The following article contains mild spoilers for The Falcon and The Winter Soldier Episode 3 “Power Broker”.
Marvel, we have a serious problem. You can’t finally introduce Madripoor in the MCU and make it completely devoid of Asians. I’m sorry, but that just doesn’t make sense! Then again, this isn’t the first case of Marvel co-opting Asian locations, aesthetics, and stories for the sake of their universe.
So, in this past Friday’s episode of The Falcon and The Winter Soldier, we saw Bucky, Sam, and Zemo head to the lawless land of Madripoor. Madripoor, as Bucky and Zemo describe, is an island nation in the Indonesian archipelago. It was a pirate sanctuary back in the day and remains a lawless place today. In the comics, Madripoor is most notably attached to Wolverine, who spends a good amount of time in Madripoor doing some vigilante work. Obviously, this has huge implications for viewers, and after the hints of mutants sprinkled all throughout WandaVision, The Falcon and The Winter Soldier is adding fuel to the fire.
And that is all great. I can’t wait for the mutants to come to the MCU. We’ve all got our theories on how that will happen, and I love the look of Madripoor, I can’t wait to go back. But, there’s one serious problem with Madripoor. This Asian nation, more specifically this Southeast Asian nation, located in the Indonesian archipelago, is apparently a nation devoid of the actual Asians who should populate it. Having watched and then rewatched “Power Broker” in quick succession for my recap, it became clear that Marvel is in love with the “Asian criminal underground aesthetic” but not so in love with Asians themselves.
Madripoor, but Make It Asian
The shots of the people populating Madripoor make it more painfully obvious. We are treated to a diverse group of criminals, but there is not a single Asian in sight. If you had only showed me the scene of Bucky, Sam, and Zemo at the bar I would have thought they were anywhere but Asia. Of course, Marvel’s reluctance to cast Asians (you can’t set a story in Asia and not cast a single Asian consciously, I’m sorry, but you can’t) doesn’t mean they reject all things Asian.
They had absolutely no problem cherry-picking from Asian music, Asian aesthetics, and a whole Asian country. After all, Madripoor is quite clearly based on real-life Singapore. Its skyline is distinctly drawn from Asian metropolitan skylines. Lowtown could easily have drawn influence from Hong Kong’s Kowloon Walled City at night (or Tokyo or Singapore). The opening song that kicks off as the gang strolls through Lowtown is from Shanti Dope, a Filipino rapper, the song that plays while they’re at the club is by partywithray and Zhu, a Chinese American musician. Even that scene of Sam drinking liquor with a snake inside of it is taken directly from the culture of drinking Snake wine in Asia.
I get it, it all looks really cool. I would have no problem with this if Marvel took some time and actually developed some Asian characters to fill these settings. Yes, Shang-Chi is coming. Yes, Ms. Marvel is coming. Sorry, but that’s not enough. First, Shang-Chi is an East Asian character and Kamala Khan is a South Asian character; Asians are not a monolith, where is the Southeast Asian representation? Second, it is not enough to simply have an Asian hero movie or series coming and then slack when it comes to casting for other projects. This isn’t even the first time Marvel decided to dip into the stereotype of “Asia as a setting for the criminal underworld”.
An Exoticized Setting
Both Black Panther and Avengers: Endgame see our heroes going to Asia for the sole purpose of it being the location of some sort of criminal underbelly. In Black Panther, we’re taken to Busan, South Korea. Again, the setting opens with a musical intro from a Korean artist, PSY in collaboration with Snoop Dogg, with a shot of the Busan at night. I guess, at least in this, there are actually Korean extras in the background. Here, Nakia speaks to Sophia (Alexis Rhee), who acts as Nakia’s contact to get her, Okoye, and T’Challa into the Jagalchi Market Casino. A fight starts between the Wakandans and Klaue and Ross in the casino, and they go barreling through Busan in an exciting fight where we see T’Challa in his suit.
In Endgame, we find Hawkeye now hunting Yakuza members in Tokyo. Here, he wields a katana instead of his typical bow and arrow. The Japanese extras they have are being summarily slaughtered by a vengeful Clint. Clint comes face to face with a Yakuza boss named Akihiko (Hiroyuki Sanada). After killing his entire gang, he also proceeds to murder Akihiko before Natasha arrives to pick him up and bring him back into the fold to be a hero.
So, why Asia? Why was it necessary to the plot for the Wakandans to go to Busan? Why was it necessary to the plot for us to see Clint in Tokyo and not in Mexico where he also slaughtered a bunch of cartel members? The plain and simple answer is that filmmakers love the aesthetic that rainy Asian metropolitan cities give off at night. All those colorful neon signs with foreign languages scribbled on them? It makes an exciting backdrop to throw their non-Asian cast at. Don’t get me wrong, I love Black Panther, I love Endgame, and I loved this episode of The Falcon and The Winter Soldier. But these filmmakers are exoticizing Asian cities for the sake of their stories. There is no real reason why the Wakandans couldn’t show up at a casino in Finland or Clint couldn’t be seen killing some random criminals in Florida. It’s a dramatic setting for a dramatic story, one that uses a stereotype of Asian culture and Orientalism as its springboard.
This version of “The Orient” is a painful stereotype, one that Marvel, and Hollywood, uses frequently. As Joey Lee put it in her essay “East Asian ‘China Doll’ or ‘Dragon Lady’?”, The East becomes “a distant land of romance, danger, criminal experiences, and essentially a place in which White people were privileged with entering and exiting to escape their burdens.” Does that sound familiar? Instead of addressing these very obvious issues of Orientalism, we’ve seen Marvel double and triple down on them.
Sophia and Akihiko are stereotypes. As is Claudia Kim‘s Helen Cho in Avengers: Age of Ultron, which puts her in the Asian stereotype of a genius scientist with no real backstory. And that isn’t to discount Benedict Wong‘s Wong or Randall Park‘s Jimmy Woo. We love Wong, we love Woo. But they are both played as comedic relief. What would it be like to see Wong or Jimmy Woo rise to play a more prominent role in the MCU? What would it be like to learn Wong’s full name? Maybe we’ll find out, but I’m not holding my breath.
A Harmful Stereotype
Some people might make the argument that the decision to have absolutely no Asians in a criminal underground was a deliberate choice. It was the choice not to cast Asians as the stereotypical bad guys. I’ve heard arguments like this before, and it is a weak one. The implication is that we don’t want to cast these people of color as a stereotype so instead of developing a character beyond the stereotype, we’ll erase the identity of them altogether. Setting a standard where Madripoor is a place without Asians on-screen gives incentive for future filmmakers not to cast Asians. Asians can play villains and heroes and everything in between. Create a character, develop them into a three-dimensional person. That’s how you side-step casting someone as a stereotype.
But, since we’ve mentioned Doctor Strange and attempts to negate harmful stereotypes, let’s talk about casting.
Wasn’t this the excuse Marvel execs gave as to why Tilda Swinton was cast as The Ancient One? The original comics Ancient One was basically a racist stereotype of a wizened old Kung Fu master. An Asian character was white-washed and the excuse given was that Marvel “regularly departs from stereotypes and source material to bring its MCU to life.” Doctor Strange writer C. Robert Cargill decided to add to the controversy, saying, “He [the Ancient One] originates from Tibet, so if you acknowledge that Tibet is a place and that he’s Tibetan, you risk alienating one billion people who think that that’s bulls— and risk 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.’”
So, we can’t cast a Tibetan character — by the way, Cargill, Tibet is 100% a place — but that meant their next jump was to a Celtic white lady? Their justification makes less sense when Stephen Strange arrives at Kamar-Taj and meets Hamir played by Topo Wresniwiro, who he initially mistakes for The Ancient One. It’s played for laughs when Swinton appears, but is it really that funny? It didn’t garner anything from me other than a frown.
Again and again, Marvel has decided to use Asian settings, Asian aesthetic, and Asian cultures, and again and again, they have failed to put Asians on the center screen. If you don’t want to wade into a political quagmire with China, how about casting a Chinese actor to play The Ancient One? Or a Southeast Asian actor? How about speaking to some members of the Asian American community in the industry about how this might look to Asian audiences who continuously see studios shove aside their culture, only to be given the explanation of “we’re doing this for you” and “we didn’t want to hurt you with a stereotype”.
Casting A Wide Net for Madripoor (and the future)
But, back to Madripoor. It’s too late to go back and refilm the Madripoor scenes by adding in a bunch of Asian extras. I have no idea why Selby couldn’t be Asian. Will the Power Broker be Asian? Probably not. At least we have Desmond Chiam, though whether or not he’ll escape the season alive is another story. The scenes of Madripoor seem to be filmed in Atlanta, and we know there are definitely Asians there! So what can filmmakers do in the future? It’s pretty simple. Cast Asians in your movies and shows, especially when you want to take advantage of all that shiny neon color for your cinematography. Cast Southeast Asians when we go back to Madripoor. No, casting East Asians is not enough.
In recent years, there has been a surge in Western acceptance of Asian media — KPop and Korean media specifically — but there’s still this general idea in Hollywood that Asians are just that. Asians. Not Chinese, not Japanese, not Vietnamese, not Indonesian, not Filipino. Yes, outside of our countries it’s often easier to refer to ourselves as Asians, but within our separate communities, we take pride in our individual identities and cultures. Asians are a monolith in Western eyes and casting has often reflected that. Casting directors should understand the distinctions between cultures and be cognizant of that.
Since Madripoor is a port city, if we compare it to Singapore, it will be diverse. This gives some flexibility when it comes to casting. I would have loved to see a Madripoor full of East, Southeast, and South Asians. It’s a diverse continent! Madripoor shouldn’t look like a Westernized city. If we do return to Madripoor, and it seems likely that we will, I would encourage filmmakers to do the due diligence, do the research, speak to the community, understand the culture.
After so many fumbles, the pressure is on.
Update: A previous version of this article neglected to include Ms. Marvel as one of the upcoming Marvel projects with a South Asian lead, she has now been added.