Strange Directions: One Billion Chinese Can't Be Wong

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Ancient One Doctor Strange Tilda Swinton Benedict Cumberbatch Wong

Marvel comics hasn't been shy about making movies that stray from the comic book canon. And with the degree of success they've been having, one can hardly fault their logic.

None of which truly explains away the rationale behind the casting of Tilda Swinton as The Ancient One in the upcoming sure-to-be-blockbuster DOCTOR STRANGE.

In the comics, Doctor Stephen Strange is a brilliant but obnoxiously arrogant surgeon. He's Tony Stark with an M.D. (Although since Tony did heart surgery on himself during his origin, his own medical credentials are more than trifling). When Strange suffers a horrible, deadly accident, he encounters the spirit of The Ancient One, a mystic Tibetan who sees potential in Strange to become the next Sorcerer Supreme.

What's been detailed about the film thus far seems to parallel the storyline: Strange (played by SHERLOCK's Benedict Cumberbatch) has the accident, and is indeed approached by The Ancient One. But this time, instead of getting Yul Brunner with a 'stache, he gets a pale willowy blonde with an Irish lilt. While that may be my idea of an ideal afterlife encounter, it's not set well with some of the fans who remain a touch more purist in their affection for the story.

Hey, I'm easy. I can roll with the changes. I don't mind that Supergirl has moved James Olsen from being a geeky redhead to a handsome black man. I can live with Iceman being retroactively outed as gay. And I can certainly cope with The Ancient One being a Celtic Shamaness. It's the excuses that rankle me -- excuses out of Marvel as well as DOCTOR STRANGE screenwriter, C. Robert Cargill. I'm officially on the record as declaring Cargill a genius when it comes to writing -- his DREAMS AND SHADOWS and its follow-up, QUEEN OF THE DARK THINGS are books that will leave my library when you pry them from my gnarled undead fingers!

The move to change The Ancient One from Tibetan to Celtic is purely political -- or rather, it's purely economical. Cargill, in an interview podcast with stated that if you "acknowledge that Tibet is a place and that [The Ancient One] is Tibetan, you risk alienating 1 billion people."

Someone call Rand McNally and have them get out their erasers.

It really shouldn't be a surprise to anyone that the Chinese market is a strong financial consideration by Hollywood, and particularly by Marvel. Honestly, did anyone think that the battle between Iron Man and The Mandarin would play out in a fashion even remotely similar to the long-standing feud that has run in the comic books? Seriously, now. But do we have to stifle our creative sources because of what they (and they doesn't always have to be China) might think? Might we never get a good, big-budget remake of any of the Dr. Fu Manchu classics?

Marvel gets around the subject by not necessarily throwing out the original Ancient One, but by simply introducing a different one. Marvel stated through the Associated Press, "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." Under this logic, we should now refer to the character as An Ancient One. Maybe there's a whole Parliament of Ancient Ones?

Meanwhile, Cargill went on to refer to the original Ancient One as "a racist stereotype." "There is no other character in Marvel history that is such a cultural landmine," he added. I have to wonder if Marvel shared that sentiment before it went on to approach British actor Benedict Wong for the role of Dr. Strange's houseboy, Wong. (Hey, at least Benedict Wong has Asian ancestry, and Marvel didn't follow the established Hollywood tradition of hiring white actors like Warner Oland, Glen Gordon, or Joel Grey to play an Asian role!) No, that's not stereotypical, racist, or a cultural landmine at all!