting of Tilda Swinton, a white woman, as The Ancient One in “Doctor Strange,” an Asian male character in the source material.
Like many other major media powerhouses, the MCU has been under fire for its early spotlight on mostly white, male characters in its superhero films (a problem admittedly that is also ripped straight from the source material).
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They’ve begun to make strides toward diversity in recent years with their first black lead in “Black Panther” and female lead in the upcoming “Black Widow.” The forthcoming “Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings” film will present their first Asian lead.
Discussing that film with Men’s Health brought up the “Doctor Strange” casting controversy of what could have been a key Asian figure in the Marvel mythology much earlier. At the time, the studio tried to defend their decision a multitude of ways, but head honcho Kevin Feige isn’t justifying anymore.
“We thought we were being so smart, and so cutting-edge,” said Feige. “We’re not going to do the cliché of the wizened, old, wise Asian man.”
But the reaction was “a wake-up call to say, ‘Well, wait a minute, is there any other way to figure it out? Is there any other way to both not fall into the cliché and cast an Asian actor?’ And the answer to that, of course, is yes.”
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At the time of the film’s release, screenwriter C. Robert Carghill was vehement in defending their decision, calling The Ancient One a “racist stereotype” during an appearance on “Double Toasted,” and insisting that had they stayed true to the source material by making him a Tibetan, they’d have alienated the Chinese government and market entirely.
He compared the character’s casting to “Star Trek’s” Kobayashi Maru, or impossible scenario, saying there was no way to have that character exist in the MCU without outrage. “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 on which way you’re willing to lose,” he said.
As such, the official line from Marvel Studios at the time was that their path was to conceive the character as a title instead, held by different people of different races and genders down through time. As such, it just happened to be Tilda Swinton at this time.
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“We felt the idea of gender swapping the role of The Ancient One was exciting,” said Feige at the time. “It opened up possibilities, it was a fresh way into this old and very typical storyline. Why not make the wisest bestower of knowledge in the universe to our heroes in the particular film a woman instead of a man?”
While The Ancient One was in many ways a racist stereotype, so is the Mandarin. Clearly, Marvel is feeling more confident that they have a better, more nuanced way to humanize this kind of stereotype, because they’ve cast Tony Leung in the role.
In fact, one could argue that Shang-Chi himself embodies several stereotypical views of Asian culture and martial arts. But just as “Black Panther” presented a very respectful view of a fictional African culture, fans are anticipating similar sensitivity in this film.
Like “Black Panther” featured more Black actors than any MCU production before it, “Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings” features a veritable who’s who of some of the biggest Asian and Asian-American stars on the planet, including Leung, star Simu Liu, Awkwafina, Michelle Yeoh, Fala Chen and Ronny Chieng.
“Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings” is scheduled to hit theaters on September 3, 2021.
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