Monday, August 26, 2013

Can Batman Be Black?

After Warner Brother's maddening decision last Thursday to cast Ben Affleck as Batman in the upcoming Batman/Superman flick, movie critic Matt Zoller Seitz jokingly mentioned Idris Elba as the ideal choice.

Some quick Googling showed that not all Elba-as-Batman fans aren't joking. They've taken to editorials, Buzzfeed, and Facebook to push the statuesque and intense British (and black) actor as an ideal Caped Crusader choice. Elba, best known as the enterprising drug dealer Stringer Bell in "The Wire," has become a staple of Hollywood summer flicks, including this year's "Pacific Rim" and last year's "Prometheus." (He's likely to be in the Oscar discussion later this year for playing Nelson Mandela in "Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom.")

But that raises the issue--can you have a black Batman? This is something that pops up in superhero entertainment every couple of years. In fact, Elba himself has been at the center of it before, when he played a Norse god in "Thor." And the Fantastic Four reboot has generated some controversy with reports that Michael B. Jordan, a black actor, will play Johnny Storm.

Forget all of those other characters for a second. Can a black actor play Batman?

I'm pretty sure the answer is, "no," at least not if the aim is to make a "true" Batman movie. And that's too bad.

In fact, even the name "Bruce Wayne" was chosen because it evokes an Anglo-Saxon blue-blood. "I searched for a name that would suggest colonialism," said Batman co-founder Bill Finger as he explained his surname.

Changing Bruce Wayne's race would cause all sorts of practical plot-related problems. When did the Wayne's get their fabulous wealth--it's normally portrayed as being old, old money, which would seem a bit puzzling if they were a black family. When was Wayne Manor built, anyways? How many 1970s mansions have batcaves underneath them?

To the best of my knowledge, there are no original Batman comics which change the character's race. The filmmakers would be charting new territory.

Would Alfred be black? If not, I can already hear the studio bosses grumbling that American audiences don't want to see a young black playboy ordering around an elderly white man. But if he is black, the whole movie will start to have the air of a race war, as a team of black vigilantes take on presumably white villains. "Hmmmmm," the studio executives murmur.

Whether it should or not, the relationship between Bruce Wayne and Alfred, Bruce Wayne and his foes, and Bruce Wayne and Gotham is going to feel pretty different to the audience if you add a change in race.

Now, it could be that you could work through all of these issues and still have a hell of a Batman movie. I'd certainly be in favor of someone trying. Hell, I was even intrigued by Darren Aronofsky's gonzo "Batman: Year One" script. But here's the question--are you doing all of myth revision just to cast Elba? Or is there a compelling story here that demands to be told? Who knows, maybe there is. They say that art thrives on constraint, even if that constraint is trying to fit the minority experience into a 70-year-old superhero's mythology.

But no matter what, the story would be sufficiently different from the classic Batman mythology that, to most fans, it would feel like a drastic reinterpretation of Batman--a story influenced by Batman, but not the Batman.

In fact, the comics have a mechanism for this, the so-called "Elseworlds" or "Multiverse." Using some pseudoscience about the existence of alternate universes, DC Comics has created different "Earths" with different versions of their superheroes. Sometimes those variations are slight, and sometimes they're drastic. Sometimes it's just a practical way to update a superhero's story after the continuity has become unwieldy, and sometimes it's used to radically re-examine a superheroes' mythos without consequences for future writers. ("Imagine if Superman landed in the USSR instead of America...")

In the comics, there is a black Batman in the main continuity--not an alternate universe. But he's not Bruce Wayne. In Grant Morrison's "Batman, Incorporated" series, Wayne goes the McDonald's route with his crime-fighting crusade and funds vigilante superheroes around the globe. "Batwing" fights evil and corruption in Congo. I haven't read this line -- still working my way thru Morrison's Batman epic -- but it sounds like it could make a fine spin-off movie, if maybe a little too close to real-world bloodshed. But again, it wouldn't be the Batman.

So there's the me who believes that minorities are still underrepresented in movies and fiction, and would love to see more diverse casting decisions in premiere movies. And then there's the me who's a fanatic Batman fan, and who wants to see just plain old Batman in movies. As I hope I've demonstrated, those two desires create a conflict here.

So that's the rub. I don't really know enough about the other superheroes to comment on whether a race switch would work for them, but I suspect you'd have similar issues. And you'd also have the less substantive issues--an instinctive inability to imagine a beloved character's race changing, even if it has no noticeable affect on the character. (This is different than characters like the Green Lantern, who cycle thru different identities.)

Ultimately, this is the wrong discussion. The problem isn't that there isn't a black Batman--the problem is that so many of the star characters of today's movies are from a time period where diversity was lacking, if not non-existent. In a way, this is an interesting example of how the racism and discrimination from days' past can linger unintentionally into the present.

Even if movie studios wanted to have more minority superheroes headlining summer movies--that a pretty big if--they'd have to deal with the fact that so much of our entertainment is frozen in the time of Golden and Silver-Age comics (1930's to the late 1960's), at a time when the country looked--at least on-screen--very different from how it looks today.

You see this time and again, where the desire to stay true to the source conflicts with how we'd like to see our culture portrayed on the big screen. For instance--you could make a decent argument that minority actors in "The Hobbit" would create a jarring distraction for the viewer, given that it conflicts with J.R.R. Tolkien's idea that he was writing Anglo-Saxon mythology. That's not to give filmmakers a pass for failing to hire more minority actors--I dunno, maybe there should be more minorities in Middle Earth. It's just to acknowledge that there are conflicting issues here.

Maybe the question shouldn't be, "Why aren't there more black hobbits?" The question should be, "Why does so much of our pop culture come from a place and a time that is so white?"

At one point, all of these were just new stories. Maybe we need to go back to some newer ones.

ED NOTE: I typed this up on Friday, the day after the news broke. I wasn't really happy about with it--too much rambling, not enough cogent thoughts--and I don't have the energy to whittle it down. But I decided to go ahead and post it anyways--I thought it had some thoughts that would, hopefully, provoke some discussion. Who knows, maybe I'm just being dense here, maybe Bruce Wayne could easily be black and I'm just missing it.

UPDATE: One commenter on Twitter pointed out that Wayne could be an adapted orphan. That's a pretty obvious point I'm embarrassed to say didn't occur to me before--though I submit it's still a pretty drastic change to the character. The point is, you have to explain it somehow, and that takes it a step away from the traditional Batman story and a step towards something else.

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