Monday, October 31, 2016

HERO OF THE WEEK: THE ANCIENT ONE (Marvel)
Real Name: Unknown
First Appearance: Strange Tales #110 (July, 1963)
Fight Club Ranking: #DNR

Featured Fights:
- Yet To Be Featured on Secret Wars on Infinite Earths.

'It's a great time to be a comic book fan' is a sentiment you'll have read often over the last couple of years, especially in reference to movies, television and other media.

Obvious ironies aside, I think it's time we faced facts: It's a lie. A lie told by an industry dependent on the infantilization of its audience, and the participants who willingly feed it.

If that sounds like a scathing indictment of your entire lifestyle - don't take it too personally, or extrapolate it to its farthest conclusion. After all, you're reading the sentiments of a lifelong comics reader, speaking to you through a dedicated comic book website. This isn't an attack on the joys of fiction -- far from it! It's a perspective rooted in comic book fandom first, societal anxiety second.


There may be larger issues at play, but the context I'm specifically speaking within is that of our Hero of the Week, and Marvel's Doctor Strange film -- open in wide release globally starting November 4th.

As unlikely as it seems, the somewhat obscure comic book character The Ancient One, and the actress playing him, are at the nexus of a tangled confusion of social and creative precepts, few actually pertaining to the comic book source material itself.

Cult character actor Tilda Swinton takes on the role, baring a passing resemblance to the comic books' ancient Tibetan mystic, who ultimately bestows upon Dr. Strange his mastery of the occult, and the mantle of Sorcerer Supreme.

For my tastes, the greatest controversy of the film may be the absence of The Ancient One's instantly identifiable long white goatee, and spectacularly tall hat. This isn't the character of distant majesty I saw in the comics, and that's one of several creative choices the new film makes to distance it from its source material. A trend Marvel is actually increasingly guilty of.

The granfalloon of concerned internet citizens deemed the greater "problem" to be the casting of a Caucasian in an Asian role. As consumers of pop culture would have it: American minorities have been entered into an unwinnable Death Race, where each is given a rating of chances of survival in the Hollywood casting process. Scarlet Johannsson's spirit crushing casting as Motoko Kusanagi in the oh-so Hollywood Ghost in the Shell really brought the Asian issue -- if not actual Asian voices -- to the fore of torch waving vogue. The self-determining conundrum: How does one rationalize this concern with the ebb in favour to support better pay and roles for women in film?

Tilda Swinton's penchant for androgyny thus ascends to some sort of Warren Ellis fever dream of racial transcendent hysteria! A triple helix of art, panic, and appreciation, snaking into new genetic material! If science could only confirm life on other planets, the bizarre social experiment cum performance piece would be complete. It sure beats taking a nap!

The whole big mess is so ambiguously occult, it almost fits the arcane world of Dr. Strange! If only it had any relevance to The Ancient One character himself. A character Swinton could probably have played relatively well -- if only she had a long white goatee and that damned, funky, gigantic hat!

Of course, a Tibetan character educating an American in the ways of the mystic arts is also under attack. Fair enough, I suppose. There is a certain arrogance to the notion that only an American could master Asian techniques to become our Sorcerer Supreme. It's a silliness we used to forgive as American ignorance, quite frankly. A phenomenon many looking in from the outside still probably observe, despite the mass export of American racial tension, and the awkward, self-centered prism through which the issues are looked at. Ghost in the Shell's makers certainly expressed disinterest in the issue, when they were finally reached to comment on Caucasian hysterics. They never imagined an Asian actress occupying the role. It's just Hollywood. America's make believe factory, full of make believe people. They've got big budgets and a talent system, the rest of the world has worldly perspective. Something for everybody, non?

In this case, it's also not Hollywood. Sure, the comic book industry was bought and shipped to be closer to its corporate Hollywood overlords, but the source material inspiring the films is still largely tinted by the good ol' days of New York. You know? Multi-cultural New York. Where plucky kids from the 'hood dreamed up stories of alien immigrants fighting the good fight. A shared comic book universe that became a post-modern melting pot for the world's mythological histories and traditions.

I watch Chinese movies, I take an interest in world mythology. I'm not about to take offense to the appropriation and incorporation of character types taken from around the world. I think it's a weak, uneducated mind that sees this kind of appropriation -- a form of celebration that adds value to a fictional world, wherever it may've been created -- as a negative. It's silly and counter-productive to both the palette of fiction, and to the acceptance of other cultures. Old American ignorance and self-involvement dressed up as higher minded faux understanding.

Because what's missing isn't sixty year old characters dressed up to be different races, or the deconstruction of superheroes through movie adaptations. What's missing is actual diversity. The construction and consumption of new ideas and materials to reflect a broader, maturing society. If there's a crime here, it's that more people aren't consuming world fiction. More anything? More everything! More people demanding better from cinema than formulaic Marvel entries and similar franchised blockbusters. And if you want to be political - more people questioning the abandonment of good creative ideals in favor of profit margins, such as the Chinese market, where Tibet is a touchy subject, and casting The Ancient One accordingly could cost Disney dollars.

In summary, for me - the biggest crime here is being boring, and failing to live up to what I think of when I picture the comic. A more magnificent visual could've been achieved with Swinton in the role, committing to beautiful flowing robes and the traditional visuals of the character. An actual Tibetan actor would be the most sensitive choice, but I don't know how easy it is to find those, especially in Hollywood. Alternatively, a Chinese male actor could have delivered the diversity many cry for, fulfilling an important character who has a continuing presence in the comic books, and perhaps the films (as an astral mentor - ala; Star Wars). Ultimately, race is not the interesting aspect of this character. It's just an incidental part of the fabric of who he is -- much as it is for all of us. Something we as a human race should strive to accept without a second thought. We certainly didn't contemplate race while discussing another bald, aging, slightly clich├ęd mentor figure, last week.

Granted, I'd still like to see Dr. Strange in leggings and probably won't let that visual go so easily. Slightly less generic, fantasy fare tunic fabrics would be nice, too. Dr. Strange was the very first Hero of the Week of 2016. You can read some of my less meandering, laborious thoughts on that by travelling back to that original HOTW post. We'll be discussing some of the more broadly interesting aspects of Dr. Strange and his world throughout November, so do join me for that!

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