Doctor Strange has gotten heavy criticism for its decision to change The Ancient One’s ethnicity from Tibetan to Celtic, essentially whitewashing the character. But the issue was also about removing Tibet from the title character’s origin to avoid offending China, and secure the film’s release there. Turns out it worked—Doctor Strange will arrive in China on November 4, the same day it’s opening in the US.
In the comics, Doctor Strange learned magic in a highly fictionalized version of Tibet from The Ancient One. While Marvel has denied that casting Tilda Swinton as the traditionally Asian character was done to appease China, they remained silent on the removal of Tibet, even after Doctor Strange screenwriter Robert Cargill said on a podcast that project heads (including director Scott Derrickson) pushed to remove the character’s Tibetan roots early on because Chinese audiences would reject a Tibetan character.
“He originates from Tibet, so if you acknowledge that Tibet is a place and that he’s Tibetan, you risk alienating one billion people,” Derrickson said. “[You run the risk of] 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.’”
I’m not going to go into all the intricacies surrounding the China and Tibet conflict, but in short China has argued that Tibet is part of the country after being absorbed around 800 years ago during the Yuan Dynasty, and Tibet has maintained its sovereignty. In 1950, China’s Communist troops entered Tibet and it was established as part of the motherland. Tibet insists it’s under occupation and that their way of life is suffering, while China maintains they’re better off. It’s a complex situation, and one that China likes to suppress any discussion of.
The reason the makers of Doctor Strange are so interested in appeasing China is because of money, of course. It’s currently the second-largest movie market in the world, and is on track to surpass the United States by 2017. China’s movie market grew almost 50% last year, and ticket sales are set to reach $6.5-billion this year, according to some estimates. (It single-handedly kept Warcraft from bombing at the box office, meaning if a sequel gets made at all, it may not even get a domestic release.)
China only accepts up to 34 foreign films per year, so it’s already tough to make sure that the government accepts your film. And given the fact that China already has an American film coming out in November, Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, it was especially challenging. However, local Chinese media is reporting that Doctor Strange is being released “without a single cut” from the country’s censors in 3D and IMAX 3D. In other words, Hollywood is censoring itself before its movies even get to China.
This may not seem like a big deal now, but it could have more consequences down the road. It’s already bad enough when characters are whitewashed in order to try and market to select audiences, but it’s another thing entirely when an entire nation is erased from an American film because another country doesn’t want to acknowledge them.