Advertisers traditionally hold that there’s no such thing as bad publicity, but Marvel’s Doctor Strange might just be the exception. Though the comic book version of Doctor Strange learns magic from a Tibetan character known as “The Ancient One,” the movie adaptation’s newest teaser trailer reveals that Marvel has changed the setting of Doctor Strange’s studies to Nepal and cast Tilda Swinton, a white woman, as The Ancient One. According to Doctor Strange writer C. Robert Cargill, the character of the Ancient One had been turned into a title and the Tibetan setting changed to Nepal in order to avoid offending the Chinese market and avert a possibly racist plot. What Marvel failed to realize is that the casting choice (and issue) isn’t just Tibetan character versus white character. It’s a character of color versus a white character, ethics versus economics. In choosing to whitewash an Asian character and cast a white actor in an Asian role, Marvel has demonstrated its lack of imagination, as well as its clear preference for profit over political correctness.
Marvel could have easily compromised between Asian-American interests and Chinese profits by keeping The Ancient One’s Asian origins and creating a matching and explicitly Asian backdrop. The plot is still problematic, but whitewashing one of Doctor Strange’s only two Asian supporting characters is not much better, and Marvel is clearly loathe to give up the mystical Asian setting. In Doctor Strange, Tibet has been replaced by Nepal (rather unsurprisingly considering the much warmer China-Nepal relationship). If Marvel could change the setting from Tibet to Nepal, why couldn’t it change the setting to an invented, perhaps even Tibetan-inspired, country? After all, it’s not as if the MCU doesn’t already include fictional locations (i.e., Sokovia, Wakanda). Yes, changing a Tibetan character and setting to fictional Asian ones is as a form of erasure, but at the very least, the role would be preserved for an Asian actor or actress. By tweaking the setting of Doctor Strange’s training into a fictional one and keeping The Ancient One Asian, Marvel could have created an uncontroversial, enjoyable film while still preserving an Asian role for a Asian actor.
As a Bachelor of Arts in Global Affairs, I agree that a Tibetan character and setting would get Doctor Strange banned in China and cause Marvel to lose out on a lucrative, 1 billion-person market. However, it’s not unrealistic to believe that slight adjustments to the movie could potentially be approved by the Chinese censors. The Chinese economy, after all, also stands to gain from a relationship with Marvel. Dreamworks, for instance, learned from its mistakes with its first Kung Fu Panda movie and committed to extensive research for Kung Fu Panda 2, a move that was applauded in China and undoubtedly led to the establishment of Oriental Dreamworks, the Chinese-American joint venture that produced Kung Fu Panda 3. Marvel could certainly learn from Dreamworks about success by listening to target audiences.
The reaction of Marvel’s traditional target audience (American movie-goers) to an Asian Ancient One is much harder to judge. It would have depended on the individual viewer’s familiarity with the source material and their concerns over racism. An average theater-goer has next to no knowledge or loyalty to the race of Doctor Strange’s cast and might not have even known about the character until Marvel announced the movie. The support of Marvel fans of color for an Asian Ancient, however, could possibly have led to the same type of success that made Mad Max: Fury Road a surprise hit. Of course, it’s still unclear how much influence leads to ticket sales. For all the vocalness of the Marvel movie fans of color, we are, after all, a minority group. However, even a middling reaction from American audiences, when combined with a moderate Chinese success, could have made a truly diverse Doctor Strange movie profitable. As it stands, Doctor Strange is known for its whitewashing, not its diversity.
It’s still hard to say how successful Doctor Strange will be. With a relatively small Doctor Strange fan following within the comics community and little name recognition on the street, it’s entirely possible that negative publicity and lack of interest from casual viewers will cause the movie to tank in the American market. There’s no reason that Doctor Strange couldn’t keep the character of The Ancient One Asian while still doing well in both the American and Chinese markets. It’s too bad that Marvel was too concerned with profits to take that perceived risk.