'Doctor Strange' Screenwriter: "Every Single Decision That Involves the Ancient One Is a Bad One"

No matter which way Marvel went on the comic book character, it was going to lose, argues C. Robert Cargill.
Courtesy of Disney
No matter which way Marvel went on the comic book character, it was going to lose, argues C. Robert Cargill.

Why is Tilda Swinton playing the traditionally-Asian Ancient One in Marvel's upcoming Doctor Strange? It's a decision that has left many upset, but according to C. Robert Cargill, one of the writers on the movie (Jon Spaihts and director Scott Derrickson also took passes on the screenplay), there was no way the studio could avoid upsetting audiences.

"There is no other character in Marvel history that is such a cultural landmine, that is absolutely unwinnable," Cargill said during an appearance on the Double Toasted podcast. "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 onto which way you’re willing to lose."

(For those unfamiliar with the Kobayashi Maru, clearly more Star Trek is needed; it's a training scenario for Starfleet cadets in the mythology that is famously impossible to win.)

Cargill continued by describing the comic book incarnation of the Ancient One as "a racist stereotype who comes from a region of the world that is in [a] very weird political place. He originates from Tibet, so if you acknowledge that Tibet is a place and that he’s Tibetan, you risk alienating one billion people who think that that’s bullshit 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.' "

An alternate possibility, of casting an Asian actor or actress in the role, is also dismissed by Cargill. "If you are telling me 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— you’re talking about," he said. "Oh, 'she could be asian!' Asian? She could be Japanese, she could be Indian, really? The levels of cultural sensitivity around this thing is, everyone is staking out their one particular place and not realizing that every single thing here is a losing proposition."

Cargill credited director Derrickson with making the decision to cast a woman in the role. "There's not a lot of talk about, 'oh man, they took away the job from a guy and gave it to a woman.' Everybody kind of pats us on the back for that and scold us for her not being Tibetan," he said. "And that's just the way it's going to go. We knew that the Social Justice Warriors would be angry either way."

Doctor Strange opens Nov. 4.