Why Tilda Swinton's 'Doctor Strange' Casting Is a Small Step Forward for Marvel (Opinion)

Marvel appears to be finally making a welcome step in a direction that other comic book movies have been moving in for some time.
Fabrizio Maltese

With the news that Tilda Swinton is in talks to play the Ancient One in Scott Derrickson's Doctor Strange, is Marvel Studios joining other superhero studios Warner Bros, 20th Century Fox and Sony in breaking away from slavish devotion to comic book canon in terms of onscreen diversity? Well, almost.

In all previous movie releases, Marvel has stayed faithful to the race and gender of its lead characters as defined in more ... well, white and male terms, to be blunt. (It should be noted that Thor cast Idris Elba as the traditionally white supporting character Heimdall, and Daredevil — the studio's first series for Netflix — did change Ben Ulrich from a harried, white middle-aged reporter to a black, harried middle-aged reporter.) This faithfulness has led to criticism of Marvel  for the lack of diversity in its characters — especially when Benedict Cumberbatch was named as the lead in Doctor Strange, a character who easily could have been portrayed by an actor of any race or gender.

Selected to play the Ancient One, Swinton continues her tradition of appearing as mythical beings in movies based on supernatural comic books, notably as Gabriel in 2005's Constantine, based on the DC Entertainment character. As for Marvel, appears to finally be making a welcome step in a direction that other comic book movies have been moving in for some time.

Sony's The Amazing Spider-Man 2 featured Jamie Foxx as Electro, a character who's been white in the comic books since his debut. Fox's Fantastic Four features Michael B. Jordan as the Human Torch, a move that got fans upset at its race bending to the point where Jordan responded in an essay last week.Warners' Man of Steel not only featured a black Perry White (Lawrence Fishburne), but was also rumored to have gender-swapped longstanding sidekick Jimmy Olsen into Jenny Olsen.

(Fans might point to Samuel L. Jackson's run as Nick Fury as a point for diversity in Marvel's movies, but the cinematic version of the character is merely following the comic book's "Ultimate Universe" version, who has been drawn to resemble Jackson since 2002, years before the actor had the role.)

But while Swinton's casting reveals that Marvel is stepping up to broaden its casting in terms of gender, fans might be upset by the fact that it's actually reducing diversity in terms of race; the Ancient One has traditionally been of (admittedly indistinct) Asian origin, whereas Swinton, obviously, is not. Think of it as one step forward, and one back, for now — but a sign, perhaps, that the studio is open to widening its options in future, which can only be a good thing.

May 27, 12:20 p.m. Updated to include mention of Idris Elba as Heimdall in Thor.

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