Jul. 27th, 2016

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If you're in the Marvel fandom on Tumblr, you've probably seen all kinds of fanwank about Marvel casting Tilda Swinton, a white woman, to play the Ancient One, a Tibetan who is the most powerful sorcerer on Earth. Yes, it is a horrible, horrible casting decision and quite possibly racist, but it is an example of Marvel covering their metaphorical asses.

Right now, the biggest market for movies isn't necessarily the United States. For example, the film Warcraft which only made $47.2 million in the United States and $433 million outside the US (source). Yet another example is Marvel's own film, Age of Ultron, which made $459 million in the United States and $946 million dollars outside the US (source). In the case of Warcraft, the foreign market made about nine times the domestic box office and in the case of Age of Ultron, a little over twice as much. While the site does not disclose precisely which countries made which percentage of the foreign box office earnings, it is worth noting that China has become a very large and profitable market for filmakers.

China is not the US in any sense of that word, particularly when it comes to the film industry. It still has a film censorship board which determines which films can and cannot be shown in the country. For example, the recent Ghostbusters reboot was banned in China for depicting the supernatural and paranormal (sources: 1, 2). The film Seven Years in Tibet which tells the story of a group of Germans who lived in the nation during the Chinese takeover is likewise banned (sources: 1, 2) as China refuses to acknowledge Tibetan sovereignty and censors any and all discussion of the subject within Chinese borders and approved sites. Remember the Free Tibet movement a few years ago?


This brings us back to Doctor Strange and The Strange Case of the White Ancient One. Marvel or more precisely its studio executives want to continue releasing films in China and in order for a film to release in China, the need to avoid any sort of controversy with the Chinese censors. If Marvel cast the Ancient One as a Tibetan, the film would be unlikely to fit the strange standards for the Chinese screening process and thus deprive Marvel and by extension, Disney all the potential box office takings.

TL;DR: The Ancient one is White because Marvel Studios wants to avoid controversy in a lucrative overseas market.

Note: I personally dislike the casting as it makes zero sense for the setting unless the Ancient One appears to people in a form they think fits someone with the title (e.g. Someone who expects a Tibetan mystic will see a Tibetan mystic. Doctor Strange sees a white person because that's what he expects). It is in fact more than a little racist, but YMMV and it's a little too soon to be passing out judgement on a film that hasn't even been released yet.

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