‘Doctor Strange’ co-screenwriter defends ‘cultural landmine’ of controversial casting

Tilda Swinton plays a character named The Ancient One in Marvel's "Doctor Strange."

Tilda Swinton plays a character named The Ancient One in Marvel’s “Doctor Strange.”

(Marvel Studios)

Since the recent release of a trailer for the upcoming film “Doctor Strange,” controversy has erupted over a character played by Tilda Swinton known as The Ancient One. Many have accused Marvel of whitewashing the character by casting the British-born Swinton as a character who is from Tibet in the original comics. Benedict Cumberbatch stars in the title role.

Now the movie’s co-screenwriter C. Robert Cargill has said that the casting decision was driven in part by a need to protect the lucrative Chinese theatrical market.

In a recent interview with the pop culture podcast Double Toasted, Cargill declared “there is no other character in Marvel history that is such a cultural landmine that is absolutely unwinnable.”

He called the original character of The Ancient One “a racist stereotype who comes from a region of the world that is in a very weird political place. He originates from Tibet, so if you acknowledge that Tibet is a place and that he’s Tibetan, you risk alienating one billion people who think that that’s … and risk the Chinese government going, ‘Hey, you know one of the biggest film-watching countries in the world? We’re not going to show your movie because you decided to get political.’ ”


As for whether Swinton’s role should nevertheless have been cast using an Asian performer such as Michelle Yeoh, a frequent suggestion online, Cargill responded, “If you are telling me you think it’s a good idea to cast a Chinese actress as a Tibetan character, you are out of your damn fool mind and have no idea what the … you’re talking about.

“Oh, ‘she could be Asian!’ Asian? She should be Japanese, she should be Indian, really?” Cargill said. “The levels of cultural sensitivity around this thing is, everyone is staking out their one particular place and not realizing that every single thing here is a losing proposition.”

Noting that the decision was made by director Scott Derrickson before Cargill joined the project to cast the male role with a female performer, Cargill also added, “Everybody kind of pats us on the back for that and then decides to scold us for her not being Tibetan. We knew that the social justice warriors would be angry either way.”

Addressing the controversy herself in a recent interview with The Times, Swinton said, “There is a misunderstanding in some quarters about me being asked to play an Asian character, which I’ve been grateful to put people right about, because the character that I was invited to play was absolutely not Asian.

“And I think we are all looking forward to seeing that film and we will see what we will see and we’re all, those of us who made it, are extremely excited to show it to people. I think when they see the film they will understand where we’re coming from and why.”

After the interview (and subsequent online uproar over the statements) Marvel released the following statement:

“Marvel has a very strong record of diversity in its casting of films and regularly departs from stereotypes and source material to bring its MCU to life. The Ancient One is a title that is not exclusively held by any one character, but rather a moniker passed down through time, and in this particular film the embodiment is Celtic. We are very proud to have the enormously talented Tilda Swinton portray this unique and complex character alongside our richly diverse cast.”

And Cargill added on his Twitter account that he doesn’t speak for Marvel:

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