clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Wong Has Won Phase 4

The fourth episode of ‘She-Hulk: Attorney at Law’ gives Wong even more minutes in the fan favorite’s bid to be the MCU’s most familiar face

Disney Plus/Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Following three episodes that featured guest stars, from Hulk to Emil Blonsky to Megan Thee Stallion, She-Hulk returned this week with yet another crossover: Wong. After the Sorcerer Supreme first appeared in the series as a witness in a hearing for Blonsky during last week’s installment, the fourth episode finds Wong returning as Jen’s client of the week as he takes a magician to court for misusing the Mystic Arts. It’s an absurd premise befitting a series about a lawyer turned superhero who’s trying to navigate a new life (and dating in her 30s) after becoming a Hulk—and the result is a comedic showcase for one of the MCU’s unsung heroes. As such, it’s only fitting that we use this week’s She-Hulk column as an opportunity to pay our respects to the one and only leader of the Masters of the mystic arts.

A proper homage to Wong—just Wong—is perhaps long overdue. After all, the former librarian of Kamar-Taj has been stealing scenes in films ever since his debut in 2016’s Doctor Strange. He has quietly become the MCU’s cameo king in Phase 4, making guest appearances in more projects than any other character since Nick Fury went to space in Spider-Man: Far From Home. Wong stepped into the world of animation during an episode of What If…?, participated in a cage match with the Abomination (and was also up for karaoke) in Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings, showed up long enough to get a winter fit off in Spider-Man: No Way Home, and then returned for a larger role in Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness. Now he’s coming off of back-to-back performances in She-Hulk, in which he adds to his series of iconic portal entrances or exits. As Jen says herself in “Is This Not Real Magic?,” “Everybody loves Wong; it’s like giving the show Twitter armor for a week.”

Considering Wong’s current status as a go-to guest star, it’s easy to forget that he came close to being omitted from the MCU. When Wong debuted in the comics in the 1960s, he was introduced as Doctor Strange’s servant: a valet who would perform tasks for the titular hero, like bringing him tea and taking care of the housework—a supporting role historically given far too often to Asian characters in popular culture. (Naturally, Wong happened to be a master martial artist, as well.) So when it was time for Doctor Strange to enter the MCU in 2016, director Scott Derrickson decided it would be best to leave the sidekick and his stereotypes in the past, avoiding the potential awkwardness of adapting him to the screen altogether. In an ironic turn of events, it was only after Tilda Swinton was cast as the Ancient One—another stereotypical Asian character in the comics—that the creative team behind Doctor Strange reconsidered their stance.

“I was very happy with [Tilda’s casting], but I was also very conscious that in doing that I was erasing a significant potential Asian role,” Derrickson told The Los Angeles Daily News in 2016. “I was going to leave Wong out of the movie at first; he was an Asian sidekick manservant, what was I supposed to do with that? But once the decision was made to cast Tilda, we brought Wong back because, unlike the Ancient One, he could be completely subverted as a character and reworked into something that didn’t fall into any of the stereotypes of the comics.”

(As an aside, the logic here from Derrickson is truly wild and still puzzles me. Why was the Ancient One unable to be “reworked” and “subverted,” as Wong had been? The initial solution to adapting two stereotypical characters of Asian descent was really to hire a white actress as one and then just erase the other? As evidenced by the successful reimaginings of Asian characters in Shang-Chi at the hands of Asian American filmmakers, it’s more than possible if given the proper care and consideration. But I digress!)

To Derrickson and the rest of the creative team’s credit, the Wong who arrived in Doctor Strange was a much different version of the character Stan Lee and Steve Ditko conceived decades earlier. With the talented British actor Benedict Wong cast in the role—the matching name was largely a coincidence—the MCU’s reworked Wong was not Doctor Strange’s servant, but one of his teachers, and something of a drill sergeant who trained neophytes in the ways of the mystic arts. Especially in his first appearance, Wong was a more serious and intimidating presence, warming up to Strange only after the guy resurrected him. (Is there any quicker way to gain one’s favor than saving their life?)

The beauty of all of this is that, more than half a decade after Swinton was cast as the MCU’s Sorcerer Supreme, that title now belongs to Wong. As revealed during his brief appearance in No Way Home, Wong earned this rarefied status when the most likely candidate for the vacant position—Doctor Strange—ceased to exist after being snapped away by Thanos at the end of Avengers: Infinity War. And even after the good doctor’s return from the dead, Wong’s legend has grown beyond Strange’s shadow, establishing the former supporting player as one of the most important figures in the Marvel universe. As his role has expanded in Phase 4, the character has evolved, and the actor—as well as his legion of fans—has taken notice. “I call it Phase Wong,” Benedict Wong told Empire during the press run for Multiverse of Madness. “It’s a nice, interesting shift. Wong has taken on a new role, and that dynamic changes between [Wong and Strange] both.”

Wong always has been able to inject humor into his previous appearances—even when he was painted as the deadpan librarian and drill sergeant in Doctor Strange—but stepping into a comedy series has allowed Benedict Wong to lean into that side of the character more than ever. She-Hulk’s lighthearted tone and low-stakes premise has also provided a window into Wong’s life, one that extends beyond cleaning up the messes that Doctor Strange so frequently creates.

In “Is This Not Real Magic?,” writer Melissa Hunter, director Kat Coiro, and showrunner Jessica Gao give us glimpses of how, despite being the Sorcerer Supreme, Wong is just like us. He’s been staying busy ever since quitting his job as a Target sales associate—so busy that he’s apparently still catching up on The Sopranos. And just like most people, the man hates spoilers to the point that he’s willing to take the imposter magician to court over indirectly ruining the best episode of the series via Wong’s unexpected new friend, Madisynn:

Screenshots via Disney+

Wong managed to survive more than 20 years—and countless doomsday scenarios—in the MCU timeline after 2004, when “Long Term Parking” premiered on HBO, just to find out that Adriana was about to die from a drunken stranger who materialized in front of the TV in time for the show’s opening credits. Wong is also revealed to be an engaged, empathetic viewer: Just look at the sadness in his eyes as he clutches a pillow while watching a particularly dramatic installment of This Is Us.

After being known by a single name for so long—like Beyoncé—Wong has been given an unforgettable nickname, with Madisynn calling him “Wongers.” The unlikely bond between the two, reinforced as they discuss their favorite drinks during the stinger (Wong, we learn, is a gin and tonic man), makes them an instantly iconic duo, against all odds in this dimension and every other. (Though I do worry about the Wong variant who is still out there naked and running away from clowns, as mentioned in Multiverse of Madness.) Wong’s eventual team-up with She-Hulk later in the episode, which occurs during a battle against real demons in a fake castle for cheap magic, is also one of the more entertaining and chaotic sequences of the series so far. All of this takes place after he accidentally interrupts his lawyer at home just as she was about to carry her date over to the bedroom:

Through four of the season’s nine episodes, our understanding of who Jen Walters is remains modest, and She-Hulk’s overarching plot—along with primary villain Titania’s part in it—is murky at best, reinforcing concerns over whether the show’s abundance of cameos is eclipsing the star it’s meant to introduce. But at least for this week, Walters’s sacrifice is well worth it to give Wong another chance to shine and to build on Shang-Chi’s reminder that he’s a man of the people:

Now, given that there’s no end in sight for the MCU, maybe it’s about time the Sorcerer Supreme gets his own series?