Perspectives about Wong’s reel librarian character in the Marvel Cinematic Universe

It’s no secret that Wong has become one of my very favorite reel librarian characters… what do others think?

In my reel librarians of color 2021 update post, only the character of Wong, the monastery librarian and Master of the Mystic Arts who first appeared in 2016’s Doctor Strange, is listed as a major character in the Asian + South Asian category of reel librarians. In my write-up for Avengers: Infinity War (2018), I highlight how Wong saves Tony Stark and sets up the stakes — and the plot of the entire movie — to members of the Avengers, and in my post about Avengers: Endgame (2019), I assemble clues to prove how Wong is the one who actually assembled the Avengers! (Even though Captain America, the White guy superhero, gets to say the line and take credit, which is SO typical, eh? 😦 ) Benedict Wong’s IMDb page reveals that he is on the cast list for Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness, so I will add another first impressions post for Wong for that movie when it comes out.

Wong is played by British-Chinese actor Benedict Wong, who elevates every scene he is in. Here is a 2017 interview with Wong about his role:

“Benedict Wong – Marvel’s Doctor Strange Exclusive Interview” video, 2017, uploaded by Flickering Myth, Standard YouTube License

I think it’s no secret to readers of this blog that Wong has become one of my very favorite reel librarian characters. In my analysis post about Doctor Strange (2016), I also pointed out how the character of Wong was reworked from the comics and added to the script only after the controversial casting of Tilda Swinton in the role of the Ancient One:

I do, however, feel obligated to point out the controversy created by the film’s script and casting, particularly the casting of Tilda Swinton, a non-Asian actress, who was cast as the Ancient One, a significant Asian character in the comics. The character gets reframed as a Celt in the film … I have to admit discomfort in knowing that a major Asian role was recast with a white woman, and that Wong’s character was written, at least in part, after-the-fact in order to offset that controversial casting; Derrickson [the director and co-screenwriter] felt obligated to include Wong’s character in the film after rewriting the character of the Ancient One. (But you don’t have to have just one Asian role! If you wanted to put a more feminine, or androgynous, spin on the Ancient One, why not cast an Asian actress?!)

Jennifer Snoek-Brown, “Sorcerer librarians of ‘Doctor Strange’,” Reel Librarians, 25 April 2018.

But my perspectives and observations as a White woman are limited, and I also admit that I have biases because I am a librarian. What do others think? Is the character of Wong considered a positive or negative Asian portrayal by members of the API community? How does actor Benedict Wong feel about his role? Are scholars and researchers writing about Wong? So I did some research to help answer these questions and to explore how others feel about Wong’s reel librarian character and significance in the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

The changes to Wong’s role

Others have also spotlighted how the character of Wong was changed in its transition from the original comics to the big screen.

This interview with Benedict Wong before the Doctor Strange movie was released includes a summary of how Wong’s character in the comics began as “a racist cliche of the Asian manservant,” but the “movie version of Wong is, in addition to being a drill sergeant, a librarian, and protector of dangerous relics.

Benedict Wong also shared in this interview his view about Wong’s character in the comics:

Well, I kind of think things like “manservant” and “sidekick,” we’re just gonna leave back in the past now, I think …. let’s turn a whole new page.

Benedict Wong, “Doctor Strange: How One Wong Makes a Right,” MCU Exchange, 27 Sept. 2016

This article summed up Wong’s character changes in the movie in a positive light:

Compared to his stereotypical manservant role in Marvel’s comics, the movie version is a huge upgrade.

Thomas Maluck, “How does the Library in Doctor Strange Work?,” Book Riot, 9 Nov. 2016

Casting controversy

I am definitely not the only one who cannot help bringing up the casting of Swinton as the Ancient One with the casting of Benedict Wong as Wong.

In a site that features student projects from Portland State University’s University Studies 254 course about Examining Popular Culture, Asian student Transtev includes Wong in his examination of Asian Actors and Actresses: An Identity Unfit for Western Hollywood Film Culture. This student criticizes the casting of an Asian actor, Benedict Wong, for a character who is “subordinate” to other major (White) characters in the film.

“Other than Swinton’s controversial casting, Benedict Wong is the only ‘major’ Asian character in the movie. He becomes a sorcerer to Dr. Strange, but in the comics, he is simply subordinate to Dr. Strange. Even though Marvel Studios casted an Asian in a somewhat important role, one could question why the productions didn’t cast an Asian for the Ancient One? Marvel Studios didn’t hold any sort of casting audition for the Ancient One, but the productions simply invited Swinton to take the role. Without showing any large efforts for a diverse cast including Asians, Marvel Studios’ actions show how the Asian identity is continually shadowed by white lens.”

Transtev, “Asian Actors and Actresses: An Identity Unfit for Western Hollywood Film Culture,” Looking in the Popular Culture Mirror, 13 March 2017

In this undergraduate honors thesis, a student also points out the casting of White actors in more central roles, and describes Wong as a “hero support figure.”

In 2016, Marvel Studios was one of the most profitable studios in Hollywood; the financial risk of casting an Asian person in a movie already filled with white actors would arguably have been minimal. Yet the studio proceeded to cast white British actor Benedict Cumberbatch in the lead, white Danish actor Mads Mikkelsen as the villain, white Canadian actress Rachel McAdams as the love interest, white British actress Tilda Swinton as the “not Asian” mentor, British Chinese actor Benedict Wong as the hero support figure, and Black British actor Chiwetel Ejiofor as the sidekick-turned villain. The presence of actors of color in Doctor Strange, though welcome, continues the trend of relegating people of color to sidekick and/or villainous roles while white people remain at the center of the narrative.

Ashley S. Richardson, “Fandom, Racism, and the Myth of Diversity in the Marvel Cinematic Universe,” Undergraduate honors thesis, College of William and Mary, 2017.

In a master’s thesis, “Discussions on Cultural Racism: Analysis of American Reviews of Controversial Hollywood Movies,” graduate student Ilaria Marini spotlights Doctor Strange in the Casting section of controversies. Marini also cites a review that points out that the “Kathmandu lair has only one speaking Asian character, Wong (Benedict Wong), whose main characteristic is that he refuses to laugh” (Stewart, as cited in Marini, 2017, p. 74.)

UPDATE: After I published this post, I then became aware that Marvel producer Kevin Feige had recently admitted in an interview that they had made a mistake recasting the Asian role of the Ancient One with a non-Asian actor:

Marvel initially claimed it had chosen Swinton to prevent the character from fulfilling an Asian stereotype. Fans called bullshit. Five years later, Marvel head Kevin Feige doesn’t argue. “We thought we were being so smart and so cutting-edge,” he told me in a Zoom interview. “We’re not going to do the cliché of the wizened, old, wise Asian man. But it was a wake-up call to say, ‘Well, wait a minute, is there any other way to figure it out? Is there any other way to both not fall into the cliché and cast an Asian actor?’ And the answer to that, of course, is yes.”

Ebenezer Samuel, “Simu Liu Wants You to See Yourself as a Superhero,” Men’s Health, 19 May 2021

Wong’s lack of a central narrative

Others have also emphasized the lack of a central narrative, or a lack of depth, for Wong’s character. For example, in this essay in the Library Quarterly peer-reviewed academic journal, the authors celebrate Wong as a librarian hero but lament the lack of his own narrative.

In this last decade, parallel with the rise of prestige, long-form television, the box offices have seen total domination by franchise action films featuring multifilm story arcs tracking ensemble casts of superheroes, rebels, and Jedis. The most dominant overlord of them all, the Marvel Universe, does include a librarian in its ever-growing lineup of heroes—Wong (Benedict Wong), keeper and protector of an ancient archive in Doctor Strange (2016), Avengers: Infinity War (2018), and Avengers: Endgame (2019), though his narrative is largely crowded out of the action.

Karen Kettnich & Paul T. Jaeger, “Libraries and Librarians Onscreen and in Library Quarterly, Part 2, Or, The Greatest Hits of the ‘80s, ‘90s, and Today!” Library Quarterly, 90.4 (2020), p. 399

Does this lack of depth for an Asian role in the high-profile Marvel Cinematic Universe reflect a lack of depth for Asian roles in general? In this article analyzing British-Chinese actors and roles, the author includes Wong in a select list of a “limited number of more high-profile British Chinese actors” but argues that “it is evident that lasting, high-profile roles have been scarce for British Chinese actors.”

At the very end of this MCU Exchange interview with Benedict Wong, the writer notes that “In the comics [Wong] has always been defined by his relationship with Doctor Strange.” Thinking back over the three MCU movies Wong has been in thus far, that line rings true to me. I think Benedict Wong’s skill as an actor elevates his role and does a lot more to engage audiences onscreen than what is actually written for his role on the page. Will Wong have more of an independent identity and narrative in the upcoming Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness movie?

Positive role model and librarian

Others focused on positive aspects about Wong’s reel librarian character.

In this blog post and interview with Benedict Wong, Brenda Cisneros highlights how the character of Wong is the “Martial arts expert [and] the guardian librarian of the Sanctum Sanctorum who fights alongside Doctor Strange and Mordo.”

In that interview, Benedict Wong also shared how he ultimately views his role in the story as a positive one:

As an actor I am always looking for what I can do to promote a positive role in my characters and felt this kind of stoic force, the fact that Wong remains aware about the severity of what can really happen with those forces that we don’t know.

Benedict Wong, “Wong is the Asian Superhero in Doctor Strange,” Mejorando mi hogar, Nov. 2016.

In this Book Riot article, Thomas Maluck (who is also a librarian!) positively views the reel librarian character of Wong — and bases his viewpoint on the qualities that make Wong a good librarian!

Wong is a man of abiding authority, mutual respect, and benevolent guidance, traits that make him an ideal librarian.

Thomas Maluck, “How does the Library in Doctor Strange Work?,” Book Riot, 9 Nov. 2016

Also in that article, the Maluck takes clues from the Doctor Strange movie and Wong’s actions and dialog to create a (tongue-in-cheek) list of likely policies of the Kamar-Taj library, ranging from “Removal of library items from the premises will be punishable by death at librarian’s discretion” to “All knowledge is available for learning within the library, but not all practices.” 🙂

Continuing the conversation

Hopefully, I’ve succeeded in my goal of sharing a broad range of perspectives from a broad range of publications about Wong’s reel librarian character and significance — or lack thereof — in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. What are your thoughts about Wong, and how he is portrayed onscreen by Benedict Wong? Please leave a comment and share!

Sources used

Author: Jennifer

Librarian, blogger, movie lover

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