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The Evolution of the Occidental Gaze in the Marvel Cinematic Universe

Dina AlAwadhi, University College London

For centuries, Orientalism has woven itself into the media we consume. In Hollywood, it has been present since the very inception of film, and unfortunately, it is still present there today in the superhero genre as evidenced by the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU). The MCU is a transmedial franchise of blockbuster films based on the adventures of Marvel Comics’ superheroes. These superhero texts are often overshadowed by orientalist depictions of the East, heavily influenced by what I term as the Occidental gaze, a look which erects an orientalist self/other dialect within a text. Over the course of this paper, I consider how the MCU engages with the Occidental gaze. Through close textual analysis, I track the Occidental gaze via the self/other dichotomy and the adaptation of racialised stereotypes in Iron Man (2008), Iron Man 3 (2013), and Doctor Strange (2016). The analysis considers how the Occidental gaze fluctuates over the course of the MCU’s Infinity Saga: as it constructs intentionally dehumanised characters, challenges this imagery through ironic deconstruction, and finally is rejected and inverted as a whole. This paper concludes with a brief examination of how both systems of otherness and orientalism are internalized within superhero narratives.

The Occidental Gaze

In order to understand the Occidental gaze, it is first important to examine key postcolonialist thinker Frantz Fanon’s White gaze. In the 1950s, Fanon (1952) proposed that a White gaze was produced in the encounter between the self and the other in the colonial landscape. Fanon reasoned that the self creates the imaginary other through what he called the White gaze. This White gaze fixes and dehumanizes the black body in order to establish a hegemonic whiteness; the black body under this gaze is “sprawled out, distorted, recoloured… The Negro is an animal, the Negro is bad, the Negro is mean, the Negro is ugly” (86). The colonial landscape is key as it enforces Manichean binary oppositions of good vs. evil, white vs. black, beauty vs. ugliness etc. Fanon further argued how this gaze is panoptic and inherently colonial in nature, as the black body is converted into a site of spectacle and reduced to a series of humiliating stereotypes. Since Fanon proposed his theory of the White gaze, it has been expanded upon by countless thinkers (Gaines, 1986; Diawara, 1988; Shohat and Stam, 2014; Yancy, 2016), and Fanon’s arguments can be understood to not only apply to the colonized black body, but more broadly speaking, to the marginalized and dehumanized non-white body. When engaging with popular culture, watching films and television shows, reading literature or comics, spectators engage with this White gaze as they observe the non-white body on screen. Though the viewer may resist identification with that objectification, the hegemonic dialectic and dehumanizing stereotypes are still traumatic to the non-white viewer (Diawara, 1988; hooks, 1992).

When considering the White gaze through the lens of Edward Said’s theories on Orientalism, a new gaze emerges: the Occidental gaze. Said (1978) posed Orientalism as a system of cultural representations, one which creates distinctions between the West (the Occident) and the East (the Orient) perpetuating the self/other dialectic. The West exploits this system in order to govern and restructure the Orient. Subsequently, the Orient comes to represent one of the “deepest and most recurring images of the Other;” Orientalism does not only dehumanize the Orient and the oriental body, but it also “[helps] define Europe (or the West) as its contrasting image, idea, personality, [and] experience” (1-2). Via this imposed system, inferiority, irrationality, and regressiveness come to represent the Orient, while the Occident stands as a paragon of superiority, rationality, and progressiveness. The Occidental gaze then is a look which dominates and others the oriental body, transforming it into a site of spectacle. When considering the superhero genre and the MCU in particular, the Occidental gaze is woven into the text via a series of stereotypes and coded imagery which firmly establish hero from villain. The superhero text is converted into a colonial fantasy, and the audience is situated as the Occident as they gaze at and objectify the oriental body. In this system, the superhero more often than not, operates as a White saviour, a hegemonic and propogandic tool in a highly Manichean system. The non-white body, on the other hand, is othered: stereotypical and tokenistic, exotified, and even villainized. Over the course of the Infinity Saga, we see how the MCU engages with and, eventually, attempts to challenge this gaze.

Iron Man

Iron Man (2008) as the opening film of the MCU sets the orientalist tone of the franchise via its treatment of the oriental body. In adapting Iron Man’s origin story from the comics, the film replicates the comics’ underlying Occidental gaze and intentionally orientalist imagery by updating the narrative to reflect modern day anxieties and fears. This updating of the text is apparent in the setting, the representation of the oriental body, and Iron Man’s role as a White Saviour.

Published in an era overcome with Yellow Peril, Tony Stark’s first appearance in Marvel’s comics takes place in “Iron Man is Born!,” Tales of Suspense #39 (1963). The issue follows Stark, a US military weapons manufacturer, as he is abducted by the Viet Cong in an exotic South Vietnamese jungle. Over the course of the issue, Stark clashes with the “red guerrilla tyrant” Wong-Chu before finally constructing his Iron Man armour and defeating his nemesis. The text’s setting provides the foundation of the Occidental gaze and legitimizes the dehumanization of the oriental body as it informs the Manichean binary oppositions of the comic. Wong-Chu and Starks’ clash thus embodies the conflict between Occident and Orient, between the American military and the Viet Cong, between capitalism and communism, good and evil etc. The oriental body in “Iron Man is Born” is also observed via two characters: Wong-Chu, the story’s villain who is as ignorant as he is cruel, and Professor Ho Yinsen, a scientist who sacrifices himself in order to save Stark, reasoning that his “life is of no consequence.” Despite their juxtaposing narratival roles, both characters are drawn in an exceptionally racist manner with exaggerated, stereotypical features. The oriental body in the comic is then relegated to a plot device, one which ensures Stark’s transformation into Iron Man. Stark is cast as a White saviour, one who must defeat the fascistic Wong-Chu and seek revenge for Yinsen’s death, and Iron Man’s violent overtures abroad are consequently justified.

Director Jon Favreau would adapt this orientalist rescue narrative in Iron Man (2008) by updating the comic’s narrative to modern times. As a result, the original text’s flagrant orientalism would be translated into a text overshadowed by 9/11 and Islamophobia. Though the film’s setting would be updated to Afghanistan, yet again the oriental body is othered with Iron Man positioned as a White saviour. In Iron Man, the exotic Orient is changed from Vietnam’s dense jungles to the ‘terrorist-ridden’ deserts of Afghanistan, lifeless site which is desaturated in colour and prominently cast in hues of yellows, browns, and greys. Accordingly, the Viet Cong are also changed to the Ten Rings, a Taliban-esque terrorist organization which abducts and imprisons Stark.

The Occidental gaze heavily influences the Ten Rings’s representation. They are described as a multicultural organization who speak “Arabic, Urdu, Dari, Pashtu, Mongolian, Parsi, and Russian” (Iron Man). Language is weaponized by the gaze as it essentializes and transforms almost the entirety of Asia into a vast and menacing realm. Though there are countless scenes throughout the film which cast the Ten Rings as other, it is perhaps when Tony is being waterboarded by the organization that the Occidental gaze’s influence on the spectator is most clear. During this scene, the audience is bombarded with quick, short shots of the villainous henchmen shouting and grunting intelligibly as they shove and push at Stark. Images of bared teeth and a gleeful sadism cast the oriental body as a savage and evil creature.

This objectification of the oriental body continues over the course of the film with a variety of characters including Raza, Abu Baker, and Yinsen. Iron Man translates the Wong-Chu character into two minor characters named Raza, a dangerous, menacing figure, and Abu Baker, an antagonist who exemplifies the stereotypical “villainous bumbling buffoon” trope (Shaheen, 2003). While Raza is originally portrayed as the leader of the Ten Rings, it is later revealed that the film’s true villain is in fact Tony’s mentor and the CEO of Stark Industries: Obadiah Stane. Raza is thus relegated to a second-hand villain and eventually outsmarted and killed by Stane. As Dan Hassler-Forest (2012) explains, “the Orientalist villain’s unmasking as a red herring… robs the character of agency in the narrative… [it] removes the stereotype’s narrative power, without dissolving the negative connotations that continue to define it, thereby adding insult to injury” (92). And indeed, Raza’s narrative power and agency are erased by the Stane reveal, though the audience is still left with the racially charged representation of the villain. The final character of note, Yinsen’s translation on-screen is almost indistinguishable to his comic book-counterpart. Mirroring the comics, Yinsen sacrifices himself for Stark in their attempt to escape the Ten Rings; yet again, the professor’s parting words revolve around the superhero as he begs him: “Don’t waste it, don’t waste your life.” Yinsen ultimately plays the role of an orientalised Magical Negro, one whose redemptive suffering uplifts the hero and ultimately enforces Iron Man’s hegemonic authority as a White saviour, justifying his violent exceptionalism as a superhero in Afghanistan.

Ultimately, Iron Man simply updates the same orientalist narrative of “Iron Man is Born!” The Orient shifts from Vietnam to Afghanistan, though the indigenous natives remain feminized and in need of rescue. The Viet Cong are transformed into the Ten Rings, and the oriental body is subjugated by the Occidental gaze, be it demonized or ridiculed, as seen with Wong-Chu/Raza and Abu Baker, or sacrificed and objectified, as Yinsin demonstrates. While the Occidental gaze was charged by Yellow Peril during the production and release of Marvel’s comics in the 1960s, Iron Man’s essentialization of the Middle East (and a greater part of the Asian continent) demonstrates how, though the gaze has evolved over the past several decades, it continues to excuse American exceptionalism and interventionism.

Iron Man 3

While Iron Man simply updates the Occidental gaze, Shane Black’s Iron Man 3 (2013) endeavours to subvert that same look through ironic deconstruction, as is evident via the representation of a character called the Mandarin. One of Marvel’s most infamous supervillains, the Mandarin is a Chinese sorcerer whose objective is world domination, and this villain is a classic example of a Fu Manchu stereotype. From his Fu Manchu moustache and exaggerated features to his cruelty, arrogance, and inflated ego, the villain unquestionably serves as a Yellow Peril figure. In Serial Fu Manchu (2014), Ruth Mayer argues that during the twentieth century, the Fu Manchu stereotype denoted anxieties of the Orient infiltrating the West “while refraining, at the same time, from locating or specifying the parameters of this threat” (126). Stereotypes, then, like Fu Manchu and Iron Man’s Terrorists are exploited by the Occidental gaze in order to transform the East into a looming, unknowable realm, further aligning with Said’s arguments.

It is fitting then that in Iron Man 3 the Mandarin would be transformed from Fu Manchu to a modern day terrorist. This filmic Mandarin is clad in an assortment of orientalist imagery, from his Bin Laden-esque beard, samurai top knot, and Ghaddafi glasses to his Chinese robes swathed in dragons. Over the course of Iron Man 3, the audience, along with the film’s characters, watch as several of the Mandarin’s propaganda films are broadcast across the US. The films are overflowing with charged images, threatening Iron Man and the United States, spreading fear, and fashioning the Mandarin as an oriental spectre who is unknowable and everywhere at once. Interestingly, Iron Man 3’s Mandarin ultimately falls into the same trap as Raza from Iron Man, as midway through the film, the Mandarin is revealed to be an imposter. It is revealed that the film’s true villain, an American scientist named Aldrich Killian, had hired an actor called Trevor Slattery to play the role of Oriental Bogeyman, “a custom-made terror threat,” who would allow Killian to “own the war on terror.” By manufacturing the Mandarin, Killian recreates and exploits the Occidental gaze’s system: the Mandarin puppet divides the Occident from the Orient via terrorism and fear, casting and justifying Killian and the United States’ role as the hegemonic self as they continue to control and dominate both the Orient and the oriental body. The propaganda films created by Killian further demonstrate how exploiting targeted imagery can manufacture a particular narrative i.e. shots of the Mandarin watching executions, bearded men in turbans waving guns and shouting, bombs exploding all juxtaposed against shots of the White House, the American flag, American children playing, and two white women smiling. Co-writer of the film, Drew Pearce confirms that the images selected for these propaganda films were intentionally provocative, they:

purposely connect with images from the last 15 years of terrorism we’ve been shown. It’s interesting to note how quickly you can find those hot-button images which go straight to a place of fear for us, and I think that that also relates to how the last 15 years have played out in news coverage. (Harding, 2013)

Though Iron Man 3 attempts to subvert the Occidental gaze by spotlighting the audience’s internalized gaze and preconceived associations between terrorism and the Orient, the ironic deconstruction ultimately fails as the audience is still heavily impacted by the recurring orientalist imagery. As Hassler-Forest would argue, despite the Mandarin being a red herring, the Occidental gaze remains intact as it perpetuates the Orient, or MENA regions, as a land overrun by violence, terrorism, war, and instability. The oriental body is also dehumanized in the process, from its clichéd depictions of angry men waving theirs guns and shouting incomprehensibly to veiled women who must be liberated by the film’s superheroes in order to be “free.” And most damningly, Iron Man 3 ultimately poses that modern day terrorists are only believable when they emulate racist, orientalist imagery.

Doctor Strange

The final film of note that engages with the Occidental gaze in the MCU is Scott Derrikson’s Doctor Strange (2016). Unlike Iron Man’s updating of the Occidental gaze and Iron Man 3’s laudable attempt to ironically deconstruct that same look, Doctor Strange endeavours to wholly eradicate the Occidental gaze from the text. Dr. Stephen Strange first appeared in Marvel’s comics in the 1960s as a neurosurgeon turned Master of Black Magic. The superhero’s origin story follows Strange as he travels around the world searching for a way to heal his hands after a near-fatal car crash. Strange eventually comes across Kamar-Taj and the Ancient One, a Tibetan man who takes on the hero and mentors him in the mystical arts. “Somewhere in the remote vastness of Asia,” Kamar-Taj is a “hidden land high in the Himalayas… populated by a race of people who, though not outwardly advanced, had developed the arts of joyous living to a degree undreamed of by more complex civilizations” (Strange Tales #111, 148). An exotified Shangri-La, Kamar-Taj is highly romanticized and orientalised in the comics, and this land serves as the starting point for the Manichaean oppositions which plague Doctor Strange: Occident vs. Orient, self vs. other, New York vs. Kamar-Taj, body vs. spirit, and science vs. magic etc.

The depiction of the oriental body in Doctor Strange’s early issues are also (unsurprisingly) stereotypical caricatures. Though he may be Strange’s mentor, the Ancient One undoubtedly falls in line as a frail, ‘good’ version of Fu Manchu, one who is often in need of rescue. Strange’s manservant, Wong, is similarly dehumanized; his first appearance in the comics is both as a faceless and nameless figure, and Wong easily perfectly corresponds to the meek Asian valet stereotype. As is apparent with the Ancient One, Wong, and other Asian characters in Doctor Strange’s comics, the oriental body is plagued by stereotypical and racist tropes; they are mere plot devices who serve Strange in his adventures. Consequently, Strange represents a White saviour figure who partakes in a colonial wish-fulfilment fantasy as he traverses the East, learning from the native people and studying their ways until he eventually becomes their leader. Strange’s whiteness is key, as it allows him to travel through the Orient, across different realms and dimensions, while maintaining the role of self.

When creating Doctor Strange, Derrickson was confronted with this orientalist narrative, and he struggled to both remove and invert the orientalist stereotypes that plagued the original comics, including the representation of Kamar-Taj and the primary characters of the film. In Doctor Strange, Strange’s journey to becoming a superhero parallels the reckoning of his own internalized Occidental gaze. Once he journeys to Kamar-Taj, Strange is confronted by his own preconceived prejudices and superiority complex, and over the course of the film, both his and the audience’s internalized gaze are exposed and rebuked.

Doctor Strange’s reinterpretation of the oriental body is also highly subversive. The Ancient One is completely reconfigured as Tilda Swinton is cast in the role, and resultantly the Fu Manchu stereotype is entirely eradicated. In a key scene which challenges both Strange and the audience’s internalized Occidental gaze, Strange is introduced to the Ancient One. He presumes that the Sorcerer Supreme is an old, bespectacled Asian man (with a Fu Manchu moustache and beard to boot), only to be shocked when an androgynous, bald woman of Celtic origin serving his tea is revealed to be the Ancient One. While casting Tilda Swinton as the Ancient One removes the racist elements intrinsic to the character, it simultaneously whitewashes a Tibetan character bringing to light Marvel and Disney’s fear of losing box office revenue in China. Wong’s character is also inverted as he is no longer a manservant, but rather a three-dimensional character, one who is the head librarian at Kamar-Taj and a Master of the Mystic Arts. However, though Wong is an equal to Strange, he is the only speaking Asian character in the film, and Wong can also be read as a non-white sidekick to Strange’s white superhero.

In an interview, Derrickson defended his directorial decisions in the film and explained the difficulties he faced in adapting the original comics:

The Ancient One and Wong in the comics were 1960s Western stereotypes perpetuating the old Fu Manchu mentor to the white hero and Wong was the kung-fu manservant. What was I supposed to do with those? My first thought was to make the Ancient One a woman and middle-aged, not a fanboy’s dream girl… but then it felt like it was falling into the Dragon Lady stereotype – the domineering mystical woman with a secret agenda. I wasn’t going to perpetuate that stereotype. And it would make it all about a Western character coming to Asia to learn about being Asian. It was a minefield. As a result I also felt a great burden to make Wong a major character. He was a worse stereotype than The Ancient One and I thought we might have to leave him out. So I inverted everything from the comics and made him a librarian and Master of the mystical arts and Strange’s mentor. Asians have been whitewashed and stereotyped in American cinema for over a century and people should be mad or nothing will change.  What I did was the lesser of two evils, but it is still an evil. (Kyriazis, 2016)

The Ancient One and Wong in the comics were 1960s Western stereotypes perpetuating the old Fu Manchu mentor to the white hero and Wong was the kung-fu manservant. What was I supposed to do with those? My first thought was to make the Ancient One a woman and middle-aged, not a fanboy’s dream girl… but then it felt like it was falling into the Dragon Lady stereotype – the domineering mystical woman with a secret agenda. I wasn’t going to perpetuate that stereotype. And it would make it all about a Western character coming to Asia to learn about being Asian. It was a minefield. As a result I also felt a great burden to make Wong a major character. He was a worse stereotype than The Ancient One and I thought we might have to leave him out. So I inverted everything from the comics and made him a librarian and Master of the mystical arts and Strange’s mentor. Asians have been whitewashed and stereotyped in American cinema for over a century and people should be mad or nothing will change.  What I did was the lesser of two evils, but it is still an evil. (Kyriazis, 2016)

It is obviously quite clear that Derrickson was aware of the orientalist foundations and limitations in adapting Doctor Strange on-screen. Though his efforts to invert the negative stereotypes and tropes of the narrative are remarkable (excluding the Ancient One’s whitewashing), Derrickson’s description of the process as a “minefield,” where “what [he] did was the lesser of two evils, but… still an evil” confirms how deeply intrinsic orientalism and the Occidental gaze are to Doctor Strange and countless other superhero texts.

Conclusion

By briefly examining these three primary texts, it is evident that the Occidental gaze has slowly evolved in the MCU from an aggressive, explicit look to a more implicit gaze, one which can be rather difficult to challenge and eliminate. This engagement with the gaze is demonstrated by Iron Man updating the Occidental gaze from the original comics, Iron Man 3 attempting, and ultimately failing to ironically subvert that same look, and Doctor Strange similarly struggling to completely eradicate that internalized gaze. The core problem that all three films face is the fundamental orientalism of the original comic book texts. That being said, it is quite evident that the MCU over time has become more aware of the orientalist foundations of the comics as is evidenced in Iron Man 3 and Doctor Strange, both of which attempt to challenge the racist stereotypes, tropes, and narratives of the original texts. Despite their best efforts however, as Derrickson noted, when adapting these superhero stories onscreen it is almost impossible to translate the comics and create a new narrative unencumbered by the Occidental gaze and its overarching system. The generic conventions of the superhero genre, its themes, structure, and tropes all hinge upon the self/other dialectic, and that system is empowered by the Occidental gaze. It would seem that it is impossible to adapt the original narratives from the Golden Age of Comics without being impacted by that look.

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