Tilda Swinton has played all manner of immortal and/or powerful beings, including the White Witch in The Chronicles Of Narnia movies, Tom Hiddleston’s other vampiric half in Only Lovers Left Alive, and the half-angel Gabriel in Constantine. So the notion of her playing someone called The Ancient One in the upcoming Doctor Strange movie didn’t sound all that strange (sorry) to anyone unfamiliar with the comics when the news broke last May. But those in the know noted that the Ancient One was actually a Tibetan man in the comics, and since this casting announcement followed that of Scarlett Johansson playing a Japanese character in Ghost In The Shell (to say nothing of Emma Stone’s role in Aloha), Hollywood was called out for whitewashing yet another Asian character.
Marvel Studio boss Kevin Feige responded to the backlash by arguing that the previous iteration of the Ancient One was more than a little stereotypical, so he was reimagined as a (white) she. This was also intended to expand the representation of women in Marvel films. But that dubious victory for diversity never really went over, and the first Doctor Strange trailer also did little to ameliorate those concerns, as it featured Swinton in a bald cap flexing her mystical might against Benedict Cumberbatch. Now as audiences gird their loins (or consider opting out), Swinton has entered the discussion to clarify that despite the Asian-inspired setting, her character is not Asian.
In an interview with The Hollywood Reporter, Swinton explained the conception of her role, saying “Well, it’s not actually an Asian character—that’s what I need to tell you about it. I wasn’t asked to play an Asian character, you can be very well assured of that.” She continued, “You just have to wait and see, because it’s not an Asian character.” And while it’s a relief to hear that she won’t be engaging in yellowface, the fact that Marvel Studio just scrapped the Ancient One’s backstory suggests that it somehow lacks the ability to create an Asian character that isn’t a caricature, though only for one of its tentpole films. After all, the studio’s managed to establish a multifaceted character with Melinda May (Ming-Na Wen) on ABC’s—sorry, Marvel’s—Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D. We’ll have to wait until November 4 to learn if the switch was justified, but in the meantime, we suppose we should be relieved that there are no plans to digitally alter Swinton’s race.