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?
2. Do Changing Times Warrant a Change in Character?
Character's get "modernized" all the time, so why is it such a big issue when that process involves updating race or culture?
People keep reiterating that many of the comic book characters we know and love - created by visionaries like Stan Lee, Steve Ditko, Jack Kirby, Bob Kane, Joe Shuster and Jerry Siegel - were created in a time where social context limited what a comic character could be in terms of race, culture, or religion. As products of that cultural context, the creators themselves were lacking our modern (and still imperfect) views on what a character could or should be, as well as a character's potential appeal to a diverse audience. However, take the wonderful imaginations of the godfathers of superheroes and place them in a modern context - in a world far more interconnected and diverse than decades past - and the question of whether the world's most famous superheroes would still be predominately white males quickly becomes an uncertain one.
More to the point: adhering to a character design created in an antiquated social context is kind of like saying you don't want the segregation policy of your local diner to change, because you're familiar and comfortable with the crowd there. No, it does not make you a racist, necessarily - but it is a somewhat close-minded stance to take, if only because refusing to explore new possibilities is always a close-minded stance to take.
In the context of modern Queens, NY a character with Peter Parker's background and story is just as likely to be black or latino as he is white. In the context of most metropolitan newspapers, Perry White has just as much chance of being a hard-nosed Editor who is black, as he does one who is white. Hell, even if the new Ultimate universe Spider-Man were still white, a modern kid from Queens would bear little-to-no resemblance to the classic Lee/Ditko version of Peter Parker - a problem facing the upcoming franchise reboot The Amazing Spider-Man, which has already stoked fan ire for its contemporary take on Peter Parker.
Times change, the world changes, and if you haven't noticed, comic book characters don't quite age like the rest of us. It's why they sometimes lose relevancy: superheroes don't always change with the times, and as a result, find themselves at odds with them. It's also why comic book publishers constantly "update" or "modernize" their universes: in order to stay relevant to changing times. Sometimes that requires a new costume, or a new attitude, or even a new character - perhaps of a different race or gender - inhabiting an iconic mantle.
DC and Marvel both have created entire new dimensions and/or realities to keep their characters fresh - when you really think about it, changing race is small potatoes.
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.
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.
Will Smith as Cap = NO, Will Smith as Supes = Eh, maybe...
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.
Do you have an opinion to share on this often-volatile topic? If so, leave it in the comment section below. BUT BE WARNED: If you can't express yourself in a thoughtful, appropriate way, your comment will be banned.