Sunday, September 28, 2008

Can Captain America Be Black? : The Risk of Racial Misrepresentation

Is America ready for a black Captain America? Perhaps a more suitable question is how might a black Captain America be most appropriately depicted? For the past few weeks, comic film fans have been debating over the controversial rumor that African-American actor Will Smith (pictured below) was in talks to play the role of the patriotic superhero. While the rumor has since been apparently debunked, the mere fact that it incites controversy warrants closer analysis. Marvel legend Stan Lee weighed in on the topic this week: "It might be a really smart thing. If Barack Obama becomes President who knows ... suddenly a lot of our characters will be black!" While perhaps not the most politically correct response, Lee's comments indicate the care that must be taken in representing black characters in comic books and comic book films. If Marvel indeed went with an African-American actor for Captain America, how would the character need to be responsibly portrayed in order to avoid misrepresentation? I explored the blogosphere this week to find out what people were saying about Lee's latest comments and the can of worms it opened in terms of racial representation. I decided to offer my thoughts on two blogs. The first post, Will Smith As Captain America? What’s Next, Will Ferrell As Kunte Kinte?, was written by T. Troy Stewart and comes from a blog entitled BlackCynic America. I felt the need to comment because unlike other blogs about the rumor, Stewart outlines the problem of changing the race of a traditionally white American hero without regard to the racially turbulent historical context. He then suggests that Marvel Studios look to the limited series Truth: Red, White & Black for how to properly portray a black Captain America. The story places African-American character Isaiah Bradley (shown below) in the role rather than Steve Rogers, the original white Captain America. The second post was Stan Lee: Will Smith a "Long Shot" for 'Captain America' written by Colin Boyd from a blog called Get the Big Picture. Boyd suggests that the Will Smith casting is a good idea, and states that "there is nothing 'white' about Captain America, meaning the character's race doesn't determine the character." I disagreed with this point, as T. Troy Stewart essentially does in his post, and chose to express my dissent with a comment. I have made my responses available below:

"Will Smith As Captain America? What’s Next, Will Ferrell As Kunte Kinte?"
Thank you for taking this Will Smith casting rumor into consideration and providing such a thorough analysis of the issue at hand. I appreciate that your post addresses the complications that arise when the race of an already established white character is changed without regard for historical accuracy. While I have read several comments regarding the rumor, I had not encountered any that I felt sufficiently concentrated on the problem of “rewriting history” that you mention in your entry. The personal tone of your argument and sense of humor make for a compelling read as you engage the reader with provocative examples. For instance, your critique of Marvel's depictions of black characters like The Falcon and Luke Cage effectively reinforces your argument and illustrates that a black Captain America could fall into the trap of misrepresentation if not handled properly. I also liked that you cited the historical examples of Jesse Owens and Joe Louis as examples of real-life black “Captain Americas,” though your post might benefit from some elaboration on how they relate to the issue. Are Owens and Louis to be looked at as examples for how to appropriately portray a black hero of the time? I do agree that the Isaiah Bradley character from Truth: Red, White & Black rather than merely making Steve Rogers an African-American would be a step in the right direction should Marvel go with Will Smith or another black actor. However, because the studio is planning their Captain America film with the intention of bringing him back to lead the team in the Avengers movie, they would have to tweak the ending from the limited series so that Isaiah Bradley retains his sanity. Suppose the filmmakers have him go into suspended animation as the original Captain America does and then revive him in the present to lead the Avengers. Do you feel keeping his sanity intact would take away from the character and the strength of the story at all or does it matter?

"Stan Lee: Will Smith a "Long Shot" for 'Captain America'"
First of all, I appreciate the fact that you can admit to liking the potential casting of an African-American as a traditionally white character when many people disapprove of such controversial choices, as evidenced by some of the comments you have received for this entry. I agree that a black Captain America can work. However, I do not agree with your claim that “there’s nothing ‘white’ about the original Captain America, meaning the character’s race doesn’t determine the character.” To simply change the skin color of Steve Rogers, the original character, without regard to the historical context would be to ignore the racial conflicts of the times. The original Captain America was hailed as a great American hero of his time, before racial segregation had been declared unconstitutional. An African-American from that period would not have been so eulogized without some sort of consequence. Racial tensions would certainly have to factor into the depiction of the character if he were made non-white in that time period. I would have liked to see some more in depth analysis of the issue. Anyways, the casting of Will Smith might imply that Marvel wants to use Isaiah Bradley, the black Captain America from the 2003 limited series “Truth: Red, White & Black.” which indeed does address the issues of race I have established. Fans, however, might condemn the film if the filmmakers use someone other than the iconic Steve Rogers character. If Will Smith were in fact cast, do you think fans would rather have a black Steve Rogers (for the sake of using the well known original character but risking racial misrepresentation) or Isaiah Bradley (so as to ensure historical accuracy and racial sensitivity despite being a much newer character)?

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Crossing Over: How Comic Book Films Are Starting to Look More Like Comic Books

Fueled by the recent financial and critical successes of superhero films like Iron Man and The Dark Knight, both Marvel Studios and Warner Brothers have begun to lay out their future plans for more movies based on Marvel and DC Comics properties, respectively. In the next few years, the two studios will employ a strategy that has been used in comic books for decades but until just this year has been absent from comic book films: the crossover, wherein characters from one property interact with characters from another within the same continuity. Marvel's next three films (Iron Man 2, Thor, and The First Avenger: Captain America) will be made with the intention of bringing each titular character (pictured to the left) together as a super-team in the ultimate crossover film, The Avengers. This year, both Iron Man and The Incredible Hulk introduced the idea of a shared filmic universe. In a post-credits scene in Iron Man, S.H.I.E.L.D. director Nick Fury makes a brief cameo to inform protagonist Tony Stark of the "Avenger initiative," planting the seeds for the future team-up. Later in the summer, The Incredible Hulk featured a surprise appearance from Tony Stark himself, who passes the word along to General Thunderbolt Ross about the team, further setting up the eventual crossover. Marvel's plan is to continue including character cameos in their films even before the Avengers movie. For instance, the superhero Thor will be introduced in Iron Man 2 before starring in his own film. Warner Bros. has decided to follow in Marvel's footsteps and include crossovers in their own films based on DC properties. The Wall Street Journal reports that the studio "has quietly adopted Marvel's model of releasing a single film for each character, and then using those movies and their sequels to build up to a multicharacter film." This trend of crossovers illustrates one way that contemporary comic book films have begun to look more like the comic books from which they are derived.

One of the more intriguing new trends in comic book films is the wave of "reboots," in which previous storylines are disregarded to start anew. This reflects the multitudes of overlapping and contradicting continuities in the comic book industry, in which the origins of superheroes are constantly being retold. The concept of restarting already established film franchises was likely popularized by 2005's Batman Begins, which completely re-imagined its title character from scratch after an eight year hiatus following the critical failure of Batman & Robin. Such intervals between franchises have become increasingly shorter. Marvel waited five years between the relatively unsuccessful Hulk and this summer's unrelated The Incredible Hulk, and only four years between Punisher and the upcoming Punisher: War Zone. Similarly, Warner Bros. has already announced a Superman reboot two years after the release of Bryan Singer's Superman Returns, as well as a live action reinvention of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles franchise just one year after the animated TMNT.

With the gap between reboots rapidly narrowing, it is entirely possible that in the near future, multiple film incarnations of the same characters will be produced simultaneously. Such an idea nearly came to fruition when Warner Bros. recently planned a Justice League adaptation, which would have included another version of the Batman character, as actor Armie Hammer was cast instead of Christian Bale, who stars in Christopher Nolan's current Batman series. The film would have also excluded Brandon Routh, the Superman of Bryan Singer's now-canceled franchise, in favor of actor D.J. Cotrona. Thus, fans would have been left with two versions of each character at the same time. However, the Justice League film was tabled due to the 2007–2008 Writers Guild of America strike, although development has since resumed, meaning the two continuities may in fact still become a reality. If this were to become a trend, the comic book film genre would again more closely parallel the comic book industry, where multiple titles involving the same characters co-exist while telling different stories. For example, Spider-Man has appeared in a variety of different series such as The Amazing Spider-Man, The Spectacular Spider-Man, Peter Parker: Spider-Man and others at the same time. Perhaps it is only a matter of time before we see two actors portraying Spider-Man in separate film franchises.

The convergence of cinema and comics has been enhanced by another recent convention, "translating" panels of graphic novels directly to the screen rather than merely taking inspiration from them. In other words, studios have started to "adopt" the comics rather than "adapt" them, essentially treating them as storyboards. Films not only borrow story techniques from the comics, but literally look like the comics. For instance, director Zack Snyder's upcoming adaptation of the limited series Watchmen will religiously adhere to the comic's illustrations (as evidenced by the image to the right comparing a panel from the graphic novel and a still from the film). Snyder was just as strictly faithful in adapting Frank Miller's 300 in 2007. This trend of copying the comics frame for frame began in 2005, however, when Robert Rodriguez adapted Sin City. Given the financial successes of these two films and the potential profitability of Watchmen, the comic book film fans could continue to see an influx of translations rather than adaptations.

One can only wonder if the comic book film will adopt more qualities from its canon of source material as the genre continues to develop. Perhaps the formal strategies of cinema will be utilized to further reflect the visual style of graphic novels. Ang Lee's Hulk, for instance, featured a stylized form of editing, including split screens and dynamic visual transitions reminiscent of the panels of a comic book page. The film was not well received, however, and studios have likely hesitated to revisit these cutting techniques for fear of financial failure. However, it is possible that such editing strategies will soon be revisited as the realms of cinema and comics more tightly intertwine. Perhaps new formal techniques will emerge from the fusion and enrich the genre even more. The future path of comic book films will certainly be interesting to follow as these two industries themselves continue "crossing over."
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