Today on The Colbert Report, Marvel head honcho Joe Quesada revealed that Marvel is not finished with the shake up of their superhero lineup. A few days ago, the news broke that the mantle of Thor is going to be taken up by a woman going forward.
Well now, it has been announced, that (at least for the foreseeable future) Captain America is going to be black. The character formerly known as the Falcon will be donning the stars and stripes jumpsuit with the original, Steve Rogers, losing his powers and retiring.
This also follows on the heels of DC Comics "New 52" company wide reboot of all major superhero stories, where they revealed that going forward Alan Scott (The Green Lantern) would be portrayed as an openly gay man.
Now, predictably comic book fans are a bit mixed in their reactions. While a lot of geeks want to pretend to be progressive, that usually only applies until it's a property they like that is effected. It's certainly been an interesting conversation to sit in on, some in support and some in opposition. I'm gonna just go ahead and say that what I'm about to write, will likely be taken as a shot across the bespectacled noses of narrow minded comic book geeks everywhere. And I make no apologies for that. Many take the stories and presentation of these characters they love as sacrosanct and I'm just not like that. Hopefully, by the end of this piece, they will at least understand why I feel the way I do, even if they don't agree with it.
Now, I should mention that changing the cultural and gender backgrounds of characters is not a new thing. Similar conversations were going on when Wilson Fisk aka The Kingpin was played by the late Michael Clarke Duncan in Daredevil. Earlier this year it was announced that Michael B. Jordan would be taking over the role of The Human Torch in an upcoming Fantastic Four reboot. Man of Steel recast Jimmy Olsen as Jane Olsen. So playing around with gender, racial and sexual orientations of certain characters is not unheard of. The main difference we are now seeing is that it's not just supporting side characters or villains who are being re imagined. DC and Marvel comics are walking the walk by changing these iconic, central characters.
Not only are these companies making these monumental changes, but they are also doing so right at the source material. Marvel has made clear, there is no "alternate universe" tom-f**kery going on here. Thor will be a woman from this point on. Captain America will be black going forward. Over at DC, Green Lantern came out as the first openly gay A-list superhero (I say openly gay because come on Batman, you're not fooling anybody).
Now, there are a couple of common refrains you'll hear in opposition to changing these characters.
"Why don't they just create new female or black characters?" is the most common one. I'm really resisting the urge to reduce this down to "Please don't take away our white men." This isn't about the characters, this is about positive empowerment and what those characters represent.
The whole conceit of Thor is "only one who is worthy of the mantle of Thor will be able to lift the hammer". It's symbolic of not just physical strength but strength of character. Young boys have a lot of heroes to choose from, but passing the character of Thor to a woman is a huge statement. Marvel could have easily created a "Thorina" Minnie Mouse variation and kept the original, but the power of that move would have been lost.
I want young girls to have a wider selection of female role models than Disney Princesses or heroes in skintight fetish wear (with all due respect to Wonder Woman and Catwoman). I want my nieces to know that someday they can be worthy to pick up that hammer, that they can be the hero of their own story, not serving to tell the story of the men around them.
In a similar case, we live in a time where the President of the United States is black, so a respected and beloved black hero stepping into the Captain America character is similarly huge on a symbolic level. Now, I can understand that with the changing racial and cultural mix that is becoming the modern America, it may be a little difficult for some of the Caucasian persuasion to face that there is now a wider cultural palette to draw from.
Why does it matter? The most common cause of death among young black men is homicide. That is why this change matters. Role models are extremely important. While young black kids might not be able to actually grow up to be Captain America, they now know that in a fictional sense it is possible. The same way that until 2008, young black men could not conceive of becoming President. I can imagine it would be hard for white comic book readers to fully grasp the implications of that, because it likely never occurred to them, that it wouldn't be a possibility. I never grew up thinking that being Prime Minister would not be an option for me some day. Captain America no longer being a blond haired, blue eyed, white dude (even if it's only temporary) is important on a symbolic level.
When DC announced that their company wide reboot would re-imagine the Green Lantern as a gay man it caused the usual conservative backlash. To their credit, DC stuck to their guns and created a character who is more than the usual swishy stereotype than we're used to. The Alan Scott Green Lantern is gay, but not defined by his gayness. Artist Nicola Scott (who was tasked with designing the look of him for the reboot) said of him: "Alan strikes me as an incredibly open, honest and warm man, a natural leader and absolutely the right choice to be Guardian of the Earth. His sexuality is incidental. Every time I draw him I love him even more."
This is important for two reasons. One being that this is not a case of a character taking over a previously established persona as in the two examples above. From this moment on the Green Lantern is gay...considering his power comes from jewelry it's not completely surprising. (Ok, I allowed myself one joke.) The second reason is that the sexuality of the character, while great for discussions like this, plays no role in his effectiveness as a hero.
I feel that this change in iconic comic book characters should just be the beginning of a paradigm shift in regards to how we treat our modern day mythology. Whether or not it will be is totally up for debate. (Comic book fans are notoriously conservative in their resistance to change. How long the new characters will last is hard to say.)
If these pop cultural characters are truly iconic, they will survive whatever you want to do with them. There's a reason that you can take pretty much any Shakespeare play and transpose it to any time and groups of people and it will work with minimal change needed. Kenneth Branagh was famously colourblind when it came to casting his films, putting Denzel Washington in Much Ado About Nothing and Idris Elba in Thor. I would to see more of that mixing going on.
I want to live in a world where we have a black James Bond, a hispanic lesbian Sherlock Holmes and a gay British Batman with an American butler. We've become so accustomed to only painting in one colour, that we've forgotten how much a new perspective can bring to make the characters even richer.
The greatest thing to happen to Sherlock Holmes was public domain. That allowed anyone who wanted to tell a Holmes story to put their own spin on it. Before the BBC's take on Sherlock, I didn't think Holmes would work in the modern day. Now I'm certain, if you do it right, you can make Sherlock a Martian on another planet and it would still work.
When I heard that Idris Elba was being considered to succeed Daniel Craig as Bond, I was over the moon. I'm a big time proponent of the "Codename" theory anyway, so it would make sense. (The "Codename" Theory postulates that James Bond does not actually exist and is a codename passed down from agent to agent in order to build up James Bonds reputation as an invincible, unstoppable force against evil.) It's exactly the shakeup that character needs to add more depth.
And what about the biggest American icon, Superman? (Although, given the make-up of his creators, he is half Canadian.) Superman was created by Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, two young Jewish lads who created Superman as an outcast from another planet who assimilates into American culture. This symbol that was created as a response against Nazi-ism also became the ultimate immigrant story.
In one week's time, Hercules will be played by "The Rock" Dwayne Johnson and it'll work just fine. If we're willing to buy a man who is half black and half samoan playing a Greek hero, we can certainly have a female Thor, a black Captain America, and a gay Green Lantern. If it pisses off small minded and insecure people, that's just icing on the cake as far as I'm concerned.
Now, I'm not expecting all of these character shifts to actually happen, nor for them to be permanent. Comics are ever changing and often comic writers have a way of ending up right back where they started. Many of them are just musings from an overactive imagination.
What I'm getting at is that these characters grow beyond the frame of reference the creators used to create them. They become successful because they tap into universal stories we respond to. New perspectives give the stories new dimensions, which in turn become part of the foundation (ie - Sherlock Holmes never said "Elementary, my dear Watson" or wore the deerstalker cap in the stories, those were added later). The stories and characters are timeless, but they are also infinitely adaptable. They can be used to address modern issues and that is their ultimate power.
The day will come when our modern heroes will join the likes of Sherlock Holmes, Odysseus, Edmond Dantes, the Three Musketeers, Macbeth, Hamlet, Othello, Hercules, Perseus, Dracula and Frankenstein's Monster in perpetual reinvention.
Until then, I salute the current stewards of these properties for committing to progress and diversity. We all need heroes.
What do you think about the changes being made by Marvel and DC? What do you think about changing other iconic characters? Would you like to see a Hispanic lesbian Sherlock Holmes? I'll start on the script right now.
Let me know in the comments.
Hi, my name is Mitch and I write things sometimes.