China Uncensored: Was Doctor Strange Changed to Please China?

By Chris Chappell
Chris Chappell
Chris Chappell
April 29, 2016 Updated: July 8, 2016

You know, my mama always said you should never talk about religion or politics over the dinner table. Well, I would add to that one more highly sensitive topic—comic books. More specifically, movie adaptations of comic books. Nothing is more certain to generate a hellstorm on Internet forums than minor changes made to beloved characters.

But the most recent atrocity to befall comic bookdom was the decision to change the Ancient One, a Tibetan male sorcerer in Doctor Strange, to a white woman in the upcoming movie. The movie’s creators have been lambasted for what’s being called another example of Hollywoodwhitewashing.”

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But earlier this month, actress Tilda Swinton, who has been cast as the Ancient One, said there were “very great reasons” for the changes.

The movie’s creators have been lambasted for what’s being called another example of Hollywood “whitewashing.”

The greatest reason of all, it turns out, may have been money. On the Double Toasted podcast, Doctor Strange movie writer C. Robert Cargill explained why Tilda Swinton was cast as the Ancient One. And the answer is—to make sure the Chinese Communist Party doesn’t ban their movie.

You can watch the whole interview here, but here’s the part in question: “He originates from Tibet, so if you acknowledge that Tibet is a place and that he’s Tibetan, you…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.'”

OK, I’m pretty sure the CCP is not arguing that Tibet doesn’t exist. But the next day, Cargill hit Control-Z on that interview, saying he wasn’t representing Marvel when he said that.

But the problem is that Tibet is still a very politically sensitive issue. And if you mention it in your very expensive movie, you run the risk of being denied access to one of the world’s most lucrative movie markets. Brad Pitt still has trouble getting his movies shown in China because he was in 7 Years in Tibet almost 20 years ago.

The Communist Party only allows 34 foreign films a year and they have to get approval from censors. Specifically, the State Administration of Press, Publication, Radio, Film and Television, or SAPPRFT.

So it makes sense Marvel would alter their movie about a hero standing up to evil… by appeasing a tyrannical government. And if this is Marvel kowtowing to the Chinese government, it wouldn’t be the first time.

Iron Man 3 had special China only scenes that you probably never saw. See, Iron Man 3 was a co-production with a Chinese studio, which means it didn’t have to compete with other foreign films for one of those coveted 34 film slots a year. And you can make more money this way. A foreign film studio can only get 25% of box office profits from China, but in a co-production, the foreign studio can keep almost 50%. But that also means you have to shoot part of your film in China, cast Chinese actors, have Chinese investors, or show “positive Chinese images.”

And that’s why Marvel added several totally unnecessary scenes to the Chinese version of Iron Man 3, featuring famous Chinese actors, and famous Chinese product placement. And to appease Chinese censors, Marvel allowed censors to vet the script for the entire film. And it worked! Iron Man 3 got into China—and made an extra 95 million dollars there!

Other movies have done it, too. In the film Looper, they changed the idealistic future from Paris to Shanghai. Because what could be more ideal than another 60-plus years of Communist Party rule? And when they shot the 2012 Red Dawn remake, the enemy that attacked America was China. But after being criticized by a Chinese newspaper, they reportedly spent a million dollars to digitally change the baddie in post-production to North Korea.

So for Doctor Strange, Marvel had a real conundrum. And they solved it by casting the spiritual teacher as a white woman. Who’s Celtic. A group known for their love of Asian temples and martial arts.

I mean, they could have cast a famous Chinese actor…as…a…Tibetan. Ok, that’s also pretty racist—that whole all-Asians-look-the-same thing. Hey, I got it! If you’re going to change it to a celtic woman, why not just change the character from Tibetan to Han Chinese. Knows kung fu, qigong, mystic powers—hey the CCP would probably actually love that! Oh, but then Dr. Strange is still the white hero goes to Asia for enlightenment and then becomes the best trope. Which is still a bad stereotype. And I guess the mystic powers might be a little much, since censors don’t want to promote “superstition” either. Actually, in that case…Doctor Strange may have a hard time getting into China even without Tibetan monks.

Of course, Marvel did sort of solve this issue in Iron Man 3. The villain The Mandarin was played by Sir Ben Kingsley, who is…not Mandarin. Marvel walked the edge of the whitewashing/racist Fu Manchu villain issue by writing the Mandarin as an unemployed actor who was just a front for the real villain. So I suppose there’s a chance that Marvel could pull something off that adequately explains why a Celtic mystic is living in the Himalayas.

So what do you think of Marvel’s decision to change the Ancient One from a Tibetan dude to a Celtic woman? Leave your comments below.