'Doctor Strange' screenwriter says there was no way to NOT offend people with Ancient One
[UPDATE: 4/28/16 3:06PM EDT] - The NY Times has reported that C. Robert Cargill has backpedaled his statements as “personal musings” and not representative of Marvel Entertainment. In an email to the NY Times, Cargill elaborated:
I’ve made a lot of mistakes in my life, but none that I regret as much as choosing to answer a question to which I had no place in speaking. I tried to make it right by clarifying my position on Twitter Monday but unfortunately — perhaps ironically, given that this story gained so much steam on social media — those comments were not picked up by those reporting on my statements from the original podcast. Those original statements were my own personal musings about a character, and although I worked on the film script, I came to the project after the first draft and was not part of any casting discussions or decisions so I had no right or knowledge to speak about them as if I was. It was a moronic decision, and worst of all, I embarrassed my friends and colleagues by coming across as if I were speaking for them. I was not.
HOWEVER! The most interesting tidbit from the article revolves around Marvel’s official response to this dust up. A representative for Marvel stated the Doctor Strange Ancient One in the film is Celtic.
ORIGINAL ARTICLE BELOW:
It’s been a rough couple of week at Marvel for their cinematic universe. The decision to cast Tilda Swinton as the Ancient One in Doctor Strange has seen a sizable amount of pushback both from critics and fans. The scrutiny was even more intense as the Ghost in the Shell whitewashing conversation happened in the same week. If you ever wondered if behemoth conglomerations read the comments of the peanut gallery, wonder no more.Doctor Strange writer C. Robert Cargill recently went on the podcast Double Toasted, and the conversation quickly turned to the Ancient One (skip to the 2:15:00 marker for Cargill).
An Asian gentleman named Van Hung Tran living in the Netherlands wrote into the podcast to ask Cargill about the choice to cast a white woman — Tilda Swinton — as the Ancient One. According to Cargill, it was a no-win situation. He compared it to the ‘Kobayashi Maru’ in Star Trek, the unwinnable test designed to force potential Starfleet captains to make tough choices.
The thing with the Ancient One is it’s Marvel’s ‘Kobayashi Maru.’ There is no other other character in Marvel history that is such a cultural landmine. [It] is absolutely unwinnable.
Most of the people who have thoughts [on the casting of Tilda Swinton] haven’t thought it all the way through. They go ‘Why didn’t they just do this?’ I could tell you why. I could tell you why every single decision that involves the Ancient One is a bad one. It all comes down on which way you’re willing to lose.
The Ancient One was a racist stereotype that comes from a region of the world that is in a very weird political place. So if you acknowledge that Tibet is a place and that he’s Tibetan, you risk alienating 1 billion people who think that’s bulls—t, and risk the Chinese government going “We’re not going to show your movie because you decided to get political.”
The thing that makes me pull my hair out is some people saying “Why not cast Michelle Yeoh? First of all, Michelle Yeoh is awesome. If you’re telling me you think it’s a good idea to cast a Chinese actress as a Tibetan character? You are out of your mind and have no idea what you’re talking about.
To be fair, Cargill goes on to say the decision to cast the Ancient One as a woman was made by director Scott Derrickson before Cargill came onboard. Cargill was working within the framework given to him by people higher up the executive decision food chain and of course, he’ll defend their choices. But none of these arguments hold water for one very important reason: There was nothing forcing Marvel’s hand when it came to using Tibet. At least someone finally admitted out loud that part of the reason the Ancient One was whitewashed was to make the film more palatable to Chinese audiences?
Cargill himself says the Ancient One began his life as a racist stereotype. Americans in the 1960s may have loved “Eastern mysticism” but they certainly didn’t give two figs about accuracy or respecting the cultures they were pilfering. So to say the Ancient One is from Tibet is like saying he’s from Narnia. It holds the same weight, as Marvel’s version of Tibet is just an amalgamation of “exotic” architecture, clothing, and customs. The easiest way to sidestep this political landmine? Disarm it.
There are so many fictional countries in the Marvel Universe. Many of them within the MCU itself. Wakanda, Sokovia, Latveria, Madripoor. Marvel has never shied away from creating a region out whole cloth. They even had the building blocks sitting right there for Doctor Strange. The Ancient One is from Kamar-Taj. Originally labeled as a village in Tibet, there’s nothing to say Kamar-Taj couldn’t have become a small country. Iron Fist will be dealing in the pocket dimension/Himalayan city of K'un-L'un. Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. already established Afterlife as an Asialand amalgamation run by Jiaying. There is so much precedence just being ignored.
But hey, I guess it’s totally easier to believe the Ancient One is a white woman living in Tibet, teaching a white man about the mystical arts of Tibetan culture. Marvel could’ve been Captain Kirk and shattered their ‘Kobayashi Maru’. Instead, they were mediocre.
Doctor Strange arrives in theaters on November 4, 2016.