Anghus Houvouras on Marvel’s diversity drama…
We live in a ridiculously polarizing time, and that ridiculousness is frequently on display in regards to our favorite blockbusters. Right now we’re swimming in the wake of the massive success of Captain America: Civil War; a movie that succeeded on so many levels, reinvigorating the Marvel Cinematic Universe. While the movies have all been strong financial performers, there were those of us who were wondering if the creative train had derailed after the disappointing Age of Ultron.
Fans are excited again, in complete freak-out mode over Tom Holland’s Spider-Man and Chadwick Boseman’s Black Panther. Civil War was proof positive that Marvel is still capable of creating amazing, crowd pleasing blockbusters that prove there ifs growth potential in the comic book movie genre. But nobody wants to talk about that right now.
Instead, people want to talk about the controversy around Tilda Swinton being cast as The Ancient One in Doctor Strange. Or the numerous castings for The Black Panther which features a treasure trove of extremely talented actors of color. Doctor Strange is being viewed as the most salient example of Hollywood’s continued whitewashing: taking roles that should have been played by minorities and giving them to caucasian actors. On the other end of the spectrum Black Panther is being hailed as Marvel’s most diverse project to date featuring a cast that will be, and I quote “90% African or African American”. Doctor Strange is being lynched for its alibaster lack of diversity while Black Panther is being worn like an obsidian badge of honor.
But here’s the thing: It’s total bullshit. Both films are unfairly suffering at the hands of the fading colors of political correctness.
I was excited when I heard Tilda Swinton had been cast as the Ancient One in Doctor Strange. Mostly because I get excited when I hear a talented actor/actress is cast in a movie I’m already inclined to see. When you hear an Oscar-winning actress who has made a career of chameleon like transformations, the natural instinct is to be excited by the prospect. Unfortunately, when the original comic character was of Asian origin, it becomes another piece of ammunition in an ongoing culture war.
The disenfranchised voices of the internet immediately sprang into action. Asian actors like George Takei talked about how Marvel & Disney continue a trend of whitewashing minority roles so that they can be played by more known, white actors. Others suggested the casting was about avoiding controversy with Chinese officials who aren’t interested in showcasing an all-powerful character of Tibetan origin. On the surface I can understand the basic foundation of the argument. This is a role that could have easily gone to an Asian actor, however the powers that be decided to go in a different direction and cast Tilda Swinton. Other than the initial knee jerk reaction to the creative shift of the characters origins, I struggled to see why people were so mystified by this decision. I mean, The Ancient One was originally of Tibetan origin, but he also used to have a penis. No one seemed to be offended by casting a woman in the role and changing the gender of the character. I suppose that would only get people up in arms if The Ancient One tried to use a bathroom in North Carolina.
The point is, Tilda Swinton is an amazing talent. It wasn’t like they took the role of The Ancient One and cast Kevin James. With all the complaints about Marvel not featuring enough women in their Cinematic Universe, shouldn’t the casting of Tilda Swinton be seen as a win? It also feels kind of strange that all these people are upset about The Ancient One, but everyone seems to be forgetting that they did cast the role of Wong with an Asian Actor, Benedict Wong. Do you think he’s reading all these petulant cries of anger from the Asian community and wondering if they even know he’s in the movie?
Black Panther is a cat of a different color. It seems like every time someone brings up the whitewashing of Doctor Strange, Marvel brass brings up Black Panther. The movie has become the black friend of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Every time someone accuses Marvel of racism they’re like “Hey man, some of my best friends are the Black Panther.” The movie is certainly lining up a great cast of talent. Chadwick Boseman already put his awesome on display in Civil War. Lupita Nyongo is an amazing talent, as is Michael B. Jordan. And the whole project is being helmed by one of the most promising young Directors, Ryan Coogler, who recently said Black Panther will be ‘his most personal film’. Seriously, Ryan? More personal than Fruitvale Station? The comic book movie about the guy who dresses up like a Panther and beats up super villains is going to be more personal than the true story of an innocent man being executed by a racist Police Officer? I understand that people don’t often put a lot of thought in their platitudes, but that might be the dumbest thing I’ve heard since Lars Von Trier said he understood Hitler.
Marvel keeps talking about Black Panther like it’s the respite for their all their diversity woes, fast become their own person race card. One that can be played whenever anyone accuses them of not being diverse enough. And while I’m looking forward to Black Panther, I don’t think it even begins to address the real issue of a lack of diversity in our comic book adaptations.
If you want to really address the lack of diversity in superhero films, tell me that Lupita Nyongo was cast as Captain Marvel and not some supporting character in Black Panther. That is no way a slight at the very talented Ms. Nyongo, but I think addressing diversity is more about seeing a wide range of variances in traditional roles.
If Tilda Swinton can be cast as The Ancient One, why not Lupita Nyongo as Captain Marvel. That’s real diversity: when a part is given to an actress because they would be amazing in the role, no matter their ethnic origin. I can celebrate Tilda Swinton’s casting because I know she’ll be good for Doctor Strange. At the same time, Black Panther isn’t a cure all for their very caucasian Marvel Cinematic Universe, but it’s a nice start.
Political Correctness is a curse, and the internet is far too prone to throw around phrases like ‘whitewashing’ because a specific racial quota isn’t being met. At the same time, stacking the deck with only black actors and creative talent behind the camera for a single movie isn’t a cure-all for the lack of diversity in our blockbusters.
Anghus Houvouras is a North Carolina based writer and filmmaker and the co-host of Across the Pondcast. Follow him on Twitter.