Thursday, March 5, 2015

Back to the Race Question


It seems that no matter how many times it comes up, we just cannot reach a final conclusion when it comes to race and comic books (and comic book movies, of course).  Almost without fail, a casting or rumored casting for a role hits the internet and the comments come flying fast and furious.  And when it involves taking a character that's always been white and casting a black actor or actress to fill the role, the reactions are always spirited on both sides.  And the two sides can reliably be counted on to be:

  1. Hey, why not?
  2. This is an outrage!  Why must they change something that's been one way for decades?
The past couple of weeks have seen a few things kick this debate back up.  There has been some wishful speculation on the part of some fans that when they choose the new Spider-Man it will be Miles Morales from the Ultimate Universe.  There was a pretty heated Twitter debate between current Spider-Man comic writer Dan Slott and several people over whether or not it would be ok for Marvel and Sony to keep Peter Parker but racebend the role by casting a black actor.  Slott pretty deftly fended off every justification given for why it was essential to keep Parker white (all of which were variations of option 2 above), but of course no one changed their minds because they were already locked into their opinion.  The lastly there were the comments from actress Michelle Rodriguez that black actors need to stop stealing roles that were meant for white actors in superhero films.  Uhh......yeahhh.......ok, Michelle, whatever you say.  She apologized later but that was more stupid than racist.  That being said, the more vocal viewpoint is that white characters should white regardless of the circumstances under which they were created and that most of them do not have particular traits that lock them in to being white (the obvious examples being Jewish characters like Magneto who was a boy during the Holocaust or Bruce Wayne with his old money blood lineage back to colonial times).

I'm ambivalent on it.  There have been times where I've felt it was no big deal (Laurence Fishburne  playing Perry White in Man of Steel) or even the right choice (Michael Clarke Duncan as Kingpin in Daredevil, because skin color aside he was closer to the size and body type to play the role than anyone else working at the time).  And there are also some instances where it has reeked of stunt casting (Idris Elba playing Heimdall in the Thor movies and Michael B. Jordan in the upcoming Fantastic Four film).  The need for some to change the race of some characters is almost entirely a result of the time period in which most of them were created. As you can see here, the vast majority of the most well known characters were created before 1970; given the way things were in our society during those decades you it doesn't take a PhD to figure out how we ended up with such a monochromatic slate of characters.  It's also not a coincidence that with the 70s and more integration in society that nonwhite characters began to appear in comics.  And in recent years there have been a handful of new characters of color created as well.  None of these characters save Storm of the X-Men have really gained the traction and popularity to become true comic icons, distinguishable from other characters by laypeople.  So when it's time to make movies in 2015 and you have a more diverse audience than you did in 1965 but your major characters were made for a 1965 audience you have a problem. 

Now I've been down this road in earlier posts here.  Other than changing the race when you go to movies or even in the source material itself you have two choices: try to elevate existing characters to a higher level or recognition or create new ones for a new time.  Both have their drawbacks, of course.  The universes in both major companies are pretty crowded to start with and creating more just means less space for ones that exist.  And elevating existing ones can be met with indifference by people who've already decided who they want to pay attention to.  In the case of Spider-Man, you have a legacy character in Peter Parker and a new one in half black, half Hispanic Miles Morales who has developed a decent sized following of his own. The debate over which one to use is sparked both by Miles' popularity, a loathing by most of us to have to endure yet another Peter Parker origin story on film, and the desire by a lot of people to get a Peter Parker Spidey film under the Marvel/Sony banner now that the two companies are working together. I personally wish they would have stuck with the existing continuity and Andrew Garfield instead of starting over again, then brought in Miles later.  But that ship has sailed.  Miles showing up is inevitably on the table, but we're probably going to get Peter first.  And I think you stick to the Peter we're used to.  As a Bat-fanboy I can say that DC would not get any cool points from me if they decided to up and make Bruce Wayne black in some effort to make inroads with black readers so I can see why Spidey fans wouldn't want that either.

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