Tilda Swinton's casting as the Ancient One in "Doctor Strange" has been the source of controversy since it was announced last year, with critics calling the casting of a white actress as a character that was a Tibetan man in the comics the latest example of Hollywood whitewashing. C. Robert Cargill, one of the screenwriters behind "Strange," recently addressed the whitewashing criticism in a video interview with Double Toasted, where he compared adapting the Ancient One to the unwinnable test from "Star Trek" canon.
"The thing about the Ancient One is it is Marvel's Kobayashi Maru," Cargill explains. "There is no other character in Marvel history that is such a cultural land mine, that is absolutely unwinnable. I've been reading a bunch of people talking about it, and the really frustrating thing about it this week is that most of the people who have thoughts on it haven't thought it all the way through, and they go, 'Why didn't they just do this?' And it's like, I could tell you why. I could tell you why every single decision that involves the Ancient One is a bad one, and just like the Kobayashi Maru, it all comes down on which way you're willing to lose."
Cargill calls the character as presented in the original '60s Marvel comics "a racist stereotype who comes from a region of the world that is in a very weird political place." The character's Tibetan origin posted a specific problem for the screenwriters, who had to consider the fact that China is one of Marvel's major international markets.
"He originates from Tibet, so if you acknowledge that Tibet is a place and that he's Tibetan, you risk alienating one billion people who think that that's bullshit and risk the Chinese government going, 'Hey, you know one of the biggest film-watching countries in the world? We're not going to show your movie because you decided to get political.' If we decide to go the other way and cater to China in particular and have him be in Tibet... if you think it's a good idea to cast a Chinese actress as a Tibetan character, you are out of your damn fool mind and have no idea what the fuck you're talking about."
China is a major part of Marvel's international plan, as it is for ever major Hollywood studio. "Avengers: Age of Ultron" earned $240 million in the country last year, and even the more modestly-budgeted "Ant-Man" raked in over $100 in China. The decision to cast Swinton in the role may be an example of whitewashing, but Cargill's reasoning posits that that was the only way to adapt Doctor Strange's origin and keep it set in Tibet.
Directed by Derrickson, written by C. Robert Cargill and Jon Spaihts, and starring Benedict Cumberbatch, Rachel McAdams, Tilda Swinton, Mads Mikkelsen, Chiwetel Ejiofor and others, "Doctor Strange" hits theaters on November 4, 2016.