Home Entertainment Television Where are the Asians in THE FALCON AND THE WINTER SOLDIER’s Madripoor?

Where are the Asians in THE FALCON AND THE WINTER SOLDIER’s Madripoor?

Marvel sure is obsessed with that Asian aesthetic.

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Credit: Disney+
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.

The Singapore skyline
FatWS‘s Madripoor. Credit: Disney+

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.

Kowloon at night, looks familiar…

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.’”

They said they didn’t want to cast an old Asian man stereotype for the role of The Ancient One, and then they cast an old Asian man to stand next to The Ancient One.

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.

The Hong Kong skyline at night… Looks familiar.

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.

10 COMMENTS

  1. THANK YOU. This has bugged me for a long time with Marvel movies and Hollywood movies in general. Recently, Godzilla vs King Kong spent 45 minutes destroying Hong Kong without a single asian speaking role.

  2. There were three asians in the bar. Two were sitting at the bar. They looked Indonesian. Another East Asian was standing in the back. Sharon’s party …there was one Indian looking party goer. Very few yes, but maybe they wanted to avoid the cliche of Asian gangsters wearing sunglasses at night. They maybe wanted to make this not an Asian ruled island city, but a city controlled by mostly wealthy or surly expats, criminals from all over the world. I am OK with their artistic choices. I would criticize if they showed a lot of Asian signage and not have any Asians, but they avoided Asian signage. They were consistent in their choices. And it made it more believable that Zemo would be more comfortable and knowledgeable in this place with many Europeans….than if he had to speak Malaysian and Indonesian to his contacts.

  3. I’m totally agree, can you imagine they film a scene in Wakanda and not a single black person in the city? or film a China Town scene and not hiring a single asian actor

  4. Did anyone realize how much Japanese influence the episode had.. don’t get me wrong the Japanese 80’s biker gang was cool and the Kanji neon signage was very Blade Runner-esque. However, there was absolutely no South East Asian or specifically Indonesian influence. It seems in Disney/Marvel’s eye “City Asian” culture trumps “Jungle Asian” culture even on our own turf.

  5. I was guessing that it was mostly a filming issue due to COVID, similar to Kong vs Godzilla, in which Hong Kong also had very few Chinese folk. They probably had trouble getting a hold on a significant number of Asian (East, Southeast, or otherwise) extras for filming with restrictions. It’s just my guess and it’s not a great excuse, I suppose.

  6. 100% agree. Very well said.

    Though I’m sure that Akira Yoshida will disagree and thinks that the episode represented Asia very well…

    Again, Marvel (and pop culture more generally) love Asia, love Asian aesthetics and technology and art and food and….but not really interested in Asian people.

  7. As an Asian who is actually from Singapore and I’m actually extremely glad that there are no Asians in Madripoor. Madripoor does not remotely resemble Singapore in any way and we do not need more movies perpetuating weird perceptions about Singapore. At least with no Asians inside – it doesn’t feel like Singapore and moviegoers can tell it’s a fictional location like eg. the bar from A New Hope

    Madripoor couldn’t be more different from Singapore. Madripoor = lawless criminal haven filled with graffitti, Singapore = insanely secure place where you’ll probably be caught in 2 secs if you do anything illegal + is also an insanely boring place where nothing interesting happens. We honestly don’t need people thinking Singapore is like Madripoor when they couldn’t be more different.

    Secondly – there’s a couple of disturbing scenes where a bartender serves Sam a drink made of snake guts. I have to say I’m extremely glad that there were no Asians in this scene and i’m honestly extremely tired of the stereotype that Asians eat weird and disgusting food. I’ve lived in Singapore all my life and I’ve never seen such a drink before + would never want to drink it either. Covid has done enough damage to the reputations of the Asian community, we don’t need more incentive for people to punch Asians on the streets.

    Thirdly, I don’t really care if people represent Asians in Hollywood movies. In fact I would prefer no representation at all to bad representation (casting Asians only as villains, victims or stereotypes, which does a lot of damage). There’s already plenty of excellent Asian films and movies with all asian casts made by filmmakers in China, South Korea, Japan, Taiwan, Singapore, etc etc. that I already watch and I’m honestly used to seeing all asian casts on the big screen. When I watch Hollywood movies I couldn’t care less if there’s “asian representation” as I can already get my asian fix from the more authentic asian portrayals from filmmakers in this region

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