I wrote yesterday about the possibility that Marvel Studios, long perched atop the box office, faces a number of headwinds — interrupted momentum, exhausted creative possibilities, troubles with the Chinese market, and others — that might mean its brand has peaked. In the course of doing so, I mentioned that Marvel’s blatant attempt to tailor some of its new releases to the Chinese market had precedent in some of the creative decisions about some of its prior films, including 2016’s Dr. Strange. That movie changed the ethnicity of the Ancient One, a key character, from Tibetan to “Celtic,” with Tilda Swinton in the starring role. Marvel Studios president Kevin Feige now claims to be aware that this was a mistake . . . because it was insufficiently woke:
Swinton’s casting, after ten years of films with next to no Asian representation, was especially vexing, since the film still placed her character in Nepal, a South Asian country. Marvel initially claimed it had chosen Swinton to prevent the character from fulfilling an Asian stereotype. Fans called bullshit. Five years later, Marvel head Kevin Feige doesn’t argue. “We thought we were being so smart and so cutting-edge,” he told me in a Zoom interview. “We’re not going to do the cliché of the wizened, old, wise Asian man. But it 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.”
It’s convenient, given current American cultural conditions, for Feige to make an act of contrition on these grounds. But there is evidence that there was more to it than this. C. Robert Cargill, one of the screenwriters of Dr. Strange, admitted as much:
The Ancient One was a racist stereotype who comes from a region of the world that is in a very weird political place. He originates from Tibet, so if you acknowledge that Tibet is a place and that he’s Tibetan, you risk alienating one billion people who think that that’s bulls**t and risk 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.’ If we decide to go the other way and cater to China in particular and have him be in Tibet… if you think it’s a good idea to cast a Chinese actress as a Tibetan character, you are out of your damn fool mind and have no idea what the f**k you’re talking about.”
Cargill also asserts that the character’s racist history, and Marvel’s desire to avoid caricature, played a role. Maybe so. But Feige, in wanting to emphasize insufficient wokeness as opposed to the self-censorship imposed by consideration of the Chinese market, is still being somewhat disingenuous, preferring to blame his own prejudice instead of that of the market he is trying to cater to. And he is being so in a way that may augur ill for the future of Marvel Studios.