There’s been a trope that’s been bothering me for a while in superhero cinema, and I’ve been finding it hard to express the essence of it because it’s rather nebulous and reaches further into the realms of reality and issues that affect us every day than any other, yet I don’t think a film maker would ever admit they’ve done it as to do so may be professional suicide. I can’t provide evidence that what I am about to discuss actually happens. Ultimately, that remains within the heads of producers and directors. I’ve been following superhero media for a long time, and if it’s just coincidence, then it happens a lot.
Let us talk about a tactic used most often in the seedier end of the superhero film industry: CONTROVERSY! Controversy of course leads to mentions and page views on the internet. Sometimes controversy can be a very good thing for a film.
Nothing gets a fanboy’s dander up like a healthy bit of controversy. The easiest way to court it is to change something about a character that people are invested in.
At the start of the current age of comic book films, this kind of rage (and therefore heavy promotion for the films as they spread around the internet) was common. Looking back though, I think often they were innocent.
Our first piece of evidence for the defense is Spider-Man and his organic webshooters. In the comics he uses mechanical devices to get his thwip on. Upon watching the film though you don’t get the idea that Peter Parker is a genius in the world Raimi is building (at least not until the sequel) but struggling.
This, for me, indicates it is an innocent change- Raimi is making Spider-Man work, not trying to rile people up.
Another early example would be Wolverine wearing black. This was a huge thing at the time: Wolvie wears yellow! Or at least brown! RUINED FOREVER! The internet rose.
Of course, it would seem Bryan Singer took these comments to heart as he included the famous “Yellow spandex” line in the film to highlight just why a cinematic Logan wouldn’t wear his comic book costume. As if by magic the comics suddenly conformed as they realised black and highlights is a good look. This was a good change.
The prosecution, now. Let’s take a quick look at Wanted. One of the easiest ways to court controversy of course is to change the skin colour of a character (look at the current fuss whenever the actor playing the Doctor is changed and regenerates into a young white male). Wanted, in one of the worst gimmicks in superhero film history, “race swaps” 2 characters, giving us Morgan Freeman representing a former Lex Luthor analogue, and Angelina Jolie replacing a character deliberately designed to be Halle Berry.
Now, although it always generates controversy, I don’t think there’s anything intrinsically wrong in doing this. I think Michael Clarke Duncan was an excellent choice for the Kingpin, for example.
I also don’t have much problem with Morgan Freeman’s presence in Wanted. He’s playing an old father – figure with an edge, something that actor can do in his sleep.
Angelina Jolie, however, damages this film heavily by her presence. The character she’s slipping into is a parody of the 70’s blaxploitation heroes like Luke Cage and Blade that populated the industry as it tried desperately to stay relevant. This evisceration of the history of comic books is a major part of the source material and the film is all the worse for the absence of it. There’s no subtext to the Wanted film. There’s hardly a text, actually. This stunt casting ruins a large portion of the entire point to Wanted.
Another recent stunt cast gone wrong was the character of Jenny Olsen in the recent Man of Steel film. Once again, I would be aware that the male to female ratio in superhero films is way, way tilted in the penicular direction and I dislike the misogynistic tint many comics possess, but the apparently random sex change of Jimmy to Jenny Olsen served virtually no purpose but to get people talking. The character does nothing but run from a collapsing building, and in the end I think Snyder didn’t even name the character as Olsen on screen so a turnaround would be possible. So why do it at all?
I hate the Transformers films a lot and someday I may discuss why exactly, but when asked why he put flames on Optimus Prime, Michael Bay responded (and I am paraphrasing) “because they look cool.” As much as I dislike the films and Bay’s choices in them, there’s something admirable in making choices because, you know, IT ROCKS.
There’s also a potentially more insulting aspect to this. With the exception of the double stunt casting mentioned, the changes made to these characters always seem to move them down the chain of “privilege”. Are we supposed to be impressed that a white character is now black? Or that a man is now a woman?
How about some good dialogue between female characters that don’t revolve around men? Or some black characters that aren’t either street or torn from the Fresh Prince?
That’s probably the biggest crime here.
You’ll have to excuse me now, I’m being replaced with Ben Affleck.