Marvel Says Tilda Swinton Is Actually Playing A "Celtic" Character In "Doctor Strange"
The studio says the white British actor is playing a "Celtic embodiment" of the Ancient One — not a Tibetan character.
When the first teaser trailer for Doctor Strange dropped two weeks ago, many people took issue with Tilda Swinton's portrayal of the character the Ancient One.
Marvel has released an official statement defending Swinton's role, saying that she is actually playing a "Celtic embodiment" of the Ancient One.
"Marvel has a very strong record of diversity in its casting of films and regularly departs from stereotypes and source material to bring its MCU [Marvel Cinematic Universe] to life," the statement reads. "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. We are very proud to have the enormously talented Tilda Swinton portray this unique and complex character alongside our richly diverse cast."
The statement's mention of the "embodiment" or fluid identity of the Ancient One may allude to the many alternate realities of the comic. However, the Ancient One has always been a character of Asian descent in the comics, even in these alternate iterations: On Earth-616, the realm in which most of the Marvel comics take place, the Ancient One is a man named Yao, and as he appears in other dimensions, the character also appears as an Asian man.
The statement does not extrapolate on the Ancient One and Doctor Strange's set in the trailer, how a Celtic sorcerer ends up in what appears to be an Asian country, or the character's attire.
Kevin Feige, the president of Marvel Studios, addressed the backlash after Swinton's casting was confirmed in 2015. He explained that casting an Asian in the role of a mystic sorcerer would have reinforced problematic tropes about Asians.
"We're never afraid to change. In the comic books, Jarvis is an elderly butler. In the movies, he's an A.I. system which becomes Paul Bettany's Vision," Feige, who is a producer for Doctor Strange, told Entertainment Weekly. "We are always looking for ways to change. I think if you look at some of the early incarnations of the Ancient One in the comics, they are what we would consider today to be quite, sort of, stereotypical. They don't hold up to what would work today."
"Also, within the storyline of the comics, and our movie, 'the Ancient One' is a title that many people have had. We hit very early on on, What if the Ancient One was a woman? What if the title had been passed and the current Ancient One is a woman? Oh, that's an interesting idea. [Clicks fingers.] Tilda Swinton! Whoah! And it just hit," Feige continued.
In other words, Feige contended that the Ancient One isn't the name of one individual character but a title that can be passed on from one character to another. So, according to Feige, the sorcerer is both race- and gender-fluid.
Last week, Swinton also responded to backlash, asserting that her character in the film is not Tibetan.
"Well, it's not actually an Asian character — that's what I need to tell you about it," she told The Hollywood Reporter. "I wasn't asked to play an Asian character, you can be very well assured of that."
Around the same time, a screenwriter for the film surmised why Marvel erased the character's Tibetan roots.
During an interview on pop culture podcast Double Toasted, C. Robert Cargill speculated one reason why the filmmakers decided to change the Ancient One's ethnicity: They didn't want to risk angering the Chinese government and thusly losing the Chinese market due to the disputes over the sovereignty of Tibet as a culture and nation. He also said the decision of changing the character's race had to do with its stereotypical nature.
"The Ancient One was a racist stereotype who comes from a region of the world that is in a very weird political place," Cargill said on the podcast. "He originates from Tibet, so if you acknowledge that Tibet is a place and that he's Tibetan, you risk alienating one billion people."
Swinton was cast before Cargill signed on for screenwriting duties.