Another comic book movie, another possible controversy.
Barbara Gordon has been the Batgirl of comics for quite some time. (When she was not busy being Oracle. That is a whole other story. She is established in DC Comics. We can leave it at that for now.) She is one of the smartest characters around. She is capable, a gymnast, a librarian, gutsy, and dedicated to her dad and her city. The third cat I had was named Babs. My teenage crush was on a fictional character.
Up to this point, Barbara Gordon had also been a white and a redhead. It is a bit striking to fans that this is the actress Warner Bros. cast as Batgirl.
I liked In the Heights. The woman is obviously attractive. She is in shape. That blue top is basically superhero spandex. Yet she also has that quiet confidence about her. When the protagonist falls for her, it is easy to understand. And when she is responding to his attraction, she does it in a Barbara-like fashion. She approaches him, defines matters, and offers a plan for further encounters. At first glance, though, she does not look like Barbara Gordon.
How much casting flexibility should be allowed? Ah, the age-old question. Shakespearean actors were all male. Female roles were portrayed by men and audiences packed the stands.
When folks want to win an award, they depict someone who is mentally challenged. Billy Bob Thornton, Edward Norton, Dustin Hoffman, Adrian Brody; they have all taken on the role of someone whose intelligence is different than theirs. In a recent interview with Conan O’Brien (a very different redhead) Sean Penn discussed what opportunities there currently were to take parts that were not specifically set to the actor’s background. He felt that if he was cast as Harvey Milk today, it would cause controversy because Penn himself is not gay.
Nerds in particular tend to get upset over such matters.
-When Battlestar Galactica started up in the 2000s, much was made of Starbuck, a formerly male character, being played by a woman. She turned out to be one of the fan favorites of the show.
-Plenty of people were upset at Rogue One featuring a female lead. (This continues to baffle me. She was not replacing a male character? Why did they care?)
-When casting Daredevil, the crew had a hard time finding an actor that had the proper mass and menacing presence to play the enormous villain, The Kingpin. The choice was made to cast Michael Clarke Duncan, a black man, to play a character who was white. I do not remember what the nerd consensus was, but I thought he did fine. He was the only guy big enough that had the acting chops to match.
-Wonder Woman lore suggests that Themyscira is somewhere close to Greece in ethnicity and locale. Yet, when they cast Gal Gadot and her speech patterns were different, the Amazon women suddenly changed their vocalizations to match hers.
The most glaring set of changes to established characters came with Spider-Man: Homecoming. Every supporting character was changed. Ned was no longer white and had gained weight. Aunt May, one who was always depicted as elderly and grandmotherly was suddenly an attractive older gal that Tony Stark flirted with. Mary Jane underwent a still-confusing name change and was played by someone of a different race. Flash Thomspon was played by an actor from a different race. Flipping through the original comics, one sees a very pasty-white ensemble. Watching the movie, many different races, cultures, and skin tones are depicted.
Then there is Batgirl. She is pretty darned white. Barbara can barely even keep a tan going. (Spending all your time in libraries, Batcaves, and fighting crime all night will do that to a gal.) The casting is interesting. Jim Gordon has always been shown as white. Though the newest Batman movie appears to be changing that as well.
Going back to Penn’s question: who gets to play what roles? Do we force only those that fit the narrowly defined traits of a character to play that person? Tom Cruise was not the intimidating giant that Jack Reacher was supposed to be. Where do we start caring? Oops, Barry Allen is supposed to be blonde. You have black hair. No dice. I do not want to be the guy who goes back and time and tells Hugh Jackman that he cannot play Wolverine because he is almost a foot too tall.
My preference is that characters stay as close to those on the comic page as possible. I like it when I can look at the screen and immediately recognize heroes that I have been following for decades. I understand that all-white is not the way the world is, but it throws me when it feels like ethnicities were changed to appeal to a broader audience. I understand that everyone wants to see themselves on screen, not just myself. Yet, I prefer a direct comic to movie transference.
If folks want to see a certain type of character, they should go ahead an create that character. Miles Morales, one of the Spider-folks, is half Puerto Rican, half black. Sam Wilson is a strong black man. John Ridley, the writer of 12 Years a Slave is currently writing a run of Batman stories where his Batman is black. Companies have tried to create brand new characters, with diverse backgrounds, but unless they can tie them to an established character, they tend to not sell.
The problem with non-whites taking up the mantle of established heroes like Spider-Man and Captain America is that eventually there is going to be a group that demands that the original character, the one they have grown to know and love, return to the mantle that they started. Then what happens to the Morales and Wilsons? Ms. Marvel, currently a middle eastern teenager, is going to share the next Captain Marvel movie with the Carol Danvers white-version. Can we all work together that nicely?
While I have my preferences, what is most important to me is the character. Superman films frustrate me. I do not like Superman as a killer. Lex Luthor should not be a cowering psychotic. The Batmobile should not be firing rounds of bullets into a crowd. Things like that make me shirk the movies. Movie-Thor is much goofier than comic-Thor and I know a fan that cannot come around to the sillier version.
It comes down to this: does the actor portray the heart of the character? I think Zachary Levi has the charm of Shazam, even if he lacks the physicality. Robert Downey, Jr. made the perfect Tony Stark, even though he was a little short. Drax the Destroyer, Gamora, Nebula, Thanos; none of these characters were played by actors with purple blue, or green skin. Bradley Cooper and Vin Diesel did great work. They have never actually been a raccoon or tree-creature.
Fleshing out a character is about more than skin tone. If the acting matches the part, then they should get the job. High school productions and community theatre constantly tweak roles to fit the actors they have available. The best actor gets the gig. Does the actor make me believe in the character? Do they succeed in bringing the character to life and presenting their traits to an audience? Okay. Then it is all yours.
The stories that I love still exist. They sit on my bookshelves. I flip through their pages constantly. Sometimes, to adapt material, one has to blow the dust off of the books. The studios bring a different take. I can reread my books, my versions, whenever I please. No one is stopping me. Maybe the movie version will win me over. Maybe the new version will work out. They could bring in new fans.
I will show up when Batgirl arrives in theaters. When I am in my seat, ready to be entertained, I care much more about seeing a character’s heart than I do about what their race is “supposed to be.”
Update 3:10 p.m. Then, the same day, more super news changed things. Take everything I just said and cut and paste it. Oh comic movies.