Thursday, August 4, 2011

race & the comic book movie

I had originally intended to write this post simply about the interesting history lesson the Howling Commandos of the recent Captain America: The First Avenger could play in discussions of WWII and also to tackle the controversy (or non) of race swap casting illustrated earlier this summer by Idris Elba playing Heimdall in the Thor movie. The counterpoint would have been the dearth of murmurs when Samuel L. Jackson first showed up on screen as Nick Fury. But then came recent announcement that Laurence Fishburne, best known for his portrayal of Morpheus in the Matrix trilogy, has signed on to play Daily Planet editor in chief Perry White in the Zack Snyder directed, Christopher Nolan produced reboot of the Superman franchise. The 2013 film is to be titled Man of Steel. Now we have a non-controversy, a controversy, and an expected hullabaloo.

The interwebs is already predicting a row over the choice to cast Lawrence Fishburne, by all accounts an African American male, in the role of Perry White. White has always been portrayed by white actors since his introduction in the serials of the 1940s and 50s. He was later incorporated into the comics as a white man. There's expected to be backlash similar to one following Idris Elba being cast as Heimdall in this summer's Thor. While most critics and movie-goers alike enjoyed Elba's turn as the god who guards the Bifrost bridge, in some (outright racist) quarters, the casting choice was decried as leftist, communist attacks on the "white race" and America itself. The attacks against Elba echoed the same vile, crude, racist and jingoist outcry when Superman renounced his American citizenship in Action Comics 900.

Here's the strange thing. Getting past the fact that Elba is more than a competent actor, why does it matter what race Heimdall is? Because the Vikings envisioned he looked like them? Because that's how Stan Lee, Larry Lieber, and Jack Kirby decided to depict him in 1962? I guess it doesn't matter than this Heimdall and all the Asgardians aren't actually Norse gods but a race of aliens who just happen to take human shape. Thor: The Mighty Avenger already broke this race ground by depicting Heimdall as a black shapeshifter.

Which takes us to the other major race swap in comic book films. Nick Fury, who has long be portrayed as this white guy in the comics, also went through a race swap in all the Marvel films setting up the Avengers movie (Iron Man, Iron Man 2, Thor, and Captain America) except for the Incredible Hulk reboot (Fury didn't appear) and is slated to reprise his role in the 2012 Avengers movie and in a 2014 Nick Fury film. Perhaps it's because the Ultimates universe, a re-imagined Marvel that's grittier, contemporary, and intersects with topical events and people, cast Nick Fury as a black man back in 2001. By 2002, he was even re-tooled to look like Samuel L. Jackson with the actor's permission.

Is the difference in attitude between a black Nick Fury and a black Heimdall simply because the public had 7 years to adjust to the cultural change on the printed page before he showed up in Iron Man (2008)? Or are certain segments of the population more comfortable attacking Idris Elba than Samuel L. Jackson? Perhaps a shift in American politics is responsible. Not only did we see a major rise in the Tea Party just prior and after the election of Barack Obama, America's first black President, but also a barely contained vitriol against minorities generally. The racial animus would have been too obvious circling back to criticize the Nick Fury swap after the fact but Idris Elba became a new face to attack as the symbol of a creeping leftist (integrationist) agenda.

It's the belief the racial animus has not diminished which leads the interwebs to predict a backlash against Laurence Fishburne stepping into the shoes of Perry White. But I'm eager to see what Morpheus can bring to the role. And while the Matrix may be his most well-known role, Fishburne has legitimate acting chops. He's been nominated for numerous awards for his work on television, film and stage, including a 1994 Best Actor in a Leading Role nod for his performance as Ike Turner in What's Love Got to Do with It? He was amazing as Furious Styles in Boyz n the Hood, single father to Tré Styles (Cuba Gooding, Jr.), and it would be interesting to see Fishburne bring that kind of tough but fair paternalism to the role of the Daily Planet's editor in chief.

It will be interesting to see if black Perry White makes it into the upcoming DC universe reboot. That would be akin to the black Nick Fury showing up in the Marvel's Ultimates universe, not withstanding the Ultimates takes place in a separate universe from the main Earth-616 continuity.[1] DC Comics co-publisher Dan DiDio (with Jim Lee[2]) described the reboot as:
We really want to inject new life in our characters and line... This was a chance to start, not at the beginning, but at a point where our characters are younger and the stories are being told for today's audience.
It sounds to me like the DC publishers have seen the success of the Ultimates imprint and want to copy it for their own universe.[3] Some of the planned character changes are more popular than others. The ginger lesbian Batwoman is popular, mixed feelings about the new Catwoman costume, and absolute, near universal loathing towards the new Harley Quinn costume. I'm not a huge fan of Wonder Woman's new costume but that's besides the point. Changes to her formula have twice the in the past year garnered major outcries. After a controversial costume reboot in 2010 (OMG! she's wearing pants! and a jacket! I will not stand for this!), NBC decided to pull the plug on its Wonder Woman TV series due to a series of costume flubs earlier in the spring without even airing the pilot. Wonder Woman has long been a feminist icon and diva to gay men everywhere. It will be interesting to see what kind of attitude Amazonian princess Diana emerges from Themyscira with in the comics reboot.

But this isn't an article about gender & comic book movies or even that promised discussion of gender & comic books (or anime).[4] But one last brief comment before we get back to race in comic book movies. Why do all the Avengers prequels require a love interest? Actually, it's just Natalie Portman's character in Thor that bothered me. Tony Stark's philandering ways are just part of the character, as is Bruce Banner's undying love for Betty Ross. For Steve Rogers, his attraction to Agent Carter reveals his respectful nature (he's not a complete sexist) growing confidence in himself. It may, if the Avengers movie follows the blueprint of the Ultimates, help illuminate Rogers' sense of being a man out of time. But why Jane Foster?[5] Thor isn't put into the body of Donald Blake. I know that having a love interest is the formula for these movies as well as putting more butts in seats by casting an attractive female lead, but it's also kind of weird. So if, for instance, the astrophysicist who first found the de-powered Thor on Earth wasn't as hot as Natalie Portman, Thor wouldn't have learned his lessons and all of us Midgard denizens would be screwed? Plus, it makes including Darcy Lewis, played by Kat Dennings[6], unnecessarily redundant.

Back to race.

In Captain America, Steve Rogers' rescues members of the US Army 107th and other units from Red Skull's Hydra base in Italy. He choses his Howling Commandos / Invaders squad from among them. He selects Bucky Barnes (American), Montgomery Falsworth (British), Dum Dum Dugan (American but enlisted in British armed forces), Jim Morita (Japanese American), and Gabriel Jones (African American). His team, in other words, is international and multiracial in composition. I admit I was a little disappointed that Nick Fury wasn't amongst the ranks. In the Earth-616 continuity, Fury is a WWII vet still active in the present day thanks to the Infinity Formula that has drastically slowed his aging. Rogers seeing a familiar face after escaping the SHIELD facility in the modern day would have been an interesting twist. It would have been a wink and nod to the Earth-616 continuity in the movie world that draws heavily from the Ultimates universe (including the Samuel L. Jackson Nick Fury). But I suspect Jackson's acting card was probably too full to support such a lengthy appearance in the film.

Dum Dum Dugan gives Morita a questioning look when Cap breaks them out of their Hydra prison. Morita retorts gruffly "I'm from Fresno, pal!" The point being that the Japanese were currently part of the Axis and enemies of the Allied nations. His presence on the Howling Commandos references the role that Japanese Americans, particularly Nisei (born in America), played in the War. Most Japanese in America were rounded up and sent to internment camps for the duration of the War. President George H. W. Bush apologized for the dark episode in American history in 1991. But many Japanese Americans fought for the Americans during WWII in segregated units such as the 442nd Infantry Regiment. It is the most decorated unit of its size and length of service in the entire history of the US armed forces. Ever. They earned 21 Medals of Honor and 9,486 Purple Hearts including the rescue of the "Lost Battalion." They were real American heroes in ever sense of the word at a time when their families were being treated like terror suspects at home. The presence of Morita in Captain America: The First Avenger opens up a dialogue with this often overlooked and forgotten role of Japanese Americans in the so-called "Greatest Generation" of Americans.

Gabriel Jones presents a similar window for discussion on the role of African American soldiers during WWII and prior. African Americans, like their Japanese brethren, served in segregated, single race units. African American army units (including the 2nd Calvary Division, 93rd Infantry Division, 92nd Infantry Division, and 25th Infantry Regiment ) were nicknamed Buffalo Soldiers. African Americans also served in the U.S. Army Air Corps (precursor to the US Air Force) as the Tuskegee Airmen.

Too often WWII dramas gloss over the critical contributions made by members of America's Greatest Generation who were not white. By including diverse faces on the Howling Commandos, Captain America: The First Avenger acknowledges the role of all American soldiers, regardless of color, during the War. And let's be honest. This is a summer blockbuster that lots and lots of children are going to see. It provides a fantastic bridge for parents, guardians, older siblings, grandparents, and even school teachers to talk to kids about contributions made by veterans of all colors and nationalities.

One thing unites these two issues about race in the recent comic book movies: representation. Electing to cast outstanding black actors to play comic book characters traditionally depicted as white (Nick Fury, Heimdall, Perry White) speaks to the higher profile and respected competence of African Americans in modern American culture.[7] A black man can be a general, a powerful god, or even the head of an American daily paper. And we should no longer overlook the important contributions that minority men and women made in the past, not as minorities but as Americans. We need to make sure to represent in our national re-telling of history the contributions of every American - white, black, and yellow.

We should no longer be bound to prevailing attitudes towards race of the 40s, 50s, and 60s when these characters were created. These are our stories, our mythology. It is fundamental that that mythology represent all the American people and not just the faces of some of them if we are to truly survive as one nation.

And I still want to see this Luke Cage movie made. Power Man is one of my favorite characters in Marvel: Ultimate Alliance.

To everyone who wanted me to talk about more subtle racial issues in the movies, how race itself is represented in comic book movies, please feel free to open the topic in the comments section. I'll make it a priority if there's enough interest in the topic. Otherwise, it may remain in the ether just like the female anime tropes article and the discussion of Wonder Woman. Or these anime and movie reviews I've got queued.

Until then, Excelsior!

UPDATE: 5 August 2011

Speaking of race swapping in the Ultimates universe, it looks like Ultimate Peter Parker, aka Ultimate Spider-Man, is dead. The new person to pull on the mantle of the spider is Miles Morales, a half-black half-hispanic teenager instead of lily white like Peter Parker. You can see the face of the new Ultimate Spider-Man here and glimpse his costume redesign here.

The other interesting thing about this story is the way the Daily Mail misread Sara Pichelli's comments (she's the artist) about a day when a black or gay superhero wouldn't be a big deal and ran with the headline "Marvel Comics reveals new Spider Man is black - and he could be gay in the future". If race swapping is controversial, it seems becoming homosexual is still absolutely verboten territory for some.

Nevertheless, it will be interesting to observe the public reaction (fallout?) from the decision to alter such a high profile character such as Spider Man even if it is only in the Ultimates (i.e. not main, alternate) continuity. Previous modifications have been to minor or peripheral characters (Nick Fury, Heimdall, Perry White) but Spider-Man has long been one of Marvel's cash cows along with Wolverine. That was true even during the lean times following the comic market collapse post-glut in the 90s. Why else do you think Spider-Man and the X-Men made it to the big screen first for Marvel? Want more proof? Look at how many incarnations of Spider-Man and X-Men cartoons there have been stretching all the way back into the 1960s.

And if this Spider-Man experiment doesn't work? They'll just resurrect Peter Parker. He wouldn't be the first superhero to come back from the dead. Heck, Jean Grey does it ever year or so. I think it's written in her contract as annual non-vacation time off or something.

[1] Yes, indeed, I did just go that deep into the geek on you.
[2] Jim Lee is one of my favorite comic book artists ever. His run on the Uncanny X-Men and then on the new X-Men series with Chris Claremont in 1991 was at the height of my comic book reading days. He left Marvel in 1992 with 6 other artists to form Image Comics, an experiment in artist owned comic publishing. He founded Wildstorm Productions and birthed WildC.A.T.S., Stormwatch, Deathblow, and Gen13 in a shared universe. Many of these comics had a connection to Team 7 which was a modern-day cynical approach to America creating super-soldiers. Whilce Portacio's Wetworks, also in the Wildstorm universe, explored similar themes but threw the characters into a secret vampire-werewolf war. Lee sold Wildstorm to DC Comics in 1998 and moved over to focus on work as an artist instead of as publisher. His collaboration with writer Jeph Loeb in 2003 spawned the runaway successful Batman story "Hush". Here's a few examples of why I love the man's work: [here] [here] [here] [here] [here] [here] and [here]. Seriously, you can blame my adolescent crush the Kwannon Psylocke directly on this man's pencils.
[3] DC has had a ton of universe reboots including Crisis on Infinite Earths (1985), Zero Hour (1994), and Infinite Crisis (2005) / 52 (2006). You can read about them here.
[4] Sorry, dear readers.
[5] As it stands, the only confirmed Avenger without romantic entanglements in the movie universe is Hawkeye, aka Clint Barton. And that's probably because he's only had about 30 seconds of screen time in another guy's (Thor) movie so far. There's sexual tension between Black Widow (Scarlett Johannson) and Tony Stark as last seen in Iron Man 2 where she appeared. Nick Fury doesn't have an introduced love interest yet but he's more of the guy behind the scenes getting people together rather than an Avenger per se.
[6] Yum.
[7] No, I don't think America is "post-racial" just because we've elected a black president. The fact that we have to make such a big deal out of that simple fact should be proof enough that race is still an issue in America. But I definitely believe the Civil Rights movement and continuing efforts since then have pushed towards equality. We are still far from achieving it.

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