Apparently the casting of Captain America: The First Avenger is around the corner. We’ve had confirmation of several story details (I’ll probably come back to those later in the week) and confirmation of the fact that The Red Skull will be the baddie. Which shouldn’t be too much of a surprise, since he is the arch-foe in a rogues gallery which isn’t exactly brimming with iconic villains. I’ve been following discussions about the casting on-line for sometime now, and something has really surprised me when Will Smith’s name came up in connection with the role: apparently the internet nerds are not ready for a black Captain America.
In fairness, recent rumours suggest that Marvel are looking are looking for an unknown actor, much as they have for Thor, but there were rumours about just about every actor ever. Will Smith has come up more than once, but I’ve been amazed at how angrily fans have reacted to this. Not because of his talent or his filmography, but because of his skin colour. And I’m a little bit shocked by this.
It isn’t the first time comic book fandom has reacted to possible changes to an appearance of a character. Just ask Mickey Rourke and his version of Iron Man foe Whiplash. Batman Returns still sparks controversy in fandom for its portrayal of the Penguin as played by Danny DeVito – on the other hand, it’s the most critically successful of the first four Batman films. And, to be entirely honest, it isn’t just comic book fans who worry about things like this – remember the blonde Bond debacle? And now Craig is a treasured Bond. I can understand the worry and trepidation – what’s the point in making a movie if you don’t respect the source material? On the other hand, an adaptation may involve adapting the material for the new medium and its strengths and weaknesses.
I don’t see why skin colour is such a big deal. I would consider, for example, the storyline changes suggested above to be much greater changes. I’m not advocating for a black Captain America, but I’m not dismissing it out of hand. In the simplest terms, I don’t care. Give us the best actor for the role. That’s what I ask. It doesn’t matter that Heath Ledger looks unlike the comic book Joker, he was the best actor ever to play the role and arguably among its finest incarnations.
I think it’s unfair to attack such objections as racist. I don’t think there’s any real prejudice at play here – fandom would similarly object were the character a woman, for example, or gay. That said, I just don’t get these objections. From what I can see, there are two main threads of objections voiced by fans.
The first is that changing the skin colour fundamentally changes the character. I think that’s poppycock – yes, I used the word poppycock (it’s due a comeback). This train of thought suggests that part of Steve Rogers’ fundamental identity is that as a white soldier. His ethnicity is Irish American (bet you didn’t know that) and he is the child of immigrants. He was too sick for active service, so the army pumped him full of steroids – sorry, I mean superserum – and gave him a funky costume. He then punched Hitler in the face.
I will acknowledge that ethnicity is a key part of certain comic book characters – a core part of their identity. For example, Black Panther and Falcon couldn’t really be played by white actors, so ingrained is their status as the first African and African American superheroes. I’d feel a little uncomfortable with making Daredevil anything other than a lapsed Irish Catholic, as that Catholic guilt (handled so well by the Irish) is a key part of his psyche. Emma Frost is probably best left a WASP. I don’t think ethnicity is so deeply linked to Steve Rogers.
Okay, so what does changing is skin colour change of that origin? Okay, so maybe he won’t be Irish. But did you really care he was Irish? He isn’t exactly Banshee from the X-Men or that leprechaun from the Lucky Charms box. The key aspect of that part of his origin is that he is an outsider. He isn’t a member of the settled white majority who have had an easy life in the style of the American Dream. At the time, racism and classism were against him – and he, like many others victimised by the system, still chose to serve in the army to fight fascism. It’s a popular propaganda notion – our country is so great even those not directly benefiting fight for us! – and whether Steve is African American or Irish America the theory holds water.
Because that’s what the character is fundamentally about. He wasn’t bred fighting fit. He isn’t the product of eugenics. He’s a sick kid who wanted to do his bit for his country. The irony is that Nazi Germany would have cast him aside (or worse), yet he became America’s prized weapon. I think that being African American would arguably underscore the point even more – a symbol of American diversity in the face of Nazi homogeny.
You might counter with what about the irony of a blond-haired and blue-eyed super-soldier kicking the snot out of the Nazis? The part of the mythos which says ‘here’s your master race – right in your face!’ To be honest – and I don’t think I’m alone here – the implications of that aspect still slightly unnerve me. America build a Nazi superman, but that’s somehow inherently better than breeding one. That’s not to suggest anything resembling a level moral playing field between the two, but the only difference between Captain America and an Aryan is that he was manufactured instead of genetically bred. I wouldn’t mind losing this aspect of the character, much like we lost Batman’s indifference to cold-blooded murder or his Bat Shark Repellent.
The second line of argument against a race lift for the character is a more subtle one. It seems to suggest that the casting of any actor who isn’t white is an overtly political move – the hand of political correctness or affirmative action reaching down. These are the people who argue that the lack of ethnic minority superheroes is an issue for the comic book companies, not the movie studios and casting an African American would simply be pandering. I have two responses to this argument.
The first is that most iconic modern characters – Batman, Captain America, Superman – were the product of a different time. The middle of the twentieth century predates the civil rights era and the move towards substantial equality for non-white ethnic groups in America. I stated above that I don’t think the issue here is racism, but – to be honest – if this debate where happening over the creation of Cap back in the heat of the Second World War, it would be framed in racist terms – and the notion of making him African American would have been laughed out of the room. I’m not suggesting a revisionist trend to diversify these characters, but the fact that there could never be black superheroes when Captain America was created should be kept in mind. If he were being created today, would the creators consider making him African American? I’d hope so.
My second response to this is that it ignores the possibility that an African American actor may be the best choice for the role. Will Smith would be on my shortlist of ideal candidates for the role, because he is one of the most charmingly and iconicly American performers today. He’s very good at balancing dramatic and moving portrayals with the traditional leading man qualities. Hell, he may even top my list of potential candidates for the role.
I don’t know. My gut tells me, with the casting of an unknown and the internet backdraft, that a white actor will be chosen. And that’s grand. As I said, I don’t really care one way or another. I just found it fascinating that his skin colour became such a huge issue.
I just hope we get a good movie. Though the recent discussions of the movie plot have got my spider-senses tingling, as it were. Ah well, at least we’ll have something concrete to go on in a few weeks.
As a piece of trivia, the article image is of Isaiah Bradley, “the black Captain America” introduced in the miniseries Red, White & Black as a later iteration of the supersoldier experiment. So, you comic book fans can rest easy – there is precedent.