Actress Tilda Swinton, no stranger to genre film or superheroes, is reportedly in negotiations to play the Ancient One in Marvel's upcoming Doctor Strange.
Indeed, if everything goes swimmingly, Swinton would technically be jumping comic book universes: She played the androgynous role of the angel Gabriel in 2005's Constantine, based on the paranormal detective character from DC Comics' Vertigo imprint. The Hollywood Reporter expects that once the deal-doing dust settles, she'll have the role of the Ancient One, the hermetical expert in magic who teaches the self-oriented Stephen Strange the ways of the Sorcerer Supreme. THR describes the character thusly:
Strange's mentor is a Tibetan mystic known as the Ancient One, who is training pupils to be the next sorcerer supreme. In the comics, the character has been a male, and Marvel Studios initially was searching for a male actor.
But the studio rethought the role and has now made it female. If a deal makes, Swinton will play the Ancient One.
It's important to note that the article doesn't describe Swinton's character explicitly, simply the version of the character who appeared in comics. Needless to say, the news has ignited a lot of discussion online. Many folks are happy to see Marvel altering a character to bring more women into its dude-heavy universe. Others are raising concerns over the unstated change here, that of an Asian character to a white one, in Marvel's predominantly white universe. The casting of Benedict Cumberbatch as the eponymous Doctor himself was greeted with a similar, not-insignificant swell of disappointment from fans hoping that Marvel would finally take an opportunity to cast a lead white character whose race is not a central factor in their fictional background with a non-white actor.
The situation is complicated further by the extent to which Marvel's (and, to be fair, American superhero comics') relationship with Asian Mysticism tropes are, to put it mildly, dated. Iron Man 3 danced carefully and cleverly around its use of long-standing Iron Man villain the Mandarin, often depicted as a sneering, knife-nailed, fu-manchu-wearing Asian sorcerer. And beyond stereotypical villains, some of Marvel's most enduring characters represent another unfortunately widespread and problematic origin story: The socially privileged white man who takes up an exoticized Eastern mystical or martial art and becomes better at it than anybody else. (See also, to varying degrees and with varying non-Western native or even fictional cultures: Batman, Green Arrow, the Phantom, Green Hornet, Stargate, Avatar.)
This culturally appropriative trope is carried out to an extreme with Doctor Strange and another of Marvel's upcoming onscreen superheroes, Iron Fist (due for his own Netflix series within the year), as they don't simply master their powers but become the chosen avatars for ancient orders of Eastern mysticism. Heck, Doctor Strange even comes back to New York with a submissive Asian manservant, much respect to the writers and artists who've given Wong a rounded character since.
Iron Fist has yet to be cast, and this writer, at least, is crossing her fingers that Marvel will go with an Asian actor for the role. Since the company has clearly chosen not to go that route with Doctor Strange, it may be that some sort of Iron Man 3-style subversion is in the works with Swinton's casting. In an ideal world, it'll be one that leaves the dated tropes behind but also provides opportunities for Asian actors to represent their culture.