'Ghost in the Shell' and the Other Recent Asian 'Whitewashing' Controversies

'Ghost in the Shell' and the Other Recent Asian 'Whitewashing' Controversies

By Robert Dougherty Mar 29, 2017 09:52 AM
Photo Credit: Paramount Pictures

Ghost in the Shell is the last of four projects that have been infamous in the last year for the same reason. Like Doctor Strange, The Great Wall and Iron Fist before it, Ghost in the Shell is premiering under a wave of controversy about 'whitewashing' Asians out of movies, roles and stories that ideally should have belonged to them.

Out of the past three examples, only Doctor Strange really came close to overcoming such controversy, at least in some circles. Whether Ghost in the Shell can become the second of these four stories to do so will be determined over the weekend, although the signs probably aren't promising.

Marvel Studios

For Doctor Strange, it got into such trouble in the first place for casting white actress Tilda Swinton as the usually Asian Ancient One, for changing the setting of the Ancient One's domain from Tibet, and for having yet another white man master the mystical arts of a foreign culture. Nonetheless, Benedict Cumberbatch's casting was nothing compared to the fury about casting the white Finn Jones as Iron Fist, in the most notorious example yet of Marvel failing to adapt to more progressive times.

Neither Doctor Strange nor Iron Fist were Asian in the comics, yet many surely thought this would be the time to change that, and to have superhero stories about actual Asians using Asian-influenced powers instead of 'white saviors.' In contrast, Matt Damon didn't play a pre-existing white or Asian character in The Great Wall, yet his very presence as the headliner in a story set around China's most famous landmark was enough to inspire backlash.

Paramount Pictures

Rounding out the quartet now is Ghost in the Shell, which is based on a famed Japanese anime series. Yet by casting Scarlett Johansson instead of an Asian or Japanese actress as the Major, it appears to be a very loosely based adaptation. Unlike Doctor Strange and Iron Fist, the Major was originally created to be Japanese and not white, which may make this the most insulting example of Asian whitewashing yet for many protesters.

Paramount Pictures surely thinks and hopes that Johansson's star power and box office draw will overshadow the backlash, and draw in the vast majority of ticket buying audiences. However, while that approach did work for Doctor Strange, it didn't work for The Great Wall in America, and Iron Fist doesn't appear to be a big enough superhero to make it work on Netflix either.

Ghost in the Shell and Johansson could be a different story, but judging by recent history, the odds don’t look good. Out of these four controversial examples, only Doctor Strange has really bucked those odds so far, at least outside of those who won’t forgive their casting and cultural errors so easily.

It is easy to say Doctor Strange thrived because the MCU is too big to fail right now, and will uplift any kind of superhero story. Then again, Iron Fist is MCU related and it may well be the worst received project in Marvel Studios history, although it is really an error for the Marvel/Netflix TV universe and not the larger MCU.

Marvel Studios

Leaving that aside, Doctor Strange had one other big advantage over Iron Fist, in that the whitewashing was a far more minor part of the story.

There is absolutely no getting around the whitewashed casting of Iron Fist, since it centers around the main character and since Jones did virtually nothing to prove he won the role by real merit. In contrast, although the Ancient One casting was controversial in its own right, it was technically for a supporting role and a one-shot part at that.

When the character doesn’t have the whole story revolve around him or her, it is easier to brush aside casting issues, or at least easier than it is for a leading character. The Great Wall and Iron Fist learned that lesson the hard way, and there’s a chance Ghost in the Shell could be next.

Marvel Studios

Doctor Strange could have been another example, since it cast Cumberbatch as the doctor instead of an Asian or another minority actor. However, the issue of constantly casting white actors and white men for superheroes instead of being more diverse has been building for years, so Cumberbatch’s example was just one more drop in the bucket by comparison. What’s more, Swinton’s casting helped drown out much of Cumberbatch’s backlash anyway.

But when it came time for Doctor Strange to open, much of any backlash was drowned out by big box office, solid reviews from critics and fans, and praise that the movie took the MCU in a mind-bending new direction. As it turned out, all the trippy visuals, Inception style action scenes and surprise that the third act didn’t end with the usual ‘save the world’ wargames overshadowed most of the issues around the film, storytelling wise or otherwise.

When Doctor Strange ended, there was plenty to talk about, praise and go over other than the controversy, at least for most viewers. And while no one could or probably should say that a minority actor couldn’t do better than Cumberbatch or Swinton did, both of them are among the most reliable actors we have. As such, having both Cumberbatch and Swinton at the top of their game does go a long way to help vindicate Marvel, if not 100 percent completely.

In contrast, The Great Wall and Iron Fist did not get such favors from Damon or Jones, and it is 50-50 that Ghost in the Shell will get them from Johansson either.

Universal Pictures

The Great Wall has always been an outlier among these productions, however, because it is the only one actually made by a Chinese filmmaker and financed by Chinese money. Yet even though it wasn’t beholden to American studio demands and was made by famed director Zhang Yimou, it was still deemed necessary to have a white soldier at the center of a mystical war around the Great Wall. At the least, it proved such a formula is just as likely to fail in Chinese hands as it is in American hands.

Damon surely should have been able to elevate the material and overcome the early backlash, like Cumberbatch and Swinton. Instead, he delivered one of the worst performances of his career, which probably would have been the case if it was set in a modern American war story too. Not only was it especially lacking compared to the actual leading Asian actress Jing Tian, it paled next to Pedro Pascal as his sidekick as well.

Marvel Studios

Jones suffered the same fate in Iron Fist, compared to actual Asian lead actress Jessica Henwick and Marvel/Netflix lynchpin Rosario Dawson. But the worse sin was that unlike Doctor Strange, Iron Fist didn’t have anywhere near enough Marvel magic and new directions to overshadow all the bad pre-release buzz. It may have had as much to do with the Marvel/Netflix universe hitting a creative wall a lot earlier than the MCU did, yet it surely wasn’t the whole reason.

For Ghost in the Shell, it isn’t set in a cinematic universe and isn’t a fantasy set hundreds of years ago. Nonetheless, it has to make an impression on American audiences who may not be familiar with the original Japanese series, and has to overcome the early anger and disappointment from those who are familiar with it. Such a tricky balance may or may not have been easier to make with someone other than Johansson or anyone else like her in the lead, but it certainly isn’t easier now.

Unlike Doctor Strange and like Iron Fist and The Great Wall, the whitewashed casting is the first and biggest story about Ghost in the Shell. If it stays that way after it comes out, it probably won’t be for the right reasons.

Johansson has proven to carry action movies before, which is a key talking point for those who wish Marvel would finally make a Black Widow solo film. But Black Widow, Lucy and her other heroines don’t have the early baggage that the Major has, and director Rupert Sanders might be too busy borrowing from Blade Runner to give Johansson enough to really go on.

If the worst does come to pass, it will make Ghost in the Shell the third straight major project to fall apart under its ‘whitewashing Asians’ strategy. While it is still a step backwards that so many films and shows have tried it lately anyway, it may be a step forward to have more examples that more people aren’t falling for it anymore. Then again, it does take a while for Hollywood to get certain messages.

Doctor Strange, The Great Wall, Iron Fist and Ghost in the Shell may have closed a particularly infamous cycle for this issue. But thanks to Netflix inspiring brand new backlash for adapting the Japanese manga Death Note with white main characters, it’s clear the real lessons from this cycle and the next one are nowhere near sinking in quite yet.

Paramount Pictures

Tags: Ghost in the Shell (2017), Doctor Strange (2016), Iron Fist (TV Series) (2017), The Great Wall (2017), Scarlett Johansson, Finn Jones, Tilda Swinton
About the Author
Robert Dougherty is a longtime online freelance writer, who wrote reviews, articles & editorials on movies/TV for several years on the now defunct Yahoo Voices.
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