Whitewashing in Comic Book Films!

Jondee here at Kamar-Taj,

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Some Asians have made their way into comic book adaptations including the unfortunate Glenn (Steven Yeun) in the Walking Dead. There was Kato, really a superhero radio adaptation, but close enough played by Bruce Lee in the Green Hornet series and Jay Chou in The Green Hornet (2011) film. John Lone played the villainous Shiwan Khan in The Shadow (1994), loved it. Chow Yun Fat played the Monk With No Name in Bulletproof Monk (2003). The whitewashing came very early including John Ralston playing Ming the Merciless in Flash Gordon (1936). Max von Sydow played him in 1980’s Flash Gordon. I’ll try not to mention Goku played by Justin Chatwin in Dragonball: Evolution (2009). There is criticism (for some reason) about the role of Ancient One played by Tilda Swinton. First, let’s put this in context. There was another Marvel superhero movie, Elektra (2005), though the studio was Twentieth Century Fox, y’know the studio that has X-Men. In that film, Elektra is taught by a Caucasian mentor, Terence Stamp playing Stick, who teaches her ninjutsu. The Daredevil Netflix doesn’t make any improvements there casting Scott Glenn as Stick. No one had a problem with the casting of either character. So Elektra (Jennifer Garner), a Caucasian woman taught an Asian martial art by a Caucasian teacher, has to face the evil Asian guy, Kirgi played by Will Yun Lee, and his multi-cultural band of misfits, black ninja Stone played by Bob Sapp, and goth Caucasian Typhoid Mary (Natassia Malthe). So in other words, anyone who is Caucasian is good and anyone who is different is evil (though apparently the Asian guy corrupted the Caucasian woman to join his band, I guess she’s disturbed to be hanging out with other ethnicities). This is racist, not subtly racist, but hood wearing racist.

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Let’s focus on the Ancient One. Yes, the original character was Asian, but this would be stereotyping in a film, learning skills from an old, Asian mentor. This is the old Fu Manchu stereotype. Marvel wanted to avoid that with The Mandarin in Iron Man 3 (2013). Instead of the Asian man with the long beard, they used Sir Ben Kingsley to play Trevor Slattery, an actor paid to impersonate The Mandarin. This was the same thing done with Ra’s al Ghul in Batman Begins except they had Ken Watanabe play the stand-in. It was Aldrich Killian (Guy Pearce) behind The Mandarin and of course Henri Ducard (Liam Neeson) behind Ra’s al Ghul. The Arrow show recast the villain with Matthew Nobel playing the part, not an improvement. Now, compare Elektra with Doctor Strange. Let’s go back to the MCU and Thor (2011). First, they cast Iris Elba as Heimdall, ok, and then there was Tadanobu Asano as Hogun. I don’t remember a Japanese guy as a Norse god. The point there was that the MCU is multicultural, y’know like the Hand band except not all evil. So with that understanding let’s look at Doctor Strange. The mentor is now Caucasian, Tilda Swinton as the Ancient One, ok. This was a fairly minor role in the comics, given more of a character in the film. Her performance was interesting, layered as a character. Is the villain Asian? No, Kaecilius is played by Mads Mikkelsen. Other ethnicities? Yeah, Chiwetel EJiofor as Mordo and he is a strong character. Any Asian characters? Yup, Benedict Wong plays Wong and he has been upgraded from servant in the comics to full fledged Master of the Mystic Arts. A fairly diverse cast. Everything has to be put in context, if the character not the ethnicity is depicted true, and if the cast is diverse.  Doctor Strange succeeds in this respect, all the criticism is in the Dark Dimension.

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