One would think that lovers of comic books and superheroes would be open to the idea of diversity. After all, if you’re open to the idea of mutants, super-powered aliens, genetically-altered humans, mythological figures, and intergalactic cops wielding power rings, one would think that race wouldn’t be all that big of a deal.
However, as times change, and the face of comic books and the superheroes chronicled therein change with these diverse times, it seems there is a still a serious debate raging between those who label themselves “traditionalists,” resistant to the idea of certain changes being made to superheroes, and those who stand ready to embrace the new opportunities of superheroes re-imagined for modern times. Of course, as always, there are also those standing patiently in the middle ground, holding off on taking sides until they see how the creators actually handle these new spins on familiar icons.
If you’re not familiar with the issue, we’re talking primarily (but not exclusively) about race/ethnicity and how it relates to the creative liberties that are being taken with certain comic book characters, or characters featured in comic book movies. In the last year alone, there have been issues with the casting of Idris Elba as a Norse God in Thor; the social media fight that erupted when Community actor Donald Glover claimed he wanted to portray a black version of Spider-Man; the casting of Laurence Fishburne as the traditionally-white Perry White in the Superman reboot, Man of Steel; and maybe biggest of all, the decision by Marvel Comics change Spider-Man into a half-black/half-latino character in their upcoming reboot of the Ultimate Spider-Man comic book.
I’ll let the Interwebs continue to argue over each of these individual topics – but having paid attention to most of the discourse that has taken place over the issue of character changes in comic books and superhero movies, I do have a perspective to share:
Like anything else, there are rules to this kind of thing. As is the reality of so much in life, these rules are subjective, and malleable, and change with the context of the situations to which they are being applied. They are not rigid, and do not allow for the ease of absolutism (that corrupt mindstate of The Sith). And, just like our infamous post on the rules for movie remakes and reboots, I will now lay down some guidelines for changing a comic book character or icon.
1. What is Essential To The Character?
This is the first question that should always, always, be asked. Is Peter Parker’s race essential to his character? Let’s see: A bright but wimpy kid from Queens, NY who has a broken family structure (no parents), and is considered an outsider, gets bitten by a radioactive spider and at first uses the power as a cash hustle. His uncle dies violently as a result of the kid’s indifference about right and wrong, making the kid want to clean up the streets and be a force for good.
Are we really saying that this story, in modern times, can’t be about a minority character?
The usual counter-argument you get here is that other races would feel snubbed if their iconic characters were suddenly “race-switched.” One person commenting on the Fishburne/Perry White casting claimed that blacks would be upset if, say, Shaft or Apollo Creed were both re-cast as white characters in modern remakes of Shaft or Rocky – the same way Perry White or The Kingpin were recast as black men in Man of Steel and Daredevil, respectively. I don’t know if that was an intentional easy pitch – but hey, I’m happy to swing at it:
Shaft is a character who is predominately defined by his race. The themes of the character have to do with the fact that he is a black man looking out for his people and community (hence the Shaft theme song). Apollo Creed is much the same – the whole point of that character was that little Italian Rocky was taking on a big black bruiser like Apollo – race had a lot to do with the undercurrent themes of that character. The Kingpin and Perry White, by contrast, are in no way, shape, or form, defined by their race – they are both defined by their attitudes and behaviors. They could conceivably be played by anyone, of any nationality, so long as the themes and natures of the characters didn’t change.
I’d be more worried if Perry White were portrayed as a sensitive mother-hen type in the next Superman movie. Even if the actor was white, an Emo Perry White would dishonor the essential “character” of the character. So long as Fishburne plays Perry White as a gruff father-figure type, his skin color shouldn’t matter. Same goes for Michael Clarke Duncan playing the Kingpin – if he portrays the character as big, smart, and ruthless, he’s pretty much The Kingpin.
To be fair, Idris Elba playing Heimdall in Thor is a much more sensible objection, given that the character is based on a figure of Norse mythology (which tends to be filled with pretty much fair-skinned individuals). Still, it was Marvel that re-constituted Thor and his Asgardian brethren as aliens from another realm who were mistaken as gods by primitive Earthlings; but even then, when you think about it, Norse people painting a black man in their myth books would’ve warranted some serious scientific study.
Ultimately though, many people walked away from Thor with nothing but praise for the nobility and stature Elba brought to Heimdall – even if the casting was pushing the line of diversity quotas a bit too far. The actor picked for the part had the chops to make the part memorable – so nothing was really lost, only gained. The filmmakers pushed the line, yes, but stayed on the right side of it in the end. If anything, they expanded the noble essence of Heimdall in ways the comics haven’t been able to achieve: how many more people like the character now that he’s connected with Elba?