Doctor Orientalism: Marvel’s History of Anti-Asian Narratives

While watching Avengers: Infinity War, there was a specific moment where Doctor Stephen Strange, Sorcerer Supreme and protector of the time stone, duplicates himself. His many arms stretch out of his body like a hypnotic spider, and he proceeds to multiply to throw Thanos off guard in the middle of a tense battle. The audience erupted in applause, but I couldn’t help but feel unnerved at the display of blatant cultural appropriation. What could have been a triumphant moment of pride for me, had Strange been played by an Asian actor, was instead one of alienation. So here I am, with the goal to talk about this issue head-on. To do so effectively, we’re going to have to go back to the beginning.

Doctor Strange’s existence in the MCU has been a problem for me ever since he was cast, as there has always been an issue with the original source material, and the on-screen interpretation of the character has not done anything to fix it. When he was introduced into the comic sphere in 1963 with Strange Tales #110, there was a mass hippie craze for any “exotic” culture. The Sorcerer Supreme’s lore and imagery were heavily inspired by Tibetan and South-East Asian Buddhist folklore and legends. Obviously, it was never thought at the time how harmful it is to take an external culture and exploit it for aesthetics, but he was actually never explicitly caucasian until he became a popular character and was implemented into other storylines.

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Doctor Strange in his first appearance, Strange Tales #110.

But we’re not in 1963 anymore. In November 2015, Doctor Strange began principal photography and received backlash for whitewashing the role of the Ancient One by casting Tilda Swinton. The director, Scott Derrickson, commented that this was an attempt to be progressive and update the character- as previously the Ancient One was a massive stereotype and racist caricature. This comment quieted a lot of the criticism and the boycott campaign directed towards the film, and it went on to perform well at the box office. Now that we’re in 2018, where Doctor Strange has made his third appearance in this universe, it’s safe to say that I, at least, am very dissatisfied with the hiatus of this conversation.

Doctor Strange‘s approach to making “progressive” updates to the story are more lazy and regressive than beneficial. Sure, making the Ancient One a white woman dodges the risk of making the Ancient One into a racist caricature, but it also erases the roots of the character in the first place. It’s revisionism with no self awareness. The idea of exploring the Ancient One in 2016 as a modern Asian character could have opened up a conversation in Orientalism, or the aesthetic fetishization of Asian culture, but the backlash ended before we ever got to it. It’s not impossible to write the Ancient One as a non-stereotypical Asian character had they consulted Asian writers to improve the material, it’s just that Derrickson and the Marvel crew decided they just didn’t want to deal with it. They took the easy way out- a shortcut. How are we to improve our media if we aren’t willing to take such risks?

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Tilda Swinton as the Ancient One and Benedict Cumberbatch as Stephen Strange in ‘Doctor Strange’

And here’s the thing with Doctor Strange, even by disregarding the issues with the Ancient One, you essentially still are putting out a damaging message by having the protagonist of this Asian occult story be a white man. Not only does Strange’s magic uncomfortably borrow imagery from Southeast Asian symbols and text, but there’s now a white savior complex to the story. One that is not made any better by the stereotypical depiction of Strange’s sidekick, Wong.

Simply put, if there was actually supposed to be an effort to “reclaim” the story of Strange and update it for modern audiences, then Stephen Strange should have been played by an Asian man. The “fish out of water” element to Strange’s character would have still worked coming from an Asian-American and could have been a lot more interesting, as well as a story of an Asian-American dealing with assimilation and culture shock. This is true of many choices Marvel has made regarding people of color. They’ve missed so many opportunities for introducing characters of color for the sole purpose of boosting the white male characters they are comfortable with.

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Finn Jones as Iron Fist

Maybe this could be forgiven with improvement, but nothing has improved in regards to Asian representation in the MCU since 2015. All of our best main characters are relegated to ABC network TV (Melinda May, Daisy Johnson). Other than that, our representation only exists in supporting characters (Wong, Ned, Mantis). While these characters are all likable there’s a lot to be desired with their place in this larger franchise of heroes. If this is truly a bigger universe like this brand implies it is, how is it that this is all Asian people can be?

To add insult to injury, we have the 2017 Netflix series Iron Fist; a story that has the same orientalist, white savior complex as the story of Doctor Strange-and Marvel simply just repeated what they did before. Danny Rand, the “Immortal Ironfist” played by Finn Jones, is the same privileged asshole archetype as Strange. His sidekick, who is more than capable of being the Iron Fist than Danny, Colleen, is played by Jessica Henwick. Any attempt to make the story a lot more compelling by racebending was never made, and any attempt to address Colleen not being the lead role is unconvincing. History just repeated itself, missed opportunity after another missed opportunity.

How many more do we Asians have to see before some change happens? Why can’t we have an Asian Doctor Strange or an Asian Danny Rand? Why couldn’t Colleen be the Iron Fist? Why did Wong disappear after the first act of Infinity War if he is just as important to protecting the Time Stone as Strange? For a movie franchise that has broken comic accuracy so much, why do we get so upset when anyone even thinks about changing the ethnicity of our heroes?

These are questions we should start asking again–for I could not be entertained by the sheer spectacle of the Sorcerer Supreme duplicating himself or using the time stone to look into the future knowing that, in another timeline, he could have made me and my people proud of who we are with just one casting choice.

2 thoughts on “Doctor Orientalism: Marvel’s History of Anti-Asian Narratives”

  1. Thank you for addressing this! We shouldn’t forget this stuff. And they refused to make any changes in infinity war– there’s a scene where Strange “powers up” or something, and he has many arms in variously poses. Essentially, it was hindu god imagery. I was so angry, that a white man was portrayed in that in different way. Hollywood refuses to learn its lesson and I’m so goddamn angry.

    Liked by 1 person

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