Asian Actors in Comic Book Films Respond to ‘Doctor Strange’ Whitewashing Controversy

Doctor Strange
Courtesy of Disney

With “Doctor Strange” opening this weekend, the “whitewashing” controversy surrounding the casting of Tilda Swinton as The Ancient One in “Doctor Strange” has resurfaced.

Both director Scott Derrickson and writer Jon Spaihts have defended Swinton, rationalizing that casting a woman in the role of a man was already a diversity choice.

But some Asian visibility groups, notably the Media Action Network for Asian Americans (MANAA), have rejected these rationalizations, arguing that an Asian woman could have been cast instead of the British actress. As MANAA’s former president Guy Aoki noted, “whitewashing” of Asian comic book characters has happened before, citing The Mandarin (Guy Pearce) in “Iron Man” and Talia al Ghul (Marion Cotillard) in “The Dark Knight Rises” as examples.

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Variety spoke to several Asian actors who have appeared in comic book films and TV shows to discuss “whitewashing” in the genre.

Benedict Wong, who plays Wong in “Doctor Strange,” defended his costar’s casting. “Let’s champion this as a real piece of diversity,” the actor explained, echoing the writers’ sentiments. “We have two strong females leads in Tilda and Rachel [McAdams]. We have Chiwetel [Ejiofor], Mads [Mikkelsen], posh Benedict [Cumberbatch] and not-so-posh Benedict [Wong].”

Wong further explained how Derrickson and Marvel Studios head Kevin Feige dispelled stereotypes around his own character. “The idea of a man servant and tea-making sidekick isn’t that appealing,” the British Chinese actor said. “Scott and Kevin said vehemently ‘we’re not doing this.’ And I said, ‘Fantastic, because neither am I.'”

Kelly Hu has had the fortune of playing comic book characters true to their Asian origins. (Michael Buckner/Variety/REX/Shutterstock)


Kelly Hu has been fortunate to be cast in roles true to their source material, including Japanese cyborg Lady Deathstrike in “X2” and supervillain China White on “Arrow.” “I think it’s a shame,” the Chinese-American actress said of “whitewashing.” “From what I’ve been told and what I’ve read, it’s because [studio executives] think that Asian actors and actresses don’t pull in the numbers — that people aren’t going to pay to see Asians on screen. With all these borders opening up and movies going global these days, Asians make up a huge part of the population in the world, and I hope that will start reflecting in Hollywood.

Lewis Tan, who stars as villain Zhou Cheng in the upcoming Netflix series “Iron Fist,” had his own experience with “whitewashing.”

Although “Iron Fist” is Caucasian in the comic books, fans pressed Marvel for an Asian lead.

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“I originally auditioned for the lead and was highly considered for it, but they went a different way,” Tan explained. “In the original comic, he was a Caucasian guy with blue eyes, blonde hair. I think Finn Jones fits that character very well, so I have no issues with that.”

“I think there is a large, multicultural, diverse group of people who aren’t seeing themselves represented the right way, as far as being heroes and love interests. That’s what I do stand for.”

When asked about Swinton, Tan responded, “I’m not the biggest fan of that casting choice. I can see why they wanted to switch it up. Producers, studios, directors, writers — there’s a lot of voices. I think that an Asian woman would’ve been fantastic cast in that. They said she would be too much of a ‘Dragon Lady’ or too stereotypical, but I disagree.”

Lewis Tan says he was considered for the titular role of “Iron Fist,” but was cast as villain Zhou Cheng instead. (Katie Jones/Variety/REX/Shutterstock)


Asian actors have played Asian comic book characters in other comic book films: Olivia Munn (who is half-Chinese) portrayed Psylocke in “X-Men: Apocalypse.” Vietnamese-American actress Lana Condor portrayed Jubilee in the same film. Over in the D.C. Universe, Japanese-American actress Karen Fukuhara portrayed Katana in “Suicide Squad.” None of these would be considered major roles.

The one exception is Marvel’s “The Wolverine,” which featured Japanese actors in major roles, including Rila Fukushima as Yukio, a female ninja and Wolverine’s sidekick, and Hal Yamanouchi as Silver Samurai. However, since the story took place primarily in Japan, the use of an Asian supporting cast was a necessity.

By whitewashing the role of “The Ancient One” in “Doctor Strange” — a film that’s going to dominate the box office — is a major blow to diversity and visibility, critics argue.

“Doctor Strange” is in theaters now.

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  1. James Aragon says:

    Lewis Tan is half-white? Why do half-breeds (I am one) cling to their ‘minority’ half?

    • jennyjenn says:

      Because it is part of who they are. What sort of stupid question is this, and why call them half breeds? They’re human not animals

  2. Nick Fury says:

    Well guess what, purists….. NICK FURY IS NOT BLACK…. AND THE HUMAN TORCH DEFINITELY IS NOT BLACK!!! And neither is Thing’s girlfriend, Alicia Masters… Neither is Kingpin…. I mean COME ON… There’s even talk of Idris Elba playing James Bond… No one worries about changing the race of white characters to black… Let’s have Tom Hanks play Martin Luther King in the next civil rights movie. I bet he’d do a great job. Probably win an unbiased Oscar 😉

    • MayaL says:

      @Nick. I’m sure you thought you were making a good point here, but you weren’t. Casting always has to make sense for people to accept it. Tom Hanks as Dr. King doesn’t make sense. Neither does Tilda in NEPAL as the ancient one. If you’re casting for King Henry, you wouldn’t choose a Denzel Washington because that doesn’t make sense. And you wouldn’t cast Tom Hardy as Kunta Kinte. Trying to be diverse is not the same as dumb casting. Whites have PLENTY of roles where they are the lead, so you don’t have to force Tom Cruz to be the last samurai. It’s like you’re not happy unless you are the center of everything under the sun. It’s a destructive mind set that has clearly defined your history of bullying – even now. You have so much, but it’s never enough. You always want more no matter how small it is.

  3. Bs says:

    Talia wasn’t Asian in origin I mean Ra’s isn’t either, al ghul is a title in a way.

    Tilda swinton doesn’t actually bring in a strong crowd herself, in fact I don’t even think doctor strange brings in a crowd outside of America… the avengers yes not strange (I love the character and other mystical characters through all comic companies).

    The fact remains they could have had any Asian women, didn’t have to be Tibetan if they wanted to keep China happy. In fact you could ask any Asian women to play from any country, why not have Michelle yeoh (apologise if I got her name wrong here) as a North Korean ancient one who feels she let down her people and let the dark magic she was using seep out there, it could be her failure. Now that’s a diverse and political statement all rolled into one.

    Instead we got she’s Celtic, yeah I’m from a Celtic background and even I thought that was weak.

  4. kalithas says:

    Super very nice flim kathai

  5. terminaltrip421 says:

    you could have done some research… The ancient one was originally Tibetan. and as that would not likely fly so well with china being the market that it is they changed the character entirely. an article http://www.nytimes.com/2016/04/27/world/asia/china-doctor-strange-tibet.html?_r=0

  6. David says:

    While this appears to be a misstep, Marvel has given us diversity in Thor – Heimdal, daredevil movie – Kingpin, and dr strange – Baron Mordo.

    Let’s not go too crazy about this casting.

  7. Kent says:

    Baron mordo is white not black like in the movie.
    Blackwashing is horrible!

    • MayaL says:

      This devil mindset is always in every comment section . As if “blackwashing” is a real thing. Yeah, “blackwashing” and “black racism” is such a huge problem in the world. Dang Blacks are always oppressing everyone.

  8. M. DeAngelis says:

    There was no protest when Samuel Jackson played Nick Fury.

  9. Richard Rider says:

    Why are they mad for “whitewashing” the ancient one but not mad at “blackwashing” Baron Mordo?

  10. StainA says:

    Guy Pearce was Aldrich Killian. You’d think a movie news writer would do some research first.

  11. Bryan Becker says:

    I’m very excited for the day I get to see Lewis Tan in a lead role of any kind. His work on TV that I’ve seen has never disappointed. A great actor. Ive study martial arts for over 18 years and have studied Acting since 1999. Tilda Swinton is a truly fantastic and exciting Actress, but I’m sorry, her physical martial art stance in the slow motion scene in the trailer of her striking Mr. Cumberbatch reveals she has zero martial art experience and truth be told, all I thought about when witnessing this punch was that it couldn’t put a hole in paper. I would also like to add that it’s nice that Lewis Tan isn’t holding a double standard, he’s honest about how he agrees with the casting of the lead in his show and respectful of how he disagrees with the lost opportunity of an Asian Female as the lead in Dr. Strange. Can’t wait to see him lead the screen on the next one.

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