While the Marvel Cinematic Universe does its best to honor the original Marvel Comics source material, as with any adaptation, creative liberties will be taken in each movie. Take Doctor Strange, for example. One of the ways that the 2016 MCU entry stood out from the comics was by casting Tilda Swinton as The Ancient One, Stephen Strange’s mentor in the mystic arts. Because The Ancient One has traditionally been an Asian man, Marvel Studios was called out for whitewashing the role, and the company’s president, Kevin Feige, has now admitted that having a white woman play the role was the wrong decision.
We thought we were being so smart, and so cutting-edge. 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.
This is similar to what Doctor Strange director Scott Derrickson said around the time the movie was coming out, with the filmmaker noting how he originally considered casting an Asian woman as The Ancient One, but was worried the character would then come off resembling “a straight-up Dragon Lady.” Five years later, Kevin Feige and the rest of the MCU brass are aware that this was the wrong way to go, and have made better efforts to provide respectful representation in Marvel Studios’ movies and TV shows without delving into stereotypical territory.
While the actor chosen to play The Ancient One in Doctor Strange was met with controversy, Tilda Swinton’s version of the character basically performed the same function as her comic book counterpart by introducing Strange to the world of magic. However, she was later mortally wounded by Kaecilius, the main antagonist, during their showdown in the mirror dimension. Swinton briefly reprised The Ancient One in Avengers: Endgame, when Hulk went back to 2012 to retrieve the Time Stone from her.
Of course, having a white woman played The Ancient One was just one of the many ways Doctor Strange shook things up with its characters. The magical blockbuster also cast Chiwetel Ejiofor as Mordo, who is white in the comics, and rather than starting out as a villain, he was depicted as Strange’s ally until he decided that there were too many sorcerers in the world and embarked down a dark path. Then there’s Wong, who in the comics is Stephen Strange’s manservant and doesn’t have any magical abilities of his own. For the Doctor Strange movie, Benedict Wong’s version of the character was made the Master of the Mystic Arts who looked after Kamar-Taj’s library. Mads Mikkelsen’s Kaecilius was also reimagined as a rogue sorcerer seeking to achieve eternal life from Dormammu, as opposed to simply being one of Mordo’s disciples.
With Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness seeing Benedict Cumberbatch’s Stephen Strange traveling to other realities, perhaps he’ll come across one where The Ancient One is not only still alive, but an Asian man like in the comics. In any case, looking back to Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings, this will be an opportunity to see if Marvel Studios did indeed learn its lesson from Doctor Strange. Namely, the real Mandarin, played by Tony Leung, is serving as the movie’s main antagonist, and this is a character who has a dicey history with being depicted stereotypically, particularly in his earliest comic book appearances.
Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness will work its magic in theaters on March 25, 2022, with Sam Raimi taking the directorial reins this time around, and characters like Elizabeth Olsen’s Scarlet Witch and Xochitl Gomez’s America Chavez being thrown into the mix. Look through our upcoming Marvel movies guide to learn what else the MCU is sending to the big screen.