3:30 pm EDT, April 15, 2016

How ‘Doctor Strange’ illustrates Marvel’s problem with Asian representation

It was with some trepidation that I clicked play on the Doctor Strange trailer Marvel released on Tuesday. It’s not that I’m not a fan of the source material — quite the opposite, in fact. If you cut me open, I’d very likely bleed comic pages, for as much as they’ve been a part of my day-to-day life since I was young.

Rather, and those of you that listen to Hero Hype with passing regularity will already be aware of this, I have had some concerns over the casting choices. I’ve stowed them as much as I possibly could, with little context for the actual setting of the Doctor Strange movie to come by, but they lingered. Especially because, until recently, there were no named roles for any Asian actors, in a film that was — for all we knew — going to be spending a significant amount of time in Nepal.

As more and more images leaked from the set of the film, showing the breathtakingly gorgeous Nepalese setting and Asian inspired clothing, that knot of dread in my stomach tightened, but so too did my resolve to wait until the official first look from Marvel came in the form of a trailer to add some context.

There’s certainly no denying this first teaser is visually impressive (though was anyone else waiting for the Inception ‘bwoooong’ to sound?). It certainly captures the psychedelic look — kaleidoscopes and all — that you’d expect from an adaptation of Doctor Strange, and it’s a refreshing deviation from the more grounded look at the Earthly set Marvel Cinematic Universe movies that we’ve had so far. Still, there was something that refused to sit right with me, was a little unsettling, and was solidified by the appearance of Tilda Swinton’s Ancient One.


That is not to say that I think there’s anything inherently wrong with Swinton as an actor, or even that this type of role is outside her wheelhouse. White haired, androgynous and imbued with magic has been a good look on Swinton for years. However, The Ancient One doesn’t fall under the same set of circumstances as those previous roles. But to understand what’s so unsettling about The Ancient One in particular is to understand exactly where the character came from and why that portrayal also feeds into a complicated and damaging narrative of Asians in our media.

The Ancient One’s first named appearance came via Strange Tales #110, back in 1963, as a powerful Tibetan sorcerer who mentored both Stephen Strange and Baron Karl Mordo in the mystic arts. He was the Sorcerer Supreme, a mantle passed down through the ages and picked up by several prominent magical figures in Marvel history, and one that was eventually taken up by Stephen Strange himself. The narrative of the Oriental Monk itself was especially prevalent in media at that time, dating back to Broken Blossoms (1919), and was popularized even further by television shows like Kung Fu (1972).

In Kung Fu, for anyone unfamiliar with the series, Kwai Chang Caine (played by the late David Carradine, in some distressing yellowface) becomes a Shaolin priest and martial arts expert after being trained by Master Po (Keye Luke). The series flashes back to his time at the Shaolin Monastery, and the mental and spiritual power he gained from his training there. This is a motif that has echoed throughout Western cinema and television since then in The Karate Kid, Kill Bill, and The Forbidden Kingdom — to name just a handful of examples.

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It is likely that by casting Swinton as The Ancient One, Marvel hoped to be able to side-step this trope — one where a white protagonist seeks out enlightenment in the Far East, only to be taken in by a master of anything from magic to martial arts, and eventually surpasses them. In fact, Kevin Feige said as much during an interview with Entertainment Weekly.


“We’re never afraid to change,” Kevin Feige said to EW, following initial concerns about the casting. “In the comic books, Jarvis is an elderly butler. In the movies, he’s an A.I. system which becomes Paul Bettany’s Vision. We are always looking for ways to change. I think if you look at some of the early incarnations of the Ancient One in the comics, they are what we would consider today to be quite, sort of, stereotypical. They don’t hold up to what would work today. Also, within the storyline of the comics, and our movie, ‘the Ancient One’ is a title that many people have had. We hit very early on on, What if the Ancient One was a woman? What if the title had been passed and the current Ancient One is a woman? Oh, that’s an interesting idea. [Clicks fingers.] Tilda Swinton! Whoah! And it just hit.”

It’s no secret that Marvel has been hurting for female representation, in their movies especially. This lack of representation has been making a slow shift with the recent Jessica Jones series on Netflix, the upcoming Captain Marvel movie, and Scarlet Witch joining the Avengers roster, so the addition of another major female player in the universe is certainly welcome. However, was the change in race necessary in this case?

There’s no avoiding the complicated stereotype of the trope, and the Doctor Strange story has always had the trappings of it, but by removing The Ancient One’s Tibetan origins, yet keeping the setting decidedly Asian, they have been erased from the narrative entirely, and the movie has shifted into more explicit Orientalist overtones. It makes it incredibly difficult to celebrate a female Ancient One at the expense of other, much needed representation — and there are certainly enough Asian and Asian American actors that both could have happened. It also sets a dangerous precedent that there are only two options for Asians in Hollywood: stereotype or invisible.

An Asian Ancient One needn’t be a stereotype. That comes with the kind of reductive storytelling that would turn the character into some kind of prop, solely there to further the plot of the main character. The kind of storytelling that, you would hope, Marvel would be able to excel at avoiding — and have done so with other, updated characters in their movie universe. Adding nuance and depth to the character beyond being the key to a mystical and ancient art would, in fact, be expected. You need only look to AMC’s Into the Badlands, featuring Daniel Wu in the starring role, for an example of how to take a stereotypical Asian role and subvert it. Into the Badlands may feature a skilled, Asian martial artist, but the character is so much more than that — as, too, an Asian Ancient One could have been.


As it stands right now, a story ostensibly set (at least partially) in Nepal, featuring clothing, sets, and magic heavily coded to be recognizably Asian, features no prominent Asian characters in the narrative. And though, unlike David Carradine’s Kwai Chang Caine in Kung Fu, Swinton’s Ancient One is not an egregious example of yellowface, she still carries all the markers of being Asian, without changing her skin tone. The late addition of Benedict Wong as Stephen Strange’s loyal valet, Wong, did not appear in the trailer at all — and that the only named Asian role in the film is one subservient to the main character speaks volumes. The only other brief glimpse of anyone Asian throughout the two-minute teaser is an indistinct crowd that Stephen Strange passes through. It, unfortunately, put me in mind of another, fairly recent live-action adaptation that relied heavily on Asian iconography, but featured only white actors in the main, heroic roles — M. Night Shyamalan’s The Last Airbender.


The backlash that followed the casting of white actors in the roles of Aang, Katara and Sokka was damning — and even led to the formation of the international grassroots organization Racebending.com, who continue to advocate against discriminative casting in Hollywood. But when you look at The Last Airbender next to Doctor Strange, the similarities are visually evident in its setting and its magic. But if Marvel felt that there was an inherent problem in the comic book origins of The Ancient One that necessitated changing both the race and gender of the character, why did they choose to keep the setting in Asia and not also relocate? Magic is not anything exclusively Asian in origin, as many countries have their own mythological tales and legends steeped in their own magic. Instead, Marvel have reduced Nepal and the entire magical foundation of the movie to merely an exotic backdrop to two white practitioners.

But were Marvel caught between a rock and a hard place in this situation? Keeping the Ancient One Asian (whether they were male or female) would have meant that, eventually, Stephen Strange would take up their legacy and ultimately surpass them in skill and power. That trope has, arguably, been equally as damaging to the media portrayal of Asians, and just as prevalent as the mystical Asian teacher — The Last Samurai comes to mind as a recent example in cinema. But, if Marvel purport that they aren’t afraid to change in order to correct the more problematic origins of some of their characters, why was it The Ancient One that needed to change and not Stephen Strange himself?

It is something that Kurt Busiek, a writer credited on multiple Marvel titles, including a four year run on The Avengers, addressed on Twitter earlier this year — harking back to Doctor Strange’s first appearance in Strange Tales #110, where creator Steve Ditko drew him with the same Asian features that also accompanied his depiction of The Ancient One.

An Asian American Stephen Strange would not have taken anything away from what inherently made the character who he was — his major defining characteristic, prior to becoming Sorcerer Supreme, is merely that he was a gifted, if egotistical, surgeon. In fact, following the release of the trailer, Fox Bright took to their blog to imagine what a second or third generation Asian American Stephen Strange could have looked like. Much like Into the Badlands has done with Daniel Wu’s Sunny, an Asian American Doctor Strange could have addressed and subverted the problematic tropes held over from his origin, without erasing any major Asian characters from the narrative completely.

Perhaps this treatment of both an Asian setting and characters is more stark, considering that the trailer for Doctor Strange has come so quickly on the heels of Marvel’s Daredevil season 2 — another property where Marvel have struggled to find a genuine balance between stereotype and a nuanced portrayal of their Asian characters. In the first season, that took the form of the Yakuza and Chinese Triad, most especially Madame Gao, who played heavily into the Dragon Lady trope and never quite found her way back out of it again. You’d be hard pressed to find any sympathetic or genuinely good characters of Asian descent in either seasons of Daredevil, in contrast to all of the other criminal gangs we’ve been introduced to over the course of its narrative.

Arthur Chu even said in his incredible editorial, “Not Your Asian Ninja,” that, “Most egregiously of all, the equivalent to Grotto in the ninja storyline, the Hand cult’s hapless accountant Stan Gibson, is the only visible member of their organization who’s not Asian. That’s right, the one ordinary man among the Hand, the one who shows remorse and turns to Daredevil for help when his masters kidnap his son, is their only white guy.

“They had a golden opportunity to include just one Asian character who didn’t know martial arts and wasn’t a remorseless killing machine, and they didn’t — that was the one member of the Hand who had to be a white guy.”


That mysterious, cult-like organization, The Hand, consisted of swathes of cookie-cutter ninjas with no discerning personalities, unclear motivations, but just enough vague mysticism to solidify them as nothing more than their dangerous martial artistry. Madame Gao, who returned during season 2 for a brief cameo, spouted some cryptic wisdom amongst her thinly veiled threats — all while painting cherry blossoms on a canvas, a flower that is primarily associated with Asia, particularly Japan. None of these characters ever moved beyond their stereotype, making for uncomfortable viewing for many, especially when contrasted with the exemplary Frank Castle storyline running parallel to it.

Without any positive counterparts to offset Daredevil’s case of Yellow Peril — a trope dating back to Fu Manchu in the ’30s, which capitalized on the xenophobic fear of the Chinese, and the idea of the “Mysterious East” turned villainous — and the distinct lack of any Asian representation within the main narrative of Doctor Strange, it further highlights just how much work needs to be done to rectify these missteps.

This is a task that will likely fall squarely on the shoulders of Marvel’s adaptation of Iron Fist — though that, too, hasn’t been without its controversies, particularly with its casting of Danny Rand, a role that recently went to Game of Thrones’ Finn Jones. Much like Arthur Chu, I have nothing against Finn Jones as an actor, and also believe he’ll do a fine job of bringing a “faithful” adaptation of Danny to the screen.


But Iron Fist is another story steeped in the trope of the white savior, journeying to a mystical Asian city — in this case, K’un-Lun, in Tibet — to be bestowed with its powers and, ultimately, become more adept with them than any native practitioner. It was for this reason that the #AAIronFist petition began, and picked up steam, and one that I was heartily on board with. But Marvel chose to keep Danny close to his source origins — a decision, I hope, that was made in order to address his privileged status in society, much like Daredevil has dealt with gentrification and vigilantism, and Jessica Jones with abuse and recovery.

The recent addition of Jessica Henwick as Colleen Wing to the cast bodes well, at least, that we may finally see a shift in how Marvel treats their Asian characters in their heavily Asian-themed and set stories — bringing them in line with Chloe Bennett and Ming-Na Wen’s characters on S.H.I.E.L.D.. But for now, all eyes will be on Marvel as Iron Fist continues development, and we inch closer to the release of Doctor Strange on November 4, 2016, giving us the Asian heroes we desperately deserve.

We are, after all, not going to find it elsewhere.

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