Marvel has a race problem. There’s really no arguing with that, unless you’re just not paying attention. So far, black men in the MCU have largely been relegated to secondary roles; Anthony Mackie’s Falcon and Don Cheadle’s James “Rhodey” Rhodes are great characters who play important roles in their respective films, but they’re still essentially sidekicks for the white main characters. Even in Age of Ultron, white newcomers Wanda and Pietro get more screentime than Falcon or War Machine; the two black characters are stuck on the second string. Idris Elba is awesome in the Thor films, but he’s still consigned to staying out of the action and isn’t treated with the same kind of importance in the rest of the MCU as other members of Thor’s supporting cast (like Stellan Skarsgård’s scientist or Loki, both of whom appeared in Avengers, with Dr. Selvig even making his way back to the action for Age of Ultron*). I understand that Gamora is green in the comics, but that doesn’t change the fact that Guardians of the Galaxy featured the biggest role so far for a black woman in this franchise but also saw her ethnicity being erased in the most literal sense imaginable. The problem isn’t that they kept Gamora green, it’s that it took that long for a black actress to feature so prominently in one of these films. How many Asian characters can you count in the films? There’s Hogun, whose appearances in the Thor films maybe add up to ten minutes of screentime, and there’s Helen Cho, the doctor from Age of Ultron. But that’s pretty much it, isn’t it?
Frankly, it’s kind of pathetic that Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. has managed to have more POC in major roles than the MCU proper has (with superpowered characters like Daisy, Jiaying, Giyera, Joey, Yo-Yo, and Raina along with non-powered people like Mack, Mike Peterson, Melinda May, Blair Underwood’s Andrew, Edward James Olmos’s interim SHIELD director, and others). It would be easy to say that, for instance, Jessica Jones has thirteen episodes a season and thus more time to develop the character of Luke Cage, or that Daredevil has more time to focus on Rosario Dawson’s Claire Temple, but that’s essentially making the argument that white characters are of primary import, and non-white characters need only be included “if there’s time.” I can already hear the objection that there’s a Black Panther movie coming out soon, so can’t I just be happy about that? And, hey, I am! But I can’t ignore that it took over a dozen films to get to the point where Marvel was willing to “take a risk” on developing a film about a black superhero. This is especially ironic given that the MCU wouldn’t exist were it not for the surprise success of Blade, which we’ve been talking about over in Agents for a while now (it’s not surprising that Blade’s importance has been largely erased from film history; how many articles have you read talking about how Deadpool is “the first R-rated comic book movie”?).
All of this is a long-winded introduction to say that Brandon and I will not be doing an Agents of S.W.A.M.P.F.L.I.X. feature for Doctor Strange while the film is in theatres. He might take the opportunity to review the film independently, but I can’t in good conscience contribute to the box office for this movie. Batman v Superman was not a good film (rants from defensive fans aside), but there will be sequels because of what a financial success it was. Even though the contribution that I made to that success with my ticket fare is largely negligible, I cannot divest myself of some sense of responsibility. Doctor Strange’s whitewashing of the source material, and the blatant monetary reasons for doing so, are not something that I can condone or participate in, so I will not be seeing the film in theatres. Brandon may view the film in order to review it, but readers should not expect an Agents point/counterpoint review until after I have the opportunity to view the film without contributing to it financially.
If you’re upset about this, decrying that Doctor Strange has never been depicted as a POC in the mainstream Marvel continuity and therefore the MCU is not beholden to make him non-white in the adaptation, then my guess is that you are already in the comments section letting everyone in the world know that you’re a low-key racist. But if you’re still with me, here are a few things to bear in mind. First, the argument that characters who are white in the comics should remain so in any and all adaptations because it stays “true” to the original vision of the creators ignores the history of representation (and the lack thereof) in entertainment history. The reason that there aren’t that many black or Asian or Latinx characters in comics isn’t because this is a natural result of reader interest. The reason that the Jay Garrick and Barry Allen Flash characters aren’t white in the comics is because they are of a different era, when accepting that white maleness was the default was the status quo; we live in the future, and it’s time to accept that. When you’re looking at a medium that is 95% white characters, expanding the number of characters who are non-white from 5% to 10%, 15%, or 20% is barely progress, and yet there are people who will fight tooth and nail to keep Johnny Storm, Wally West, and Stephen Strange white.
Secondly, it’s important to look at who is being left behind. Stephen Strange and Danny Rand (of the upcoming Netflix Iron Fist series) in particular are characters that would benefit from solidifying their ties to the Asian cultures that are relevant in their narratives (or, in Iron Fist’s case, connecting the character to something real rather than a fantasized fictionalized Asian culture). Iron Fist exists as a character because Marvel writer Roy Thomas caught a kung fu movie and thought it would be fun to do a kung fu storyline in the comics; Danny Rand’s basically a character that exists because of seventies films that reduced all cultures of the East into a single monoculture for the purposes of exploitation, just as Luke Cage was born out of the popularity of blaxploitation flicks. Yes, the character of Danny Rand is a white guy who is trained by the inhabitants of fictional K’un L’un, but he’s such an obvious choice to diversify the MCU that it boggles the mind that the powers that be chose to cast white actor Finn Jones instead of an Asian actor (off the top of my head Osric Chau comes to mind, or Godfrey Gao if you want to skew a little older). The Netflix adaptations up to this point had actually been somewhat radical in that they focused on characters who exist in marginalized spaces: the handicapped (Daredevil), women in general and abuse survivors specifically (Jessica Jones), and African American men (the upcoming Luke Cage). Casting a white actor as Iron Fist is a total fumble and isn’t even internally consistent with the other Defenders programs.
But when it comes to Doctor Strange, it’s not just a matter of severing ties to an exoticized and fetishized “Orientalism” that was the ground from which Iron Fist sprang. Stephen Strange, in all adaptations, is a conceited surgeon whose fine motor control is lost due to an accident resulting from his hubris, ending his medical career. Confronted by his limitations, he must be apprenticed to the Ancient One, a centuries-old magic user who trains young sorcerers; he is drawn to Strange because he believes that the younger man will one day become the new Sorcerer Supreme, the most powerful wielder of magic of this generation. The history of the Ancient One is that he was born in a Himalayan community known as Kamar-Taj, in what is now Tibet. And that’s where Marvel runs into a problem.
It’s a natural end result of globalization (and cultural colonialism as American media is distributed around the world) that the international market be taken into consideration with regards to marketing and distribution. Films can live or die these days on the international box office, and China is one of the largest consumers of American film as a consumer good outside of the domestic sphere. As much as we hear complaints these days from regressive pedants about media “pandering” to “SJWs” because of the inclusion of gay, trans*, queer, and POC characters (you know, like people who live in the real world), the most obvious example of pandering in film is the way that films set themselves up to play to the Chinese market. For the most obvious example, just look at the most recent Transformers film, which relocates its action to China in the final third of the film’s runtime, including product placement for Chinese companies that have no foothold in the U.S. You don’t have to pay that much attention to the news to know that Chinese citizens live under an information embargo, with strict censorship laws and an inarguably totalitarian government (unlike the U.S., where we live under a totalitarian economy that controls the government, but the internet is open enough that even flat earthers and anti-vaxxers can voice their absurd beliefs). Transformers 4 went so far as to actually prop up the Chinese government, which is, frankly, amoral. Can you imagine if The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms was made in 1940 instead of 1953 and featured a 40 minute finale sequence set in Germany, with characters asking if they should contact Der Fuhrer for help fighting off a monster, because he’s such a good leader? Yeah, mull that over for a minute.
What does that have to do with Doctor Strange? Well, sweet summer children, the mythos of the comic is strongly tied to Tibet, which was annexed by China and placed under the control of the Chinese People’s Liberation Army in 1951. Ostensibly, the PLA wanted to leave Tibet to operate autonomously, even guaranteeing the people of Tibet the right to religious freedom, but this was a colossal falsehood (the PLA was particularly anti-religious, and the Tibetan monks’ willingness to provide asylum and safe haven for rebels fighting against the oppression of the PLA made them particularly vilified). Tibetan sovereignty essentially died with the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976), when Chinese officials destroyed monasteries, temples, and religious icons in an act of inarguable cultural genocide. Religious leaders and highly educated people were forced to undergo re-education, and exposure of these atrocities to the public eye (most notably with the famous photo of the protestor in Tienanmen Square) brought some attention to the plight of the Tibetan people, but the fervor of Western support was shallow and ultimately short-lived.
References to Tibet in media are, obviously, strictly censored in China. The government bans pretty much any person or piece of media that mentions Tibet at all; the possession of a Tibetan flag is a criminal offense in China. The Communist Party of China (CPC) has effectively destroyed an entire culture and is actively working to erase the history of their atrocity and the people affected by it from the face of the earth, which is sickening. My problem with Doctor Strange is not merely that Marvel cast Benedict Cumberbatch instead of a non-white actor, or that they cast Tilda Swinton as the Tibetan Ancient One, which is basic whitewashing of the character and problematic in its own right. My major issue is that, in doing so, Disney/Marvel is actively participating in the erasure and cover-up of a cultural genocide against the Tibetan people, all for the sake of ensuring that they can continue to see high profit margins on the international (and specifically Chinese) market. Marvel has changed their source material not to keep up with the times, but in order to cowtow to a regime. I am but one man, and a very privileged one at that, but I can recognize that this is amoral at best, and as such I will not be purchasing a ticket to see Doctor Strange. I hope that you will stand with me and do the same.
*I didn’t forget that Idris Elba is also in Ultron, but only in a dream sequence Thor has, which hardly counts.
-Mark “Boomer” Redmond