Beyoncé. Adele. Wong.
All one-named icons in their fields, though the latter is magical rather than musical in Doctor Strange, which topped the box office this weekend with $85 million. But Wong conjures something never seen before in Marvel’s multiverse of comic-book movies: an Asian superhero.
Who better to play a mystical drill sergeant and hard-nosed librarian with that moniker than British star Benedict Wong?
“Honestly, I was watching Marvel films and was always crestfallen: Where are the super-Asians?” Wong says with a laugh. “People are looking to be represented by their heroes.”
A regular on Netflix’s Marco Polo (as Mongol leader Kublai Khan) who also has appeared in Ridley Scott’s The Martian and Prometheus, Wong co-stars as one of the sorcerers of the Kamar-Taj, a group of magic folks dedicated to protecting Earth. When the villainous Kaecilius (Mads Mikkelsen) tries to bring darkness and doom, Wong (the character, not the real dude) wields the Wand of Watoomb to help out alongside Stephen Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch).
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It’s a different take on Wong than the one familiar to many Doctor Strange fans. He first appeared in 1963 as Strange’s sidekick and valet, and while he has come into his own as a martial-arts master, the filmmakers wanted Wong to stand out as a figure of influence.
“Wong at his worst in comics is a dated stereotype, the obedient Chinese manservant, and there’s so much more possibility in him,” says screenwriter Jon Spaihts. “It was important that Wong be powerful in his own right.”
Growing up in Manchester, Wong (the real guy, not the wizard) was a big Spider-Man fan and comics collector. Yet when it came to role models, “I looked to space, really,” says Wong, the son of two Hong Kong immigrants, who loved Star Wars and Steven Spielberg as a kid.
The 45-year-old actor did the Bard’s work in the late 1990s — from The Merchant of Venice to Antony and Cleopatra — and had a string of supporting roles in films such as Spy Game, Dirty Pretty Things, Sunshine and Moon.
Wong isn’t a household face yet in the USA, but he’s a bingeworthy one: In addition to Marco Polo, he also stars as a cop in the “Hated in the Nation” episode of Netflix’s Black Mirror, which Wong calls “twisty darkness.”
Another highlight for Wong was voicing an as-yet-unnamed character in Spielberg’s upcoming Ready Player One, the adaptation of Ernest Cline’s novel. “You’re working with him,“ Wong says of the filmmaker, ”and your inner 11-year-old child is shrilling, ‘What is going on?!’ ”
He hopes his diverse superhero is magical not only to youngsters but also to actors like himself. “Let’s bang the gong and chime for more Asian superheroes,” he says. “The gatekeepers can certainly open the door — there’s a wealth of East Asian talent around, and that needs to be tapped into.”
And Wong will be Wong again onscreen soon enough. He already has had discussions with directors Anthony and Joe Russo about what the character could do alongside Strange in Avengers: Infinity War (in theaters May 4, 2018).
“Wong is fully aware of the Avengers,” the actor says. “I feel very welcomed in the whole Marvel universe, and we’ll just see what unfolds. I’m ready to go with Wong and his bag of relics.”