Marvel’s newest movie “Doctor Strange” has been accused of whitewashing the plot by changing the character of The Ancient One from Tibetan to Celtic. It’s true that this is another missed opportunity to have a major Asian character in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, but it’s also true that the movie goes out of its way to avoid racism and to appeal to the giant Chinese box office.
About The Ancient One, played by Tilda Swinton, screenwriter C. Robert Cargill explained that the filmmakers were trying to avoid stereotypes and political controversy:
“The Ancient One was 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 … 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.”
Sure, some people won’t buy that argument. Marvel could have, say, modernized the Ancient One while keeping the character Asian. It could have made the character Nepalese, which is where she is based in the movie. Still, you have to give Marvel some credit for swapping a racist stereotype for a new female character, and it’s slightly weird to think of it simply as whitewashing when it was done in part to appeal to China.
Many other elements appear to be pro-China, too.
- Doctor Strange’s servant in the comics, Wong, is reimagined as a master of the mystics arts in his own right – and there’s a joke in the movie in which he makes clear that he doesn’t work for Strange. Wong is played by the ethnically Chinese actor Benedict Wong.
- “Doctor Strange”
- “Doctor Strange” repeatedly emphasizes the idea that Eastern medicine can do things that go beyond Western medicine. The movie features a major, climactic set piece in Hong Kong. It uses a Chinese smartphone, from Huawei’s Honor subbrand. Benedict Cumberbatch, who plays Doctor Strange, is hugely popular in China through his BBC show “Sherlock.” We’re not saying Marvel cast Cumberbatch as a ploy to win over China, but we bet this fact came up, and certainly didn’t hurt. “Doctor Strange” debuted in China – not an unusual thing for Marvel movies, which often open overseas first, but still worth noting.
“Doctor Strange” had a strong opening weekend, taking in $325 million globally. It was particularly strong in China at $44 million, the highest take for a new superhero franchise there and the third-highest Marvel opening after “Avengers: Age of Ultron” and “Captain America: Civil War.”
China, which could have the world’s biggest box office by 2017, limits distribution of foreign films to as few as 34 annually. Beijing considers aspects like local filming and China-friendly themes when deciding which movies get distribution. As such, tentpole movies with built-in appeal to China is becoming commonplace in Hollywood.
In trailers shown before a New York showing of “Doctor Strange,” this reporter noticed a lot of movies that might appeal to China. “XXX: The Return of Xander Cage” opens with a shot of Hong Kong and features Chinese star Donnie Yen. “Star Wars: Rogue One” also features Yen as well as China’s Jiang Wen. “Great Wall” is a Chinese historical action movie featuring Matt Damon.