It’s one of the biggest hot-button issues in fandom today.
The announcement of a beloved heterosexual white male character reimaged as a different race, gender or sexuality sets off explosions of anger throughout the interwebs.
Arguments are made for and against, thousand-word think pieces pop up, and accusations are flung across Facebook.
“Why can’t they create a new character instead of changing this one?” people ask.
“Creators are just being lazy!” others rage.
Ironically, this issue becomes especially heated in the realm of comic book superheroes – a genre that is supposed to be about empowerment, overcoming adversity, truth, justice and all that good stuff.
It’s been argued a thousand different ways, but with rare exception, claims that such changes somehow destroy or diminish a character only highlight the undercurrent of racism, sexism, and homophobia that still flows throughout fandom today.
And here’s the primary reason why.
It's All Happened Before
The #superhero genre has a long history of straight, white men picking up the mantle of other straight white men to fill the boots of iconic heroes. Green Lantern and #TheFlash are both excellent examples of this practice in action.
Both were very different characters when they debuted in 1940 before they were reimagined more than a decade later.
#GreenLantern changed from the blond-haired Alan Scott to the brown-haired Hal Jordan who was a part of an entire corps of emerald ring-slinging galactic enforcers.
Jay Garrick’s Flash was passed up in favor of a new Scarlet Speedster, Barry Allen, who bore little resemblance to his predecessor.
Four different straight white men have assumed the mantle of The Flash over the past 75 years, and while John Stewart brought a dash of diversity to The Corps with his debut in 1971, it would another four decades before he’d be joined by Simon Baz and Jessica Cruz as characters of color who’ve claimed the top spot in a GL book.
(Yes, there are many different species who make up the ranks of the Green Lantern Corps, but we’re focusing on characters who have actually been the primary star of a GL book for the purposes of this argument.)
Other examples of straight, white male swaps include:
- Ted Kord stepping into the role of Blue Beetle after Dan Garrett.
- John Walker and Bucky Barnes assuming the mantle of Captain America.
- Jason Todd and Tim Drake who both followed in Dick Grayson’s footsteps as Robin.
- Conner Kent filling the role of Superboy.
- Jean-Paul Valley and Dick Grayson becoming Batman.
- Ben Reilly taking over as our friendly neighborhood Spider-Man.
Okay, maybe that last one wasn’t such a great example. Nevertheless, there is a long history of straight, white men who have replaced other dudes just like them to carry on the legacy of a well-known hero.
But Those Are Different Characters, It’s Not The Same Thing!
That’s true, but even in cases like these there’s a huge difference in the way fandom reacts any time a white straight dude is replaced with a character who is from a more diverse background.
Did the negative reaction to Bucky Barnes' tour of duty as #CaptainAmerica reach the levels of outrage that occurred when Sam Wilson picked up the mantle?
How many hateful comments filled social media feeds when news broke that Riri Williams would be the star of Invincible Iron Man?
And it wasn’t exactly the brightest day for discussion in fan communities when Simon Baz took center stage in Green Lantern.
These are just a few examples of how characters from diverse backgrounds have a tougher time gaining acceptance when they’re stepping into a super-suit that was once worn by a white man.
Reinvention Is The Cornerstone Of The Industry
#Superheroes have permeated pop culture for more than 75 years in part because they are continuously evolving and changing with the times.
A prime example of this is #Batman, who has gained legions of fans during different eras as both a dark knight (the recent Nolan films) and a bright knight (as seen in the '60s TV series).
Different approaches such as these don’t diminish our favorite characters; they expand their appeal and enrich their pop-culture presence. If the history of our most iconic superheroes teaches us anything it’s that the best of them work in a wide variety of interpretations. Refusing to keep them confined to a single version provides opportunities for an array of entertaining tales to be told.
In fact, some of the most beloved storylines in comic history are those that have reimagined characters in alternate realities or timelines, taking them far away from their original source material.
- Superman was raised as a communist in the Soviet Union in Red Son.
- The future was an incredibly dark place for the heroes of the DC Universe in Kingdom Come.
- Batman became a blood-sucking vampire in Red Rain.
- Readers had a merry time with extremely different takes on Marvel’s most popular mutants during the “Age of Apocalypse” crossover in the X-Men titles of the mid-90s.
- The #Marvel Universe got a medieval makeover in Neil Gaiman’s 1602.
The latest TV shows and films from Marvel and DC are no different. Each of these is a newly reimagined take on the iconic heroes we love and the worlds in which they live. Well-known characters who appear in these projects with a different race, gender, or sexuality than their previous incarnations aren’t a step back, they’re a step forward.
The West family being depicted as people of color in The Flash, Jason Momoa stepping into the role of Aquaman in the DC Cinematic Universe, Sam Jackson as Nick Fury in the MCU (being a badass in the above video), Curtis Holt/Mr. Terrific and Black Canary/White Canary being introduced as LGBT people in Arrow – each of these are changes from the original source material, but they expand the worlds we love in interesting ways and allow new stories to be told. They bring new attitudes to characters, open the door for different romantic developments, and their presence inspires viewers who look like them to believe they too can be something more.
When fans cheer a reimagining of Superman as a communist growing up in the Soviet Union, but can’t accept Jimmy Olsen as a person of color in the latest Supergirl TV show, what does that say about the current state of inclusiveness in geek culture?
When the idea of a woman wielding the hammer of #Thor is more controversial than a frog becoming the God of Thunder – yes, a frog – there’s a problem.
And when the same fans who gladly accept Hal Jordan as the greatest Green Lantern claim reimagining Alan Scott as a gay man in Earth 2 somehow disrespects the legacy of the original emerald ring-slinger, their hypocrisy shines bright.
It’s time fandom takes a good, hard look at what’s really fueling this kind of outrage. Because whether it’s in an alternate universe or a single story, swapping the race, gender or sexuality of a character doesn’t disrespect what came before; it’s just one more way to tell a story. Our heroes are at their best when creators approach them with fresh concepts, take them into uncharted territory, or reimagine them in ways we’ve never seen.
This is why they endure.
There’s room for all these interpretations and more – even a little green god of Thunder.