June 14, 2016
A few months ago, I was speaking to a friend about current and upcoming superhero films when we got to the topic of the recent reboot of the Fantastic Four series. While the movie has it’s own issues, I brought up that I appreciated that they had made the choice of casting an African-American actor to play Johnny Storm a.k.a. The Human Torch because “it was interesting”. Her response?
“Yeah, but they keep doing this– this thing of changing the character’s race. I don’t understand it.”
I paused for a moment, expecting my brain to be able to form a proper reply, but I couldn’t. At the time, I’ll admit, I freaked out a little. Was the statement prejudiced somehow? Maybe even…racist? I couldn’t stop thinking about it. I didn’t have the right answer. And then, just a few days ago, Marvel released news that Peter Parker’s best friend in the upcoming Spiderman: Homecoming film would be 14-year-old New York actor Michael Barbieri. Sounds innocent enough, right?
Except Barbieri has been cast as Ganke Lee, a heavy-set, Korean-American character, and Barbieri is about as far from that description as you can get.
Ignoring the fact that Lee isn’t even Parker’s best friend but that of Miles Morales – the half-black, half-Hispanic teen who takes on the role of Spider-Man in another series – this problem of what’s come to be known as “white-washing” has been carrying on for quite some time now. You’ve probably already seen the controversy surrounding Tilda Swinton’s role in the upcoming Doctor Strange film, and if you haven’t, well, the film’s chosen to re-write the character of the ‘Ancient One’ from one of Tibetan origin to that of a Celtic mystic. While this seems pretty innocent, the problem here is that the film’s current cast has raised a few eyebrows (and more than enough voices) about the lack of diversity and representation. Based on what we know so far, anyway.
There’s nothing wrong with having White characters or White superheroes or being White, but there shouldn’t be a problem with there being Asian characters or Black superheroes or being Hispanic, and so on, either. Racial and ethnic minorities constantly have to re-evaluate and somehow accommodate to the practices and/or values of the majority, and it’s easy for their voices to be lost. “Representation” has become such a buzzword in recent years simply because more people have access to social media and TV/movies now more than ever, and they see a problem with the content. Is it any wonder Fantastic Four only got flack for being a bad movie than as opposed to its casting choices?
In retrospect, my friend probably felt that “changing a character’s race” was insulting to the “canon” universe – that is, what has been deemed the original or what is “true”. Maybe she felt it was disrespectful and, as evident from her tone, unnecessary. But maybe she isn’t totally wrong. We don’t have to change a character’s race for the sake of representation. There are already a number of superheroes in the canon who aren’t White, and they all have a story to tell. Heck, there’s even a Singaporean superhero (thanks, DC!). These characters are our representatives, so far, and we should keep an eye out for them as best as we can.
But when it comes to cinematic universes, studios run the risk of opening up a whole other can of worms. What happened with Michael B. Jordan as Johnny Storm could be seen as a move to “diversify” the character – there’s technically nothing a fictitious character can or cannot do, canon universes aren’t legislative bodies or something – but we also run the risk of losing out on characters whose origins could be much richer in their complexity due to their varied backgrounds. And original characters at that. Continuously re-casting actors of various ethnicities for one role seems pretty interesting at first, but could ultimately be considered lazy after some time.
White actors have been given so many options when it comes to superheroes: the patriotic soldier, the brilliant scientist with a troubled background, a Norse god, an anti-hero who breaks the fourth wall, etc. So what about the rest of us? To quote Batman from The Dark Knight (2012): “Anybody can be a hero”.
Maybe it’s time we started living that out.
Featured Image: Doctor Strange Teaser Trailer, YouTube