There is a scary tightrope for filmmakers to negate these days, with representation being at the forefront of everything and decisions needing to be made about whether it is better to hire the best actor for a role or ensure the equality equilibrium is in balance. So when the Marvel character of The Ancient One, a Tibetan man in the comics, was introduced in Doctor Strange, there were immediately complaints of “white-washing” made against Kevin Feige and co for hiring actress Tilda Swinton in the role.
The contrasting opinions ranged from those angry at Marvel Studios for using a white actor, to those who praised the use of a woman in such an authoritive role in the narrative, to those who have no knowledge of the comics and were unaware of their being anything other than a dominant performance on show.
Kevin Feige has since spoke about how he regrets the decision to cast Tilda Swinton in the role, and recently, the actress herself has talked about her feelings, including praising Feige for his acknowledgement and regret around the choices made about the character’s onscreen appearance. In an interview with Variety, Swinton called the whole situation a “hot, sticky, gnarly moment.”
She told the magazine, “I remember at the time having a question mark in my own mind, and being attendant to the public response to the idea that a Scottish woman will play this character, and being aware that there was no resistance at all – there was widespread welcome – which shifted at a certain point, for very good reason with which I had an enormous amount of sympathy.”
Kevin Feige addressed the controversy around the character while speaking to Men’s Health magazine while promoting Shang-Chi and The Legend of The Ten Rings, a movie that like Black Panther before it, sees the Marvel Cinematic Universe embracing a large ethnic cast.
“We thought we were being so smart and so cutting edge,” Feige said. “We’re not going to do the clich&é 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 this out? Is there any other way to both not fall into the clich&é and cast an Asian actor?’ and the answer to that, of course, is yes.”
The tricky situation in movies and on TV at the moment is a divisive, and potentially production halting issue. With studios and filmmakers attempting to please everyone, re-imagining formerly white characters with the use of Black or Asian actors, and predominantly male roles being taken over by female actors, this doesn’t go down well with some. Likewise failing to cast ethnic minorities in roles where the character was created as a minority character brings them a whole other torrent of complaints. It is a fine line to walk, and I don’t think there are many who would want to willingly be the one having to walk it.
As for Swinton, her role in the Marvel Universe as The Ancient One is most likely done anyway, unless she has a small unknown appearance in either the upcoming What If? series or Doctor Strange In The Multiverse of Madness, which arrives in cinemas March 25 next year.