Tilda Swinton might be one of the best actresses in the business, but there was still backlash to the announcement that she’d been cast as the Ancient One in the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s Doctor Strange, with Scott Derrickson’s blockbuster facing widespread accusations of whitewashing.
At the time, the decision was justified by Kevin Feige explaining that much like the title of the Sorcerer Supreme, the Ancient One is more of a moniker passed down through generations rather than an identity linked to one person in particular. It sort of made sense from that perspective, and Marvel thought they were getting ahead of the curve by casting a woman as a character that’s often been depicted as the sort of harmful Asian stereotype that simply wouldn’t fly with modern audiences.
The controversy clearly didn’t affect the studio too much after Swinton was brought back for a brief cameo in Avengers: Endgame, but she’s not expected to show up in Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness. Feige recently addressed the situation by admitting he was wrong to seek a non-Asian star for the part, and Swinton has now weighed in with her own opinion.
“I’m very, very grateful that he said that. 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 be playing 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 reasons with which I had an enormous amount of sympathy. The audience feels ever more empowered to contribute to the narrative and to feel heard within the narrative, and that’s a really healthy social development. Diversity is pretty much my comfort zone, the idea of being caught on the wrong side of this debate is a bit of a nightmare to me.”
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Swinton tried to downplay it at the time by saying she’d never been asked to play an Asian character, but her involvement still drew ire from certain quarters. In the long run, though, the Ancient One was positioned more as a deliverer of exposition than a fully-formed figure, and the fact Doctor Strange‘s original mentor has been left out of the sequel entirely would appear to indicate that Marvel didn’t want to run the risk of inviting any more criticism for their depiction of the mystical sage.