Hollywood's comic book heroes come in all colors

OPINION - With every passing year, comic books are being strip-mined for movie fodder, so plenty of 'diversity' is on its way to the big screen...

Luther Vandross was outed as gay after his death.

Comic book geeks everywhere — naturally, that includes yours truly -rejoice! This weekend, one of Superhero-dom’s most iconic characters, Norse mythology, the hammer-wielding god appearance in the movies is the culmination of years of anticipation for CGI technology to finally converge with the fantastical images found in the comic’s pages. Thor’s arrival is perhaps second only to the X-Men trilogy in how hotly anticipated it is by overage fanboys (again, this includes yours truly).

But no pop-culture happenstance is complete without the obligatory food-fight over race. Alas, even the relatively innocuous milestone of breathing cinematic life into a comic book character can’t seem to pass without a manufactured controversy about bigotry. Idris Elba’s casting as Heimdall, a peripheral character in the mythological Asgardian pantheon, elevated tempers in some obscure (and utterly irrelevant) quarters for the producers having cast a black actor in what is essentially a Caucasian role.

Click here to view a Grio slideshow of black superheroes on the big screen

The blogosphere has since lit up with digital paeans pondering the intersection of comics and race. The most perplexing criticism to emerge: whether superhero vehicles are representative enough of a multi-ethnic society.

Pardon me as I sigh with heavy exasperation. The Council of Conservative Citizens, the outfit that originally penned a furious denunciation in a press release about Idris Elba’s casting, somewhat recalls the case of Terry Jones, the Gainsville-based, self-described pastor who rocketed to prominence last fall when he unilaterally declared an “International burn a Koran Day.”

In both cases, nobody had ever heard of, or cared about, either of these entities until media outlets devoted undeserved attention to their ludicrous ravings, solely for the sake of advancing a pre-conceived meme about racial attitudes. In the case of the Thor, the controversy appears less manufactured than it is non-existent: the pages of comic books have been racially diverse for years. If I may be allowed to say so, comic book publishers across the spectrum have given birth to some of the baddest and most iconic black characters around.

Most comic book aficionados are less concerned with a character’s ethnicity than whether he or she has an enviable super power. A frequent critique is that black characters are often cast as villains. Context for this debate can be found in the 2003 clunker Daredevil which saw Cuba Gooding Jr. vying for the main role that ultimately went to Ben Affleck, but the producers had no problems casting a black actor as a white villain. Still, claims of bias are an overly-simplistic complaint that ignores substantial evidence to the contrary.

Clearly, the DC and Marvel universes satisfy both the impulse for racial balance and cool powers. The coterie of genetically superior, universe-bestriding X-Men has given us Storm, a African-bred demigoddess that can control the weather; and Bishop, a time-hopping energy wielding mutant scarred by a future that may or may not come to pass.
And the list goes on and on: it includes Lucas Cage/Power Man, Black Lightning, Amanda “The Wall” Waller, Green Lantern John Stewart, Superman derivative Steel (which spawned an unfortunate vehicle with Shaquille O’Neal as its center).

My personal favorite is The Black Panther: T’Challa, the scion of a fictional African dynasty where the tendrils of colonialism never reached, is an Avenger who personified raw black male masculinity and autonomy. T’Challa’s country of Wakanda thrives precisely because it was never invaded by colonial masters; the African nation therefore pulsates with advanced technology, a highly accomplished citizenry and a dynamic culture. How’s that for a metaphor about the potential for black achievement?

An acquaintance of mine on Facebook vowed to boycott Thor despite being a lifelong fan of the comic book, in protest over what he perceived to be the “politically correct” casting of Elba. Since Heimdall’s place in Thor’s storyline is relatively limited, boycotts and protests are a gross overreaction to say the least. I certainly plan to see — and enjoy – Thor this weekend myself, and who plays Heimdall is less important to me than whether the title character pulls it off convincingly.

Nevertheless, Elba’s turn in Thor does provoke a few interesting questions. Although the London native is a brilliant and incredibly versatile actor (his portrayal of anti-hero Stringer Bell on HBO’s The Wire is often lauded as one of television’s more complex and well-written characters), his portrayal ignores an inconvenient yet obvious truth: there were no black Norse gods.

Cries about political correctness may be overdone, but they hold a grain of truth. Asgardians were not of African extraction, and there’s something to be said about remaining true to the original continuity found in the book. Just as Black Panther fans — myself included — would find the casting of white actors as Wakandans more than a little jarring, so should Thor fans have a right to decry certain casting choices that don’t stay true to the sourcing material.

Opinions, it is often said, are like belly-buttons (or perhaps other bodily orifices not fit for mention on a family website). But if I may be allowed to offer a word of advice for those caterwauling about a perceived lack of “racial diversity” in comic books — or even those would-be vanguards railing against political correctness? Relax, and open both your eyes and your minds.

With every passing year, comic books are being strip-mined for movie fodder, so plenty of ‘diversity’ is on its way to the big screen. The rush to race-bait and inject social commentary into every entertainment vehicle is over the top and needless. All it accomplishes is draining the movie (or comic) of its primary virtue, which is to feed the fertile imaginations of the masses worldwide.