Comic books’ long and rich history means that they are ripe for adaptation into movies, but there are also plenty of challenges when it comes to updating decades-old characters for a modern audience. in Captain America: The First Avenger, for example, Marvel Studios took the jingoism of the character and made it wryly self-aware while still maintaining some of its sincerity. But Marvel’s biggest challenges have been in updating source material from the 50s and 60s to fit with modern racial politics and avoid tired and offensive stereotypes.
Scott Derrickson’s Doctor Strange has been a challenge in that respect, attracting criticism for casting white British actress Tilda Swinton as the Ancient One, a character who in the comics was an Asian man. Things seem to have gone a little smoother with the movie’s take on Wong, Stephen Strange’s manservant in the comics, who is played by Benedict Wong (The Martian) in the movie and is now a master of the mystic arts – in many ways Strange’s superior.
Speaking to Screen Rant on the set of Doctor Strange, Marvel president Kevin Feige explained how Derrickson, who co-wrote the screenplay with C. Robert Cargill, had made a film that was “very much the Marvel version of this story,” but steered it away from becoming a ‘white savior’ narrative:
“Benedict Wong… is a very different incarnation of that character. He’s an amazing actor who has done an amazing job bringing this role to life. He is not the assistant manservant. He was loyal in the books, and certainly fulfilled a purpose… a stereotype going back to any number of white hero-asian driver, servant. That is not his role in this movie at all. Everyone in this movie knows more in Strange. Everyone is more talented when it comes – for 90% of the movie, to the magical abilities and the mastery of the mystic arts than Strange is, and Wong is a fellow warrior who has been a master in his own right. As we meet him in this movie, he’s tasked with protecting some of the most valuable relics and book Kamar-Taj has. He doesn’t have a lot of time to worry about Strange. So those are a few of the ways we’ve updated those characters.”
The last superhero movie to take on the Asian manservant stereotype was Michel Gondry’s The Green Hornet, in which Seth Rogen played the titular crimefighter and Jay Chou his loyal driver and servant Kato. That movie subverted the trope by playing on the comedy elements of Britt Reid treating Kato like his sidekick despite that fact that Kato clearly had vastly superior fighting skills. In Doctor Strange, Derrickson explained, Wong is basically a completely different character who was designed as a deliberate inversion of the comic book Wong:
“Wong is… it’s a racial stereotype. I mean, let’s be blunt about it… So instead of being a sidekick, he’s a master of the mystic arts. Instead of being a manservant, he oversees the library at Kamar-Taj and is an intellectual mentor to Strange. So we kind of flipped everything that he was. And that’s where it’s related to the comics in that we took the things that were in retrospect, insulting, and elevated them in just the same way and that became suddenly ‘ah, this is a great character.’ And that seemed to work and has relatability only in that we basically inversed what his character was and then kept the name, kept him Chinese. You know, other than that, that’s about it I think to be honest.”
Benedict Wong, meanwhile, said that after reading some of the comics (specifically, Brian K. Vaughan and Marcos Martin’s Doctor Strange: The Oath), he was just hoping that he wouldn’t get suck with tea-making duties. “You know, we can lose that.”
Doctor Strange opens November 4, 2016; Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 – May 5, 2017; Spider-Man: Homecoming – July 7, 2017; Thor: Ragnarok – November 3, 2017; Black Panther – February 16, 2018; Avengers: Infinity – May 4, 2018; Ant-Man and the Wasp – July 6, 2018; Captain Marvel– March 8, 2019; Untitled Avengers – May 3, 2019; and as-yet-untitled Marvel movies on July 12, 2019, and on May 1, July 10, and November 6 in 2020.