Doctor Strange hits theaters this weekend and features one major change from the comic books that was controversial the moment it was announced. Tilda Swinton, the Oscar-winning British actress, was cast to play The Ancient One, a historically Asian character in the comics. Swinton is a talented actress and beloved by her fans, but the decision was still a head-scratcher. The controversy has died down significantly since she was cast and the decision was repeatedly defended by Marvel.
Swinton is a singular actress who has proven she can handle any role given to her, so it is still exciting to see her in the Marvel Cinematic Universe.
The 55-year-old Swinton’s partner is Sandro Kopp. She has twins, Xavier and Honor, with her previous partner, John Byrne.
Here’s a look at the character and the actress’ career.
1. The Ancient One Was Over 500 Years Old When Doctor Strange Met Him in the Comics
In the comics, Doctor Strange met The Ancient One in Tibet when the Ancient One was already 500 years old. He was born in the village of Kamar-Taj. He learned about magic from a man named Kaluu, who would eventually grant the people of the village immortality.
However, Kaluu used his magic to convince the people to name him king and enslaved a neighboring village. The Ancient One tried to defeat Kaluu, but during the fight, he wiped out most of Kamar-Taj. Kaluu still fled to another dimension and the Ancient One lost his ability to be immortal. That didn’t stop him from living for five centuries.
After meeting Dr. Stephen Strange, who arrived seeking help to heal the damaged nerves in his hand, he taught Strange all he needed to know to become Sorcerer Supreme.
The Ancient One is now physically dead in the comics, although his spirit lives on. Strange killed the Ancient One’s physical form when a demon tried to enter Earth’s dimension through the Ancient One’s body.
2. Marvel Defended Casting Swinton, Saying That the Movie Version of The Ancient One is Celtic
Marvel was instantly criticized for ‘whitewashing’ for casting Swinton in the role, but the studio was quick to point out that her character is completely different from the one seen in the comic books. In April 2016, Marvel told Mashable that the film version of The Ancient One is Celtic, not Asian.
Marvel’s statement read:
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 to life. 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.
3. Writer C. Robert Cargill Blamed the Character Change on China & Called the Ancient One a ‘Kobayashi Maru’
During an interview with the podcast Double Toasted, co-writer C. Robert Cargill defended the decision to change The Ancient One from Tibetan to Celtic. As ScreenRant notes, he called the situation a “Kobayashi Maru,” referencing the unwinnable Star Trek scenario and suggested that the difficult situation between Tibet and China was to blame for the character change.
The thing about the Ancient One is it is Marvel’s Kobayashi Maru. There is no other character in Marvel history that is such a cultural landmine, that is absolutely unwinnable. I’ve been reading a bunch of people talking about it and the really frustrating thing about it this week is that most of the people who have thoughts on it haven’t thought it all the way through and they go, ‘Why didn’t they just do this?’ And it’s like, I could tell you why. I could tell you why every single decision that involves the Ancient One is a bad one, and just like the Kobayashi Maru, it all comes down on which way you’re willing to lose.
Cargill went on to explain that The Ancient One as conceived in 1963 is a “racist stereotype who comes from a region of the world that is in a very weird political place.” He said that, “if you acknowledge that Tibet is a place and that he’s Tibetan, you risk alienating one billion people who think that that’s bulls**t and risk the Chinese government going, ‘Hey, you know one of the biggest film-watching countries in the world? We’re not going to show your movie because you decided to get political.'”
He also noted that it would be a major problem to cast a Chinese actress in the role, adding, “If you think it’s a good idea to cast a Chinese actress as a Tibetan character, you are out of your damn fool mind and have no idea what the f**k you’re talking about.”
4. Swinton Said She’s Playing the Character as an Androgynous Character
Swinton is known for her unique look and ability to completely inhabit a character. Just watch her Oscar-winning performance in Michael Clayton with George Clooney, Snowpiercer or Trainwreck. She has embraced an androgynous look, which translates to her performance as The Ancient One.
“…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,” Marvel Studios chief Kevin Feige told Entertainment Weekly in December 2015. “[Clicks fingers.] Tilda Swinton! Whoah! And it just hit.”
Feige said that Swinton is a “chameleon in everything she does,” adding, “She has this amazing [ability to] harness of this androgynous sense. So, we use the term ‘her’ and ‘she’ in the film but, other than that, it’s very androgynous. Because it doesn’t matter.”
When asked if she is playing a man or a woman, Swinton told EW, “I think it’s all in the eye of the beholder.”
Swinton also told the Hollywood Reporter that she was never asked to play an Asian character.
5. This Isn’t the First Time Swinton Appeared in a Comic Book Movie, Since She was Also in ‘Constantine’ & ‘Snowpiercer’
Swinton is no stranger to comic book projects. In 2005, she played Gabriel in Constantine, a film based on the Vertigo comic about supernatural detective John Constantine, played by Keanu Reeves. In 2013, she starred in Bong Joon Ho’s excellent Snowpiercer, which co-starred Captain America actor Chris Evans.
She also has franchise experience. She played the White Witch in The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe, Prince Caspian and The Voyage of the Dawn Treader.
In 2008, she won an Oscar for Best Supporting Actress for Michael Clayton, a thriller co-starring George Clooney and directed by Tony Gilroy. Swinton is currently working on a remake of the horror film Suspiria and stars in Bong Joon Ho’s next film, Okja. She also made War Machine with Brad Pitt.