One of the many upcoming projects from Marvel Studios is the long-simmering Doctor Strange movie. In the comics, Doctor Stephen Strange was a talented yet arrogant neurosurgeon who sought to regain the use of his hands after a tragic accident. He traveled around the world seeking the best doctors to repair his hands, but all to no avail. Despondent, distraught, broke, and homeless, Strange continued his search and eventually learned of the Ancient One, a hermit in the Himalayas who might be able to assist him. While he is initially rebuffed by the hermit, Strange eventually proves his worth and the Ancient One agrees to help the doctor, though not by repairing his hands. Instead, he trains him in the use of the mystic arts and eventually grants him the mantle of Sorcerer Supreme.
Why all this background about Dr. Strange and the Ancient One? Weeeeell, Marvel is currently in the casting stage for the upcoming Dr. Strange film. They already have Benedict Cumberbatch lined up to play the arrogant, former neurosurgeon, and they might be close to picking someone to play the Ancient One. And they’re thinking outside the box on this one. In a move that many (myself included) see as a positive step, actress is in talks to play the Ancient One:
The Ancient One is a hundreds year old mystic who has mastered magic and travels the Earth, battling demons, later settling in the Himalayas with an order of monks. In the comics, The Ancient One was an older, Tibetan man, — and earlier in the film’s production, they had talked with Ken Watanabe, Morgan Freeman and Bill Nighy for the role — but the character’s identity is being altered slightly for the film. In the film, the character will train the villainous Baron Mordo before sensing evil in his heart and turning to mentor Dr. Stephen Strange, eventually bestowing on him the powerful Eye of Agamotto.
Swinton’s casting is exciting for a variety of reasons. The first, and most obvious, is that the Marvel Cinematic Universe (and superhero movies as a whole) don’t need another all-powerful male character; there are plenty of those. It’s honorable that Marvel was looking at a group of actors that were ethnically diverse, but even better than they were thinking further outside of the box to cast a woman.
For all that Stan Lee’s work at Marvel was groundbreaking and noteworthy, he was still writing comics at a time when women were not well represented in pop culture because the socially approved role of women was homemaker or housewife. Yes, Stan created the Wasp, the Scarlet Witch, and the Invisible Girl, but they were frequently relegated to the role of damsels-in-distress or the girlfriend (and dear Odin, Stan wrote many a cringe-worthy scene involving female superheroes). Meanwhile, their male counterparts rarely (if ever) received such treatment. No, male characters in the various titles written by Stan got to be more than the boyfriend. They didn’t have to worry about being hogtied, captured, and held hostage waiting for a savior to swoop in and free them. The men got to steer the plot. The women were treated as window dressing. So it probably never crossed Stan’s mind that a woman could serve as mentor to Doctor Strange.
It’s sad in a way. Like so many people back then (and plenty today), Stan Lee’s creativity was constrained by an adherence to rigid gender roles imposed by society-he was thinking inside the box. As a result of such limited thinking, Stan Lee’s comics did not-contrary to a long-running narrative about Marvel Comics-“reflect the world outside your window“. How could it, when the Marvel Universe as created by Stan was populated by a sea of white, male faces (with a few women and a smattering of black folk included for token attempts at diversity)? That’s not what the real world has ever looked like.
That’s one of the reasons I like the idea of casting Tilda Swinton as the Ancient One. Women exist in the world outside my window (and everyone else’s). Yes, some women are housewives and homemakers, but they’re also sanitation workers and teachers, doctors and dental hygienists, lawyers and judges, astronauts and chemists, sociologists and electricians, librarians and painters, writers and activists, and so much, much more. That’s why it makes sense to me for Hollywood executives to widen the pool of potential candidates for movie roles. Instead of treating men as the default, they’re slowly beginning to realize that women can do the same things as men (hello Charlize Theron in Fury Road), and that includes playing the role of wise and aged mentor to the master of the mystic arts.