In Marvel’s Doctor Strange, Benedict Cumberbatch’s brilliant neurosurgeon damages his million-dollar hands in a fateful accident, exhausts all known Western medicine in search of a cure, then goes careening across the world into the mountains of Kathmandu to give Eastern treatments a shot. What he learns there from The Ancient One, a powerful mystic occupying the Caucasian female form of Tilda Swinton, is far more than he bargained for.
“It comes down to two lines from The Ancient One in her meetings with Strange,” offered director Scott Derrickson, whose eye-popping visuals and cracking pace drew praise from early critics. “In the first one, on that magical mystery mind-trip, she says, ‘Who are you in this vast universe, Doctor Strange?’” And then: “‘It’s not about you.’ Somewhere in that question and statement is the whole of the film.”
Doctor Strange cracks open the door to infinite new possibilities and spiritual questions—for example, what does the introduction of godlike powers and secret dimensions say about the existence of God in the MCU? “That’s a very compelling question,” pondered Derrickson, who makes his Marvel debut after helming The Exorcism of Emily Rose, The Day the Earth Stood Still, Sinister, and Deliver Us From Evil. “It confirms the existence of a complex spiritual plane, and it doesn’t give closure to that. Does God exist in all of it, or beyond all of it?” He paused. “To me, yes. But not to everyone who reads [the comics]—nor does it need to.”
Derrickson co-wrote Doctor Strange, the 14th film in Marvel’s expansive superhero playground, with his Sinister collaborator C. Robert Cargill, filling the picture with expansive, dazzling dimensions hidden beneath the surface of the MCU’s earthbound and galaxy-tripping worlds. But the pair had a trickier road to travel to bring the Doctor Strange of Marvel’s 1960s comics into the 21st century—gifted with a charismatic hero in the vein of the MCU’s brilliant egocentric fave Tony Stark, yet hampered by the problematic streak of Orientalist cultural appropriation that looms over his origin story.
In the comics, Swinton’s character, known as The Ancient One, was a powerful Tibetan mystic who introduced jerky American Stephen Strange to a new life filled with magical powers and an Asian-influenced aesthetic. He was originally written as an Asian man, and a dated stereotype at that. Another character central to the mystical stronghold of Kamar-Taj was Wong, a descendant in a long line of Chinese servants loyal to the Ancient One. Derrickson knew he had an issue on his hands that would have to be addressed.
“It was a challenge from the beginning that I knew I was facing with both Wong and the Ancient One being pretty bad racial stereotypes—1960s versions of what Western white people thought Asians were like,” he said. “We weren’t going to have the Ancient One as the Fu Manchu magical Asian on the hill being the mentor to the white hero. I knew that we had a long way to go to get away from that stereotype and cliché.”
Derrickson first chose to change the gender of The Ancient One, making her a wise and powerful female magician in charge of the sorcerer-warriors in training at Kamar-Taj (now transplanted from Tibet to the more China censors-friendly Nepal). The move instantly multiplied the presence of significant female characters in Doctor Strange, which include Rachel McAdams as the ex-flame and fellow doctor who tethers Strange to his old life in a strong but still rather thankless supporting turn.
Thankfully, Swinton’s Ancient One has far more to do, and more on her mind, than just help Strange realize his super-powered potential—although yes, she also does that. She battles, she leads, she ponders the mystery of life and beyond with a complexity that belies the sparse details of her background. Thanks to Swinton’s androgynous tranquility and effortless sense of strength, the character takes on its own new intriguing magic, and she stands out as one of the highlights of the film’s cast. (If only Doctor Strange actually passed the Bechdel test.)
The move at least marks an overdue step toward progress for Marvel, which has earned scrutiny for its glaring lack of strong female roles in over a dozen feature films and counting. The company has shortchanged the female heroes it does have when it comes to selling toys, and has yet to give a non-male leading superheroine her own standalone adventure within the vast and fantastical MCU, where playboys and aliens with magical hammers and talking raccoons keep saving the world, but audiences will have to wait until 2018’s Black Panther for a black hero to get his due—and even longer to see a woman claim top billing.
“The first decision that I made was to make it a woman, before we ever went to draft, before we ever had a script,” said Derrickson. “I thought it was interesting to not only make it a woman, but let’s find a woman with some maturity—not a 26-year-old leather-clad fanboy dream girl. Let’s get a real female actor in here. There was a desire for diversity in making that decision."
However, although writing The Ancient One as a woman was a step forward for gender representation, it presented a new cultural predicament, Derrickson says. He and Marvel discussed casting an Asian actress in the role before making another major change to the character—in order to avoid playing into yet another Asian stereotype.
“As we started to work on it, my assumption was that it would be an Asian character, that it would be an Asian woman,” he said. “We talked about Asian actors who could do it, as we were working on the script, every iteration of it—including the one that Tilda played—but when I envisioned that character being played by an Asian actress, it was a straight-up Dragon Lady.”
“I know the history of cinema and the portrayal of the Dragon Lady in Anna May Wong films, and the continued stereotype throughout film history and even more in television,” he continued. “I just didn’t feel like there was any way to get around that because the Dragon Lady, by definition, is a domineering, powerful, secretive, mysterious, Asian woman of age with duplicitous motives—and I just described Tilda’s character. I really felt like I was going to be contributing to a bad stereotype.”
In order to avoid one offensive stereotype, Derrickson and Co. effectively erased The Ancient One’s Asianness. Along with it disappeared any discernable debt the character might have represented to the place and people and culture the film’s setting, costumes, and multicultural spiritual mishmash still borrows. In trying to be one kind of woke, Doctor Strange became most unfortunately unwoke—and that’s a lesson Marvel, Disney, and other Hollywood studios should learn from.
In the process, the director says, he learned a lot about the term ‘whitewashing’ from the irate Asian community that took to the internet to take him and Marvel to task. “At the time when casting was happening there was a lot of anger circulating about female representation, but the term ‘whitewashing’ wasn’t even a term that I knew in the way that it’s used now,” he explained. “I knew it in the classical sense of yellowface, of white actors playing Asian characters. So I wasn’t as sensitive to that issue—but I was aware that I was erasing a potential Asian role.”
To counterbalance the shift away from an Asian Ancient One, Derrickson and Cargill reinvented the character of Wong, played in the film by Benedict Wong. “I inverted everything about him from the comics,” he explained. “Instead of a manservant, he’s a librarian. Instead of a sidekick, he’s Strange’s intellectual mentor. He’s a master of the mystic arts. He’s a very different kind of presence, and I felt like that was required.”
Wong most certainly comes off better in the film as a sage librarian warrior than he would have as a subservient house Asian. But all of this will still sound deeply unsatisfying to many of the fans and cultural critics who have rightfully taken issue with Doctor Strange’s high-profile racebending.
Give credit to Derrickson for acknowledging that the very community he was trying to avoid offending is the one most justifiably upset at the erasure—and that trading one underrepresented onscreen minority for another is far from an ideal solution to correcting entrenched racism, in any property being given the blockbuster treatment.
“Diversity is the responsibility of directors, and I took that as seriously as I could,” he said. “Whitewashing, if you use the term the way it’s used now—it’s what I did with the role. But it also implies racial insensitivity and it implies racist motives and I don’t think I had either. I was really acting out of what I still feel is the best possible choice. But it’s like I chose the lesser evil—and just because you choose the lesser evil it doesn’t mean you’re not choosing an evil.”
To the vocal opponents upset over Swinton’s casting, Derrickson lends his support. “I don’t feel that they’re wrong,” he said, sympathetic. “I was very aware of the racial issues that I was dealing with. But I didn’t really understand the level of pain that’s out there, for people who grew up with movies like I did but didn’t see their own faces up there.”
He offered an antidote to the evasiveness that greets most complaints when studio products are hit with critiques of cultural appropriation: Ownership of the creative choices he made and the negative ripple effect they may have on the culture by virtue of the enormous reach of the MCU. So rarely do filmmakers comment on their own controversies—let alone agree with their critics from within the heavily fortified Disney-Marvel machine—that Derrickson’s candor, in itself, feels like progress.
“The angry voices and the loud voices that are out there I think are necessary,” said Derrickson, who’s looking at breakout $70 million opening weekend projections for Doctor Strange, which is already topping the overseas box office. “And if it pushes up against this film, I can’t say I don’t support it. Because how else is it going to change? This is just the way we’ve got to go to progress, and whatever price I have to pay for the decision I’ve made, I’m willing to pay.”