Back in 2016, Marvel came under fire for casting Tilda Swinton as The Ancient One — a traditionally Asian male character — in Doctor Strange. The gender swap wasn’t terribly controversial, especially considering Swinton’s pedigree, but whitewashing the character was. Director Scott Derrickson attempted to apologize for the decision at the time, and now Marvel Studios head Kevin Feige has acknowledged that the casting choice could have been handled differently.
“We thought we were being so smart, and so cutting-edge,” Feige told Men’s Health. “We’re not going to do the cliché of the wizened, old, wise Asian man. But it was a wake-up call to say, ‘Well, wait a minute, is there any other way to figure it out? Is there any other way to both not fall into the cliché and cast an Asian actor?’ And the answer to that, of course, is yes.”
In a 2016 interview with The Daily Beast, Derrickson explained he was trying to avoid perpetuating a “bad stereotype” that would have come with an Asian woman playing “a straight-up Dragon Lady.” Instead, Marvel sidestepped casting an Asian actor entirely and tried to offset the shift by reinventing the manservant character of Wong as a librarian who mentors Doctor Strange and fights alongside him. That aspect actually paid off, as Wong became a fan-favorite Marvel Cinematic Universe hero.
Marvel Studios also issued a statement at the time pointing to their “very strong record of diversity in its casting of films,” while adding “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.”
Conveniently, Feige’s new admission comes during the promotional cycle for the Simu Liu-starring Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings, the first Marvel film to feature a predominantly Asian cast and lead hero. The movie hits theaters on September 3rd.
Five years after the casting controversy, the upcoming Phase 4 of the MCU is indeed led by a number of diverse titles. The Disney+ series Ms. Marvel will introduce the MCU’s first Muslim superhero (played by Iman Vellani), who will then transition to star in The Marvels alongside Brie Larson’s Captain Marvel (and potentially WandaVision breakout Teyonah Parris as Photon). The Falcon and the Winter Soldier ended with Anthony Mackie’s Sam Wilson officially becoming Captain America, and a solo Cap film with him in the lead is in the works.
Then there’s the diverse ensemble of Eternals (Gemma Chan, Kumail Nanjiani, Salma Hayek, Bryan Tyree Henry, Lauren Ridloff, Ma Dong-seok), and the upcoming Black Panther: Wakanda Forever. Also in various stages of development are Blade with Mahershala Ali, plus the Disney+ series Ironheart starring Dominique Thorne, Armor Wars led by Don Cheadle’s War Machine, and Secret Invasion featuring the return of Samuel L. Jackson’s Nick Fury.