'Doctor Strange' trailer has me asking - Why does Marvel keep messing up Asian cultures?
Here we go again.
Last night, Marvel released the first teaser trailer for Doctor Strange. For anyone familiar with the character, it hits all the origin story beats. We see Benedict Cumberbatch (Strange) as a surgeon, as a victim of a car accident, as a hospital patient who won the “Most Broken Hands” award, and as a man lost without purpose. In that respect, the trailer does a great job of setting up the pins. But then there’s the rest of the trailer.
The teaser is slightly over two minutes long. In that time, the audience sees precisely zero Asian actors. No, background characters don’t count. What we do see is Tilda Swinton doing her best Aang the Last Airbender cosplay, with her head shaved like a Tibetan monk, dressed in vaguely Asian attire, in a dojo. It’s the kind of Orientalism that SHOULD make you cringe.
Image Credit: Marvel Entertainment
I know Marvel has a fine line to walk here. The Ancient One from the DOCTOR STRANGE comics — arguably the entirety of the comic itself — is steeped in benign racism. Stephen Strange was introduced in 1963, at a wave of interest in “Eastern mysticism” in the West. Like most imports to American shores, Eastern traditions were deconstructed, merged, and repackaged as gurus, self-help, New Age religion, etc. It might be difficult to write Yao (the comic Ancient One) as an ancient master of a mystical religion without making him a stereotype, but it wouldn’t be impossible. Casting a white woman and plopping her down into the middle of a fictional Asian culture can’t be the answer.
The other I know Marvel has to take into consideration is China. China is the second-largest film market in the world these days. DOCTOR STRANGE may take place in the fictional city in the Himalayas known as Kamar-Taj, but the Ancient One was born in Tibet and many of the visuals draw from Tibetan culture. As China is currently subjugating Tibet, they wouldn’t want to see it portrayed positively. But Marvel is not above creating countries out of whole cloth. Wakanda doesn’t exist, neither does Sokovia. Why not just take Kamar-Taj and make it a country? One populated by an Asian Ancient One? Twitter even kindly suggested Michelle Yeoh.
Image Credit: Sony Pictures
Marvel (and Hollywood in general) has really struggled when it comes to representation of Asian cultures. Arthur Chu’s essay “Not Your Asian Ninja is a great breakdown of how Marvel, in particular, keeps failing. They’re not maliciously stereotyping 60% of the world’s population, but that doesn’t give Marvel a free pass. As Chu points out,
People made a big deal about black superheroes like Falcon and Black Panther and Luke Cage precisely because [comic creators couldn’t] admit to setting out to have armies of interchangeable black thugs who existed to be beaten up by righteous white heroes. [W]hen mostly-white comics creators weren’t prodded to think about representation, that’s what they came up with.
I’m deeply disappointed in Marvel’s decision-making process with Daredevil and Iron Fist because they’ve held themselves to a higher standard elsewhere. They made “Agent Carter,” “Jessica Jones” and the upcoming “Captain Marvel” film because they’ve heard people say it’s important for women to have their own stories and not just be damsels in distress or femmes fatales for male heroes. They’re making Black Panther and Luke Cage because of how important it is to have black representation that isn’t just loyal sidekicks and nameless henchmen.
But we’ve been talking for decades about how obnoxious it is—and how damaging it is—to have Asian cultures treated as a colorful setting for white heroes to explore, how tiresome it is to live with the expectation that if you see someone like yourself on screen they’ll either be an exotic sexpot or one of an army of disposable ninja bad guys in shinobi masks.
Writer Joe Starr also wrote a great piece about the glass ceiling that Asian and Asian-American actors bump up again in “Not Your Korean Sidekick: The Frustrating Career of John Cho,” if you’re looking for yet another perspective on how they're minimized within the Hollywood machine.
There will be plenty of folks who wave their hand at this, saying it’s not a big deal. But imagine if this were the casting of Black Panther instead of Doctor Strange. What if Wakanda was populated entirely by white people in traditionally vague “African” garb? Oh and one Asian guy for diversity. Because that’s what this looks like. When the IMDB page for a film set mostly in fictional “Asialand” only has two Asian actors — Benedict Wong as Wong and Shina Shihoko Nagai as Martial Artist/Waitress — something HAS to seem off.
Doctor Strange hits theaters on November 4, 2016.