EDITORIAL: Why Race Changes Shouldn't Matter In Comic Book Adaptations
"The Human Torch can't be black!" "Electro isn't black!" "He's called Perry White for a reason!"
One of the most common complaints I see about about recent and upcoming comic book movies is when a character who is one race in the comics is portrayed by an actor of another race on the big screen. I think these complaints are ridiculous, and here's why.
One of the most common complaints I see about about recent and upcoming comic book movies like Man of Steel, The Fantastic Four reboot, and The Amazing Spider-Man 2 is when a character who is one race in the comics is portrayed by an actor of another race on the big screen. I think these complaints are ridiculous, and here's why.
1. Race doesn't define most comic book characters
One of the more common arguments I see is that a character is completely changed when an actor of a different race portrays said character. These same arguments typically include something along the lines of, "Well, how would you like Black Panther to be played by a white guy?!" To this, I say, "I wouldn't," and that's because Black Panther's race is an integral part of his origin. Can the same argument be used for many other characters? How about Spider-Man? No, a smart teenager living with his aunt and uncle could feasibly be anyone. What about the Human Torch? No, a person of any race could easily get cocky and bask in their celebrity status once they get super powers. What about Perry White? No, Perry White is the editor of a magazine who loves getting a good story before the competition - there's no reason a black man can't portray that. It might be slightly less feasible for characters like Bruce Wayne and Tony Stark to be black because their families have owned their businesses for generations, but their origin stories could be tweaked just a little (ie. they could start their companies themselves and be self-made) and the issue of race flies right out the window. Characters who are defined by their race are the exception, not the rule.
2. Talent, ability, and popularity are more important
When I was following the development of Batman Begins, I was happy to hear that Liam Neeson was cast. Despite Ra's al Ghul having Arabic origins, barely anyone seemed to care that he was being portrayed by Irish-born American. Could it be because he's an experienced, award-winning, Oscar-nominated actor with plenty of financial successes (and a few flops, but nobody is perfect) under his belt? Hey, you know who else matches that exact career description (aside from the Oscar part, because he's been nominated and won)? This guy:
Both Jamie Foxx and Liam Neeson are talented and popular actors, and yet Foxx is getting far more backlash for portraying Electro than Neeson ever did for portraying Ra's al Ghul. It's fine if people don't like Foxx as an actor, but criticism of his casting should be down to how he delivers his lines and not based on the color of his skin.
The same applies to Laurence Fishburne's portrayal of Perry White. First of all, it's not like Fishburne is completely different - he's somewhat old, heavy, and has greying hair, much like White. But is there anything about Fishburne's performance that stops him from convincingly playing the editor-in-chief of the Daily Planet? As far as I saw in Man of Steel, there wasn't. Not to mention that Fishburne has, like Neeson and Foxx, awards of his own. He may not be a huge movie star these days, but if Man of Steel's producers were looking for a fairly well-known actor to fill a secondary character's shoes, Fishburne was as good a choice as any.
3. Other (more important) changes have been done
Christopher Nolan's Dark Knight series is one of the most popular and successful series of comic book adaptations to date, and yet it makes drastic changes to the origins and presentations of certain characters. Heath Ledger's Joker is far different from how the Joker is portrayed in comics and especially the cartoons, but people loved him (for a good reason). Arrow has similarly different portrayals and origin stories for its characters, and it has been well-received by many comic book fans. And, even though Iron Man 3's Mandarin is very controversial, the film's box office success and critical reception suggest that it's not a deal breaker for the general audience. So, if all of these different portrayals are acceptable (excluding the Mandarin for some), why is a change as tiny as race so important? Does anyone still complain that Hugh Jackman is too tall to be Wolverine?
That brings me to my last point.
4. Not everyone has to look exactly like the original character to be great
My favorite thing about comic book movies in general is that they almost all have one actor who does a wonderful job with a character. Sometimes an actor will give an old character a new twist, like Heath Ledger did for the Joker. In some cases, an actor will seem like they jumped right out of a comic book, like J.K. Simmons as J. Jonah Jameson, Ron Perlman as Hellboy, or even John Leguizamo as Violator in that lousy Spawn movie. But people need to accept that great actors don't always have the perfect physical characteristics to match the character. So what if Hugh Jackman is a taller than Wolverine? No rational person will argue that his height hurts his ability to play a convincing Wolverine. Race is the same way - if an actor is good enough, why does race matter? Comic book characters are drawn, not born, and that's why it will be impossible for every single on-screen character to be exactly the same.
At the very least, it would be great if people would wait to see movies before condemning casting choices.
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