3. Will A Change Allow Us to Expolore The Character In New Ways?
Here’s a little secret you might not know: Even minorities don’t like to be pandered to by empty gestures of political correctness. No black man (that I’ve ever met) has ever said, “I want my race to be represented in this horror movie, just so the character can say something black (‘Man this !#$%* be CRAZY!’) and then be the first to get his head split by a machete.” Maybe some of you know that guy, but I sure don’t.
When it comes to storytelling that’s as widespread and pervasive as TV and movies are, people just like to feel that their races and/or cultures are being represented. After all, the real world is full of diversity, so why should fiction be any different in its depiction of our world? Hell, even sci-fi shows like Star Trek have a diverse range of crazy alien races and cultures.
Although it’s easy to look at popular superheroes and be critical of the fact that they overwhelmingly favor one race (and gender), at the same time, it’s totally fair for someone to be critical of the decision to change a character’s race, age, gender, or culture for the arbitrary reason of fulfilling some diversity quota. Nothing should be set in stone when it comes to the revision or updating of outdated characters and/or stories – but a change as major as ethnicity, age, or gender should also offer us new opportunities to explore or understand a character. The change should have purpose.
When Green Lantern Hal Jordan went berserk in the mid-90s, DC Comics replaced the hero with a younger, “hipper” (and 1/4 Mexican) character named Kyle Rayner. Kyle had few similarities to Hal Jordan, and while the change riled longtime fans at first, it proved to be a valid one in the long run, since Kyle’s character (and job as a sketch artist) fostered an opportunity for readers to explore a type of Green Lantern they hadn’t really seen before. Even when DC Entertainment Chief Creative Officer Geoff Johns brought back Hal Jordan in the early 2000s, Kyle Rayner wasn’t simply cast aside; the character had been so fruitful and worthwhile that Johns incorporated him into the updated Green Lantern mythos alongside Hal Jordan, in celebration of how different the two were, rather than in dispute of the divergence.
I say all that to say: Not every change is a bad one, simply because it’s a change.
Marvel fans know that there are in fact two versions of popular character Nick Fury that exist today: the classic “616” universe version (white guy, WWII vet) and the “Ultimate” universe version, who was modeled after Samuel L. Jackson and is now inhabited by the actor in the Marvel Movie Universe. Both versions of Fury are a type of badass (Clint Eastwood few-words badass vs. Sam Jackson @!#$-talk badass), but the difference in race does add a new dimension to how Ultimate Fury walks, talks, behaves and banters with the heroes of the Ultimate universe. Was it a necessary change? Certainly not. Is it a fun and entertaining one? Absolutely.
Regarding Man of Steel‘s big race-change controversy: If Laurence Fishburne simply mimes the behavior of previous Perry Whites (either from the comic book page or screen) then it would be a discredit to both the character and the filmmakers who opted for this casting. If Fishburne can add great new dimensions to the character by making it his own, then clearly he deserved the part all along – race be damned.
If Ultimate Spider-Man writer Brian Michael Bendis can take this new blatino character, Miles Morales, and use his race and ethnicity as a new and interesting vantage point from which to view the character and themes of Spider-Man (power, responsibility, guilt), then have we really lost something, or gained something? If the Morales character can’t offer anything new to say about Spider-Man, and is simply ‘Spidey in blackface,’ then naysayers will have a legitimate gripe to voice.
As I said above: the change should always help to expand the character.