Doctor Strange and International Politics

Recently, Comic Book Resources broke a story about how Chinese concerns are what led to Tilda Swinton being cast as The Ancient One. The Ancient One, for those not familiar with Doctor Strange mythology, was a male Tibetan monk of ancient knowledge and power who teach Stephen Strange to be come the Sorcerer Supreme (the magical guardian of Earth). For the film, however, a white female (Swinton) was cast. Why? Read on for more

Lets look at a very relevant quote from the article.

Cargill calls the character as presented in the original ’60s Marvel comics “a racist stereotype who comes from a region of the world that is in a very weird political place.” The character’s Tibetan origin posted a specific problem for the screenwriters, who had to consider the fact that China is one of Marvel’s major international markets.

So, the justification is that the character was a racist stereotype, but the underlying meaning is much more political and capitalistic. Tibet wants to be free of China’s control, but China insists that Tibet is Chinese territory. The debate is so heated that a foreign company could be blocked from doing business for doing anything that could appear to support Tibet.

Film companies have been playing to China for years now. With the US and other international markets more or less saturated, China represents a large opportunity for profit. This is especially true for film companies, where the risks are high, the expenses are high, but the profits can be even higher, if product makes money. It’s business, but it’s business that requires altering American pop culture to work.

Isn’t the character a racist sterotype?

Yes, The Ancient One is a racist stereotype. He was created in the 60s where a more casual form of racism was prevalent. That said, there are ways to represent the character on a modern screen with the necessary sensitivity. Doing so is not, however, profitable. It’s much more profitable to play to the tastes of the Chinese government which would want any trace of Tibetan sympathy erased. It’s an easy call. If the film does well, the change and ensuing fan outrage was worth it.

So should Marvel have done this?

It’s a trickier situation than it might first seem. From a business perspective, this is an easy call. From a cultural perspective, it is less so. While Doctor Strange is not a huge pop cultural icon, this shows Marvel’s willingness to mine and revise this history it has nurtured and been responsible for over the course of decades. Is it the right call? Who knows? It’s a profitable call. For today, that’s enough.

About the author

Erik Hentell:

I started out in theater before moving to graphic design. I eventually moved into web design while trying to expand my knowledge on software development. I currently work for a media company helping with their digital assets such as source code archives and ebooks.