Culture

Can Superhero Movies Be Reduced to a Racial Numbers Game?

With the huge success of Marvel Studios, superheroes have entered the public consciousness like never before. But the film producer’s success has become a double-edged sword: its entertainment value to millions of people worldwide has drawn to it the unwanted attention of racial bean counters who have called for different colored faces under the masks.

But how is that to be accomplished? In their call to diversify representation in movies along racial lines, promoters comb each new release, counting heads, and claim there are not enough faces of color in the casts. Something has to be done, they say, raising the specter of white privilege and subtle racist attitudes that only the most arcane of arithmetical equations can balance.

In an attempt to satisfy its critics, the film industry has taken steps to right the imbalance. Superhero movies and television shows have done their share but mostly by changing the skin color of existing characters rather than inventing new ones.

On TV, Iris West in the new Flash television show was switched from white to African-American, as was Deathlok on Agents of SHIELD and Pete Ross in Smallville.

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The practice has been followed on the big screen as well with The Thing’s girlfriend Alicia Masters switching colors in the first Fantastic Four film, Heimdall going from Nordic to African in Thor, Electro in Spider-Man, and Perry White in Superman. More high profile switches included the Kingpin in Daredevil and Nick Fury in any number of Marvel Studios films.

Sometimes such switches have been done in the opposite direction, such as when the Mandarin went from Chinese to European in Iron Man 3.

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The most high-profile racial switch so far is expected to be the Human Torch, who will go from white to black in the upcoming Fantastic Four reboot.

Although these moves have angered many in the fan community for their sheer arbitrariness if not their insulting nature insinuating as they do that viewers aren’t color blind but still see everything in terms of skin color, they don’t seem to be enough for advocates of diversity who claim that the default color for superheroes is white.

Lamenting the fact that all major superheroes are of the same pale pigmentation, these critics actually make the argument that because racism was the norm in the decades when superheroes were being invented, creators did not dare make their characters any other ethnicity but white European. But now that things have changed, the skin color of those characters can be changed as their creators would have done if there were no racism back in the 1940s or 1960s!

Such is the kind of twisted logic being made about the recent news of the casting of Benedict Cumberbatch in the role of Dr. Strange in the upcoming Marvel Studios film. There, critics, frustrated that all of Marvel’s major film heroes have been white, are demanding that traditionally white characters have their skin pigmentation changed in the name of diversity and inclusion.

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Longtime fans of these characters who want to see their favorite heroes on screen the way they have been seeing them in the comics for decades have been justifiably angry at the suggestion and insulted that anyone in this day and age would care what skin color the heroes were.

But what fans fail to see is that this cry for more superheroes of color is as much an issue of self-esteem as it is diversity. Critics, unsatisfied with the number of black superheroes, have been quick to point out that such characters as the Falcon and War Machine don’t really count because they’re dependent on white inventors for their super powers. Similarly, ethnic actors whose faces are obscured beneath prosthetics or face paint don’t help to balance the equation either.

To be sure, this call by many in the politically correct community isn’t a new one with complaints of all white casts going back at least as far as the first Star Wars film. But with the election of Pres. Obama it seems, the push for a more diversified and even global society has only increased. In an ironic and unexpected twist, instead of hailing the final achievement of the color blind society that Obama’s election was supposed to have accomplished, relations between the races in the United States have only deteriorated with the reaction to events in Ferguson, MO, and New York City, the tip of the emerging iceberg.

That said, there’s no shortage of roles for actors of color, both major and minor, in today’s film and television programs. In fact, black actors in particular may be over represented since a survey conducted last year by the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) found that only 12 percent of frequent moviegoers were black, slightly less than their actual representation in the general population. Asians made up 7 percent and Latinos 32 percent.

And that covers only American audiences. With today’s films now a global entertainment medium, one might argue that more Asians watch movies than any other group; ergo, most actors in movies should be Asian!

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So, if the argument for colored faces in superhero movies is to be reduced to a hard and fast numbers game, Hollywood should actually begin to reduce the number of black faces under the masks and increase those of lighter skin tones.

You see how ridiculous the numbers game quickly becomes?

But for those who still insist on counting, get set to add black-skinned Cyborg and the Black Panther on one side of the equation. Both will be the lead characters in upcoming superhero movies from Warner Bros and Marvel Studios, respectively.

Whether the big screen debuts of a pair of black superheroes who owe their powers to no one but themselves will satisfy the critics and end calls for changing the racial identity of long established comic book characters remains to be seen. But if the track record of these complainers is any indication, the issue of casting roles based on some undefined racial balance sheet isn’t likely to silence them.

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