Saturday, February 21, 2015

Editorial: Heimdall, Nick Fury, and Johnny Storm: Back in Black

Comics books, like many other Western forms of entertainment, were made largely by white men for white men. As such, there is a growing tendency to give established characters "race lifts" to add a little diversity when adapting a comic into film. Unfortunately, this commits one of the most heinous sins in the eyes of many fans...

Changing something.

Many accuse this practice of demeaning characters' identities, and some would argue that this is just tokenism, while others argue that minorities need more representation in the media, and the whole thing eventually degrades into the usual badly-spelled internet arguments.

I'm not here to discuss the practice in general. I'm here to look at three specific examples from recent times and see why they happened, general reaction, and if they worked to the benefit or detriment of the character. Let's begin.

Heimdall
When it came time to adapt Thor's comics to the big screen, Heimdall was more of a blank slate compared to other characters. Mostly because his claim to fame was staying in one place and watching stuff. So they decided to give the character a demeanor that stated "He watches everything. If he doesn't like what he sees, then run." as well as the wisdom that comes from looking at countless worlds for hundreds of years. For the kicker, they cast Idris Elba in the role, raising some hackles.

The director of Thor, Kenneth Branaugh, had this to say:
"If you have a chance to have a great actor in the part, everything else is irrelevant. "

And that's a good argument.

"Why would Norse gods be black?" was the most common rebuttal.

An excellent point, and one that the movie itself subtly answers. They're not Norse gods. They're basically aliens; extra-dimensional beings that the Norse decided to worship as gods. And if there are not only black Vulcans on Star Trek, but, lest we forget, black humans, then why not black Asgardians? On top of that, Idris Elba gives a mighty fine performance with the material he's given, turning a minor role into what probably would have been the breakout character, if not for Tom Hiddleston as Loki.

I mean, just look at this guy. And the character is just as cool as he looks.
And there's precedent for multiple races of Asgardians in the comics, too. Hogun of the Warriors Three started off as a barbarian based on the very-white Charles Bronson before slowly gaining vaguely Asian features over the years.

All in all, making Heimdall black was a change that was complemented by the superb casting.

Nick Fury
In the comics, Nick Fury is white. But that only holds true for the main Marvel Universe.

In 2002, Mark Millar gave us his alternate-universe tale The Ultimates. There were some... changes to the characters. The Avengers became a government-sponsored military superhero team, Captain America was more militaristic, Tony Stark continually drank to dull the pain of a brain tumor, the Wasp was an Asian mutant, Giant-Man was a wife beater (as opposed to a single accidental slap in the main universe), and Nick Fury was black. In fact, he had been intentionally designed to look like Samuel L. Jackson.

Now, making comic characters look like people has been done since the beginning. Shazam (formerly Captain Marvel) was designed to look like Fred MacMurray, an old-timey actor you kids have never heard of. Marvel made a deal with Jackson to get permission to use his likeness on a couple conditions. Not only did Jackson get some original artwork, he became choice number one for a live-action Nick Fury, whenever that happened.

And happen it did.
And since the MCU Nick Fury is basically the same as the Ultimate one, Samuel L. Jackson's Nick Fury is a nearly-completely faithful adaptation of a popular reimagining of an established character.

Johnny Storm, the Human Torch
Now, this movie hasn't come out as of the time of this post, so please take the following with a grain of salt. Let us forget about the teaser trailer. Let us forget that the Fantastic Four are teenagers in the upcoming film. (Like the reason Nick Fury's black, that has to do with the "Ultimate Universe" of comics.) Let's also forget about the leaked supposed plot synopsis and focus simply on the choice to cast a black actor in the role. Let us look at this choice with an open mind and as little preconceived notions and/or baseless speculation as possible.

Time to tread carefully.
The problem issue thing I'm going to talk about is that while Johnny Storm and Dr. Storm are now black, Johnny's sister Susan is played by the very white Kate Mara. Immediately, this changes the family dynamic because Susan is now apparently adopted. While adopted siblings can be just as close as biological ones, it could be very easy for the film to not have the usual "blood is thicker than water" vibe between the two for... whatever reasons. (I'd be less vague, but I promised myself I wouldn't talk about the leaked synopsis that may or may not be accurate where Susan doesn't relate to her adopted family very well.)

Sorry, let's not get into pre-film speculation and stick to the facts.

Johnny Storm. Michael B. Jordan.

Of all actors, why Michael B. Jordan? It could simply be that Michael B. Jordan gave an amazing audition and fits with this reimagining very well, in the same way Heimdall did for Thor. Or it could simply be that the filmmakers just want to ram some diversity into the film. It could also just be nepotism, seeing as how the director had previously worked with Jordan to make Chronicle.

Let's try not to point fingers. Like I said, this movie hasn't come out yet. So instead of fruitlessly predicting how the movie will pan out, I'm going to go over the three obstacles that Johnny Storm's race lift presents.

Possible Problem 1
Race isn't a personality trait in and of itself. If the character is poorly written, than a race lift isn't going to fix that. If the Fantastic Four's "personalities" end up being "the geek," "the athlete," "the chick," and "the black dude," then there's going to be more than a few issues even when you disregard the issue of race.

Possible Problem 2
On the flip side, race isn't a non-issue either. Whether you're black, white, or green, your race is a part of who you are. Treating it like something unimportant that can be switched out on the writer's whims seems a tad disrespectful.

Possible Problems 1 and 2 are very difficult to both solve.

Possible Problem 3
The Storms' race lift seems to be indicative of an abandonment of the canon. The actors are being specifically advised to not read the source material, and some of the ideas being leaked seem to be leftovers from Chronicle, the director's previous work. This could easily end up being the loosest Marvel adaptation since the Generation X series that changed almost everything except the use of the word "Mutant." Of course, if the trailer's any indication, then this film will be based on a different continuity than the standard one... But like I said, take it with a grain of salt. Fant4stic has yet to be released. And I'm getting way off topic.

The race lift of Johnny Storm is certainly the most questionable one of the three at this time (like I said, hasn't been released, blah blah blah), but it doesn't automatically equate with awfulness, either.

All in all, race lifts aren't inherently bad. It all depends on whether you change a character's race as part of the plan for creating a fleshed-out character, or if you say "Make him a black guy!" and call it a day.

16 comments:

  1. I don't mind the characters race being changed the actors good. Its easier to do with smaller role such as Heimdall and Liz Allen from Spectacular Spider, or Artemis, Greg Weisman seems rather fond of this, However it can also backfire if you get the races completely off like the horrible live action Last Air-bender.

    Also there were probably a few black vikings due to extensive trade and travel, the Roman legions often recruited from Africa so contact between vikings and Africans would happen occasionally. also Some Native Americans/Canadians due to the early viking settlements in Newfoundland

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    1. Fine points all around.

      One of the specific points I saw arguing for white Norse gods in Thor was that a black god wouldn't match up to classical artwork of the very people who actually worshipped them. This argument ignores the fact that Thor is a redhead in the myths.

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  2. There's one more you can throw in here: Supergirl's Jimmy Olsen is apparently going to be black. Thing is, the Daily Planet doesn't feature at all (Kara and Jimmy work for the Cat Café Chronicle or somesuch), which begs the question: Why, other than laziness, is this guy called Jimmy Olsen? Metropolis surely has more than one photographer (plus, gingers are a minority too... :p)

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    1. Because DC has been pulling race lifts like there's no tomorrow. Perry White in Man of Steel, Morgan Edge in the Superman comics, most of the Earth-2 characters, Dick Grayson's part Romani now, Kyle Rayner's Hispanic along with Weather Wizard....

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    2. I think he's been part romani for a long time already

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  3. Great editorial.

    Frankly, I doubt that the upcoming reboot is gonna be any good anyway.

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    1. When all is said and done, it looks like Fant4stic will have bigger differences from the source material than just a black Human Torch.

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    2. Honestly, my biggest problem with that casting is the big possibility of nepotism, not that he's black (thought, would it have been much trouble to cast a black Sue?)

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    3. Yes. Because apparently, SOMEBODY doesn't want Reed Richards to get with a black girl.

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    4. The last guys were OK with Ben being with a black girl... Is it because he's jewish?

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    5. More likely that Sue's a main character and Alicia isn't.

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    6. Yeah, I was just kidding, though can you imagine what would have happened if they made Ben black?

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    7. Actually, I think people would have less of a problem with that. Just because it would limit the change to a single character and not alter the dynamics of an entire family of characters.

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    8. I meant more on the SJW!Tumblr side, because then you would be making the stone monster character black

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    9. Oh, they'll probably take solace in complaining that the only black hero in the film has the power of self-immolation.

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    10. Eh, you can't win with those types, you saw what happened to Joss Whedon

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