I haven't really talked about what I think about casting Idris Elba as a Marvel character based on a Norse Mythological deity who was referred to as "The White God" because I think it would be redundant. I've already said my piece on why positive discrimination is a self-defeating crock, and it applies here. In any case, I can't have any respect for the whole "colourblind casting" phenomenon considering the Jamie Foxx as Frank Sinatra fiasco. However, since it's still going - as nerd controversies are wont to do - I thought I'd talk more about this post at Man vs Clown!, and the whole Black Heimdall thing.
I'm not even going to dignify the group of fools mentioned in the link, who are allegedly seeking to protest Thor on the basis of Elba's casting. They might claim that this is about respect for the source material, but it clearly isn't. They attack Marvel for the "anti-white" Black Panther, and accuse the company of fostering an anti-white agenda. If there's an agenda here, I suggest those folks look in the mirror. I have no time for such tiresome ideas as the poisonous nonsense they spew.
My issues with Elba's casting are about fidelity to the source material. There is justification for a black Norse God in the original comics: every 500 years or so, there is a cycle of Ragnaroks, and the Asgardians are reborn, often in new forms. This explains why Thor is blond and clean-shaven, as opposed to red-headed with a magnificent beard, in modern times. This would've been a perfectly logical opportunity to give a fellow Asgardian a race-lift, but they didn't. Heimdall was a white dude, and Asgard was still as white-bread as it always was. Still, I have to admit it's a bit of a stretch - changing hair colour and facial hair is one thing, but switching haplogroups is another entirely. I have to wonder what people would think of a black Doctor - I'd be far more open to that than a black James Bond, personally. Interesting that nobody seems to bring up a female James Bond in these discussions...
I digress: my problem is only that "this is not how it was in the comic." It's as simple as that. If you're going to make changes, make them mean something. What does making Heimdall black accomplish? It makes Asgard look more cosmopolitan - what does that accomplish? Does it make some bold statement? Is it a groundbreaking casting choice that shakes the entertainment industry to the core? Not really: it just seems... token. Patting each other on the back, self-congratulating, obsequious self satisfaction, over something that simply isn't that big a deal these days. That almost annoys me more than the alteration in the first place: that smug implication of the Thor makers thinking "look at how progressive we are, aren't we so much better than those nasty racists and white-centrics?" Yeah, there's a little ironic comedy in casting a black dude as "The Whitest God," but that doesn't exactly scream respect for the source material, does it?
Elba has his own thoughts on the subject:
"There has been a big debate about it: can a black man play a Nordic character?" he told TV Times. "Hang about, Thor's mythical, right? Thor has a hammer that flies to him when he clicks his fingers. That's OK, but the colour of my skin is wrong?"
Wow, way to completely sidestep the issue, Mr Elba. Yes, it's OK for Thor to have a hammer that flies to him when he clicks his fingers because that happened in the source material. It isn't an issue of "realism" - if you're going that route, then you're pretty much saying there's no point in attempting any semblance of verisimilitude, and then you can throw suspension of disbelief right out the window. How would you like it if someone dismissed a grave misinterpretation of Shakespeare by retorting "Hang about, Oberon and Titania are fairies. That's OK, but my idea is wrong?" A certain aspect of your appearance is not the same as the character from the source material. Trust me, I'd be just as ticked off if they cast anyone who isn't black as Imaro, Ace Jessel, T'Challa, Blade or Spawn, and definitely as angry as I am about The Last Racebender fiasco.
"I was cast in Thor and I'm cast as a Nordic god," he said. "If you know anything about the Nords, they don't look like me but there you go. I think that's a sign of the times for the future. I think we will see multi-level casting. I think we will see that, and I think that's good."
Personally, I think it's a little cowardly. You guys want to impress us with your "signs of the times of the future"? Do something better than this. Do something really daring. Multicultural casts have been around since Star Trek, probably even earlier, with black, Asian and faintly demonic aliens in the regular cast, as well as a Russian at the height of the Cold War. That was edgy, unusual, brave, even a bit dangerous... 45 years ago. Casting a black man as the modern reincarnation of a white Norse God - which does not equate to his counterpart in the comics - in 2011 is not brave, unusual or daring. It's just kinda sad.
Do you want to know what is brave, unusual and daring? Uwe Boll's Blubberella.
A disclaimer: I consider Uwe Boll a festering boil in the ear canal of Cinema, so this is not praise of Boll.Rather, it's a scathing indictment of Branaugh's Thor.
Think of a fat superheroine. You can't, can you? While male superheroes can be of multiple phenotypes, from bricks like the Thing to striplings like Spider-Man, athletic peak-condition humans like Batman to massively muscular like the Hulk. There are even a few obese superheroes and villains. With female characters, there are precisely three archetypes: athletic, voluptuous, and muscular. There are no fat superheroines. In three quarters of a century since the birth of superhero comics, there hasn't been a single fat superheroine.*
Uwe Boll is the first. Of all the people to blaze a trail with the first example of a bold new direction in a well-trod genre, the man who brought us goddamn Bloodrayne and Alone in the Dark is the one to bring us the first obese superheroine. It may be fatsploitation, it may be crude, it might be offensive - but it's the first. And that, my friends, is indescribably wretched.
So Thor has a multicultural cast: big freakin' deal. It isn't big, it isn't daring, it doesn't improve the source material, it doesn't improve the real problem of racial casting issues, and most of all, it doesn't matter. All it does is differentiate itself from the source material for little to no reason for meaningless kudos.
Here's how I approach making changes in adaptations:
- Is it necessary for conversion to the medium?
- Is it necessary for character or narrative development?
- Is it necessary for subtextual depth?
If none of the above apply, don't change it.
And yet, I'm not against the idea of black Norse Gods - with sufficient narrative or idealogical justification. As I noted earlier, there is justification for physical changes in the Marvel comics according to the Ragnarok cycle, but why should some gods simply change their hair colour, while others hop ethnicities? It makes no sense, it's arbitrary, and it's lazy. However, if all the changes were uniform, I would actually accept it. If all the Asgardians turned black - keeping the sense of uniformity, that this is a family or tribe of gods, rather than a Model UN of gods - you know what? I'd respect that. It would be a bold decision, possibly one that could backfire - but I would respect it as a bold decision.
Everyone knows the Norse gods were white dudes. Everyone knows that the original Heimdall was not black. But why turn just one incidental cast member black, when you could turn all of them black? Sure, the white supremacists would be up in arms - but they're already up in arms, while you'd have consistency, the sense that these gods are all brothers and sisters and cousins and so forth. Cast Djimon Honsou as Thor, Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje as Balder, Richard Roundtree as Odin, Denzel Washington as Loki - then Idris Elba as Heimdall.
It isn't as if black people haven't proven to be successful draws at the box office: witness Sidney Poitier, Will Smith, Morgan Freeman, Samuel L. Jackson, Denzel Washington, Halle Berry, Richard Pryor, Eddie Murphy, Wesley Snipes - all proven box-office draws. Samuel L. Jackson is, in terms of cumulative gross of the films he's starred in, the most profitable actor in history. Television has proven shows with all-or-predominantly black casts can be successful, too: Roots is one of the most celebrated television series of all time, The Cosby Show and The Fresh Prince of Bel Air two of the most beloved sitcoms. I know I loved all of them.
I'm not saying that I would necessarily recommend that a Thor film should have black actors playing the Asgardians - but I am saying that if it were to be the case, I'd have a lot more respect for its sheer boldness, rather than casting a minor character and claiming it to be One Giant Leap. Besides, a superhero movie with a mostly-black cast has already been done. Instead of ticking multiculturalism boxes and showing how wonderfully enlightened we all are, let's put our money where our mouth is and start bringing real black superheroes to the fore. Let's see proper movies for Spawn and Steel, a Black Panther epic, a Storm spinoff, a Bronze Tiger flick, The Falcon, Cyborg. They really missed a trick in not doing John Stewart Green Lantern over Kal Rordan Green Lantern.
Oh, and Luke Cage: Power Man, starring Isaiah Mustafa. This must happen.
*Apart from Big Bertha and Zephyr, the first of whom I stupidly discounted since she moonlights as a supermodel, the other I had no idea about. I'm such an eejit. That's what you get for making silly sweeping statements without fact-checking, folks!
That said, Blubberella is still, sadly, the first cinematic obese superheroine, so my point kinda, sorta, nearly stands. OK it doesn't stand, but still.