4. Is the Essence of the Character Intact?
Some of the more level-headed people out there approach change to popular characters with the mindset that if “the core of the character” remains intact, all is still well. You may also hear it referred to as the “character” of the character, but these are all various ways of referring to the same thing: the core essence and themes of a superhero.
Former Robin/Nightwing Dick Grayson took up the mantle of Batman when Bruce Wayne was thought dead – and while some fans insist that there can only be one Batman, the truth of the matter is that Grayson becoming Batman wasn’t too controversial, since A) It made a certain amount of logical sense that Batman’s ward would take up his mantle. B) As Batman, Dick Grayson could offer a slightly different spin on the hero, but would still honor the core aspects of the character that have defined him for decades (detective skills, aversion to guns, etc…).
That is to say: With Grayson we were still getting the Batman mythos we knew, only in a sightly different way. The same goes for the case of Marvel’s black and white Nick Furys, or Bucky Barnes taking up the Captain America mantle when Steve Rogers was thought dead. They’re essentially the same heroes, only slightly different.
At the end of the day, people love superheroes because there is something attractive about the character and their story: who they are, what they can do, but more importantly what they stand for. No matter how times (or anything else) change, creators always have to stay somewhat aligned with the core mythology of the characters they’re working with if they expect fans to approve.
It’s for this reason that I, personally, have always objected to the idea of Will Smith playing Captain America, but not so much to the idea of Will Smith playing Superman (both of which have been proposed before). The fact is: Having a black actor playing Steve Rogers would invoke an undercurrent of social commentary that would alter the core mythology of the character. You wouldn’t be able to ignore the fact that Steve Rogers was a black man living in the context of segregated America, yet touting the idea of American idealism. There’s too much room for the character to slip into either naiveté or cynicism. Steve Rogers’ character works in part because he is an all-American white guy with an untarnished (no pun) view of his country. His race and subsequent view of society allows him to convey an idealism about America that should be touted – even if we’re still working to make sure that people of all kinds get to share in it.
On the other hand, a minority playing Superman might actually add great dimensions to the character by giving us another level of metaphor for the cornerstone of Superman’s mythology, which is that he is this outsider who comes to identify and sympathize with Earth and its people, imperfect though they are. Without getting too deep, there would be something about a black version of the character that would speak to many people – the new take would open new dimensions of the character and how we relate to him that could be explored. Sure, you’d have to deal with the vile few who would raise an issue about a minority being any kind of “super man,” but then, you have to deal with knuckleheads no matter where you go.
And would changing the character’s race really be that much different than DC’s forthcoming take on a “rebooted” Superman – one who may be more “dark” and “gritty” than the traditional version of the character? How about the updated notion that Superman is a ‘citizen of the world’ rather than the embodiment of ‘truth, justice, and the American way?’ These changes are being made not to race, but to the core essence of the character. So which kind of change is the more controversial?
So long as creators keep the core essence of a character intact, there really should be no reason to ever be close-minded about the idea of changing a popular superhero or comic book character. It’s up to the creators to have good sense about which characters are ripe for such change, and which characters simply aren’t alterable because of their core nature. There is no absolute rule to this – like most true things in life, it depends on the context and variables.
Those are four questions that we would hope get asked by everyone – creators and fans alike – when considering a change to a popular comic book or superhero movie character.
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