One of the biggest points of contention in comic book movie casting is race. I mean really, this couldn’t come as a surprise. Race is a major point of contention in everything, so why shouldn’t it affect our popular culture as well? While this argument is usually divided along the line of black or white, the issue at hand is far bigger than two races. It’s an issue than encompasses racial diversity as a whole. At the heart of this controversy is the fact that many people believe that the way comic book characters look in the comics is how they should appear on screen. After all, they’ve earned that privilege by being loyal fans right? Never mind that these characters were created in the mid-20th century where racial minorities were predominately the subject of caricatures or clichés. Never mind that the physique of comic characters is impossible for any human being to match. And never mind someone else’s artistic vision. Peter Parker was created a white boy, and a white boy he shall stay. Even minor details of color and body differences become a source of complaints for fanboys. There are message boards filled with complaints that Christian Bale didn’t die his hair black for the Dark Knight films or that Gal Gadot doesn’t have the right frame to play Wonder Woman. And if some filmmaker dares to alter the race of a character, even a minor one? Well some self-righteous comic nerd out there is going to write out a 500-word promise of hell to pay on whatever forum he or she frequents.
I frequently hear the argument that to change a character’s race is to change their identity. When the enormously talented Michael B. Jordan was perfectly cast as Johnny Storm in the upcoming Fantastic Four, the film drew criticisms that it was ruining the character. A black Johnny Storm with an adopted white sister as Sue Storm? That changes everything, fans cried. And yet, what does it change? Given that no one’s even seen the movie and only have the comics to rely on, the change in race and blood relationship doesn’t change any of the core elements about the characters, and please don’t even try to convince me that they do. The only difference it makes is that it gives an extremely talented black man a chance to play a role he will likely do very well with. But there’s this idea that to give a racial minority a role originally written for a white person is the studio trying to be politically correct, and establish affirmative action among actors. There were even a number of criticisms from the black community complaining about the fact that a black guy being cast as a burning man was racially and historically insensitive. Yet all of these criticisms lose sight of the fact that the actor in question was the best choice for the role, a role that doesn’t hinge off the fact that the character was originally white and has fire powers, but that he’s a charismatic, funny, and reckless hero. If you’ve seen any handful of his movies, it’s easy to see how Michael B. Jordan is the perfect fit for that role. But what happens when the minority actor isn’t the best person for the role?
Hollywood’s history of racism is no secret. Neither is a long-running penchant for making poor casting decisions based largely on financial reasons. White people have been miscast and given roles they aren’t necessarily the best for time and time again. But dare to cast a minority in a role originally depicted as white and questions of their talent as an actor, can’t arise any quicker. These minorities have to be the best, they have to be Brandos, and Nicholsons, and Streeps if they even want to be considered in the running. And if they’re just good? If they’re just ok or bad, even? Hollywood is just trying to draw in the black, Hispanic and Asian audiences, they don’t really care about quality. It’s easy to forget how much white privilege affords when you have the opportunity to see people who look like you depicted on screens time after time, regardless of talent. And what if a minority role is given to a white actor? This argument is used frequently, but it’s not really an argument at all, just a proclamation of ignorance. What if Black Panther or Shang-Chi was played by a white guy? What if Storm was played by a white woman? Never mind the fact that those characters’ race actually does affect their stories (because, as novelities, how could it not?) But why would it be ok to take what few minority comic book roles there are and hand them over to white actors? The rebuttal to seeking diverse representations always seems to come around to the suggestion of taking away what little diversification there is.
The problem isn’t helped by celebrities of the film and comic business adding their own ignorant remarks to mix. Recently in a video posted by TMZ, Michelle Rodriguez said to minorities, “Stop stealing all the white people’s superheroes. Make up your own.” She’s not the first person to make that claim. But anyone who knows comics just a little bit, knows that it’s an industry built on history and legacies. There will never be a new Asian character as popular as Superman. There will never be a new black character as popular as Batman. There will never be a new Hispanic character as popular as Wonder Woman. Even with better stories, better artists, better writers, history sells and has meaning. And heroes and villains of color situated in history who are more than capable of having best-selling heights won’t match that of their white counterparts. The same rules that exist in politics exist in popular culture, and no matter how you spin it, Miles Morales and President Barack Obama will always be seen as interlopers. American comics, as our modern myths, are a reflection of our society’s values and preoccupations. So the problem of race, gender, and sexuality in our comic books speak to the problems that exist within our country.
John Byrne, one of the best comic artists in the business, a man who knows how the comic industry works, ignorantly criticized Samuel L. Jackson portraying Nick Fury as Hollywood laziness. He questions the decision why Marvel Studios didn’t just make Jackson the black character Gabe Jones instead. Who? Exactly. And if you do know who Jones is, then you also know he doesn’t even rank alongside Fury, and never could. But Byrne tries to make the point that Jackson’s Fury doesn’t resemble the one in the mainstream comics. Yet, Keaton didn’t resemble Batman in the comics. Paquin didn’t resemble Rogue in the comics. The list goes on, but because Jackson is black he must be a character with a new name, a new history, in order to preserve our precious comic canon and reverence to the original creators. Names and history matter, Byrne should know this. A man who, surely after seeing the difference in sales between his creator-owned projects, and his work with historical characters at Marvel and DC should realize the marketing value in identification. Yet, Byrne still had the nerve to say,
“Many changes that Hollywood makes are just out of laziness. It’s easier to do it one way, rather than another. Race-swapping falls into this category. Rather than spending some time and effort on creating new Black characters — you know, actually respecting the history and heritage of the Black actors who will play them — just get out the shoe polish and go all Al Jolson on an existing character.”
You can read the rest of his argument here, but no matter which way you spin it folks, it’s still bullshit.
As a kid who idolized heroes that didn’t look like him and was always made to take on the roles of the ones that did during recess, I hope some future movie gives us a Black Superman. I hope some future movie gives us a Hispanic Catwoman, A Native American Wolverine, A Middle-Eastern Captain America, An Indian Iron Man, An Asian Spider-Man. And I hope we don’t have to sacrifice our Black Panthers, our Warpaths, our Cyborgs, and our Ms. Marvels. Because the truth of the matter is, race in comic book casting matters. It matters a whole hell of a lot, just not in the arbitrary way so many seem to think it does.