Superhero Properties


by Randall S. Frederick

It’s obvious to every comicbook fan and moviegoer in America that superhero movies are getting worse, not better. Even though these films are profitable, that doesn’t mean they are actually good movies or reflecting the long history of readers interacting and co-creating these characters.

It was announced last week that iconic character Mary Jane Watson (occasional girlfriend of Spiderman) was going to be played by Zendaya, an actress with mixed racial heritage. Immediately, longtime fans of Spiderman voiced their dismay, summarized by Matt McGloin of Cosmicbook News: fans are tired of the homogenization of the characters they grew up with by “taking the PC route.” They are tired of studios directly lying to them about the cast list of a project. “Disney and Marvel have been taking a [politically correct] path in their comics by replacing characters with PC versions, which looks to have finally caught up with the company as sales haven’t been that good and fans are getting pretty sick and tired of it all.” In another McGloin adds, “Personally, I’m from the school of thought that they should just create new characters instead of replacing already existing characters, and that goes for all characters of color and creed. For instance, I wouldn’t want a white, chinese or latino Luke Cage or Black Panther or John Stewart, and I wouldn’t want a male Catwoman or Harley Quinn.”

Fan frustration, often dismissed as racist and misogynistic because a majority of the heroes being politically corrected are white males, is actually more complex than either of those issues. The frustration comes from a long and winding history of fans living with and growing with their favorite heroes and villains, only to see their co-creations being changed in sharp and unanticipated ways that dismiss decades of material. A revamp or change that is wildly inconsistent with the canon of fandom – say, recasting a white character with a black one without legitimate explanation – and then lying about it during production to silence fans is not just insulting to the inner child, it’s insulting to the adult who wants to experience a form of nostalgia. Instead of seeing fan frustration as a simple issue of racism – after all, most fans of Spiderman are quick to say they like Zendaya and appreciate her as an actress – the creative teams need to set aside their need to change everything overnight (the greatest sin in managing), need to stop berating and directly insulting fans, and begin simply telling the truth. This is not about comicbooks, either. It’s about the “new hands” of movie studios dismissing history, lying, and insulting fans (in a way that is reminiscent of Donald Trump) to shame them into buying the cheap marketed goods. Fans are still upset, for example, about the way that director J.J. Abrams directly and specifically lied to them about Star Trek: Into Darkness (2013). They are insulted that Paramount made a bad movie with a bad plot and covered it up with lens flares. They are angry because they deserved better than that. Their sense of betrayal eventually damaged the profits of the phoned-in Star Trek: Beyond (2016), which many critics felt was a return to the old style of the property. Fans have a long memory – it’s how they juggle obscure references and issue numbers the way other individuals can recall baseball stats. But if the MLB or NFL said, “Oh no, wait. The Saints didn’t win the Superbowl XLIV in 2009. We think the Broncos won that year – in fact, wait, we think that was actually one big magic trick. Wait, no scratch all that. We think Michael Jordan made the winning touchdown,” you can bet fans would collectively voice their What The Hells – and not because they were racist. Just because the experience or the character is fictional doesn’t mean it is not real or didn’t happen the way we remember it.

Now fans approach a lineup of forthcoming films with gritted teeth and apathy, knowing the studios don’t care about them, their favorite characters, or the storyline of their projects. Seriously, what the heck was even going on in Suicide Squad and why was the Joker even in it for the miserable 40 seconds he appeared? Actors are joining with fans to voice their frustration as well. Jared Leto was profoundly disappointed in the final cut of Suicide Squad and Margot Robbie said she felt was sexualized and made to feel uncomfortable during filming to ensure ticket sales. But still, the studio trots out their warriors to shame fans. Director James Gunn recently called fans “racists” for speaking out against the casting of Zendaya as a traditionally redheaded white woman. Gunn added, “For me, if a character’s primary attribute – the thing that makes them iconic – is the color of their skin, or their hair color, frankly, that character is shallow and sucks.” The same, it could be argued, is true of costumes, character and motivating details, relationships, and every other signature attribute that makes the hero, heroine, and villain unique and identifiable. Iron Man doesn’t have to wear a suit of red and gold. Wolverine doesn’t need claws or a healing factor. Wonder Woman doesn’t have to be a woman. Batman’s parents? They’re alive and well! They’re living in Miami in a retirement community! Studios, seeking to build a franchise and control of the story toward that end, can change every detail that doesn’t fit into their run time and marketing rollout. Fans are supposed to go along with that; in fact, the studios behave as though it’s the fans, who have spent the last two decades with these characters, who “don’t get it.” Needless to say, tensions on both side of the screen are high.

I, for one, looked forward to Batman v. Superman. Later, when it was announced that Wonder Woman would make a cameo before getting her own film, I was elated. But I also have deep and serious reservations after seeing what Warner Bros. has been doing to the franchise. I’m afraid the studio will wash Wonder Woman of those elements that make her interesting and, again, unique. I am afraid they will take a strong and independent character and follow the popular trope that behind every strong woman is a stronger, more capable, more competent, and more accomplished man. Like Chris Pine, whose last property was (oh gosh!) as Captain James Kirk of the failed U.S.S. Enterprise. (Is it too soon to talk about how many times he’s crashed that ship?) I am afraid Wonder Woman, to sell tickets, will be unrecognizable and trite. As the trailer and promotional materials have been slowly rolled out, it appears Warner Bros. is doing just that. They will make Wonder Woman their version of Captain America. Her origin story takes place during a World War, she runs and jumps through the woods in pursuit of fascists armed only with a shield, the main villain is seeking to collect mysterious objects, and she will presumably disappear for several years until she forms the Aveng- I mean, the Justice League. Sound familiar?

I feel myself clenching up because I simply do not trust Warner Bros. to get it right. I feel, like Disney did with Marvel, that they will dilute their heroic properties for profit and chock-a-block whatever works for another sequel, prequel, or tie-in. If Suicide Squad is any indicator, they will ignore fans, they will ignore decades of source material (not just one book, but decades and decades with these characters) to be politically correct. These characters are based in fantasy; they are supposed to subvert the familiar and challenge the appropriate. More, in pursuing political correctness, I’m afraid they will even screw that up. In Suicide Squad (I’m sure to diversify the racial makeup of the cast), there was an awkward scene between actors Jared Leto, Margot Robbie, and Common. Common has less than two minutes of screentime, and – as a fan – last I checked was in the running for a more high profile role like, say, Green Lantern. Even though Common’s music is not on my favorite playlists, I’m a big fan of his acting career. “Starring Common” piques my interest and I’m willing to give a movie a shot because of his presence in a film. Which is why I sat in the theater and felt offended that DC has underutilized him for a C-list role in Suicide Squad. His acting talent was wasted in an already packed movie just for tokenism. Where Warner Bros. tried to be PC, they failed big time. Big time. Can I say that again? Big time. Common deserved more than that, so did his fans, and so did fans of the DC Universe. As we saw in those two minutes though, his character won’t reappear and neither will Common. He’s not the only star to be tricked into a lesser role, though. Jared Leto has been pretty vocal on how the studio cut him from the film. Natalie Portman has said she is no longer interested in working with Marvel, given how they have treated her character in the Thor series. Marvel has since replaced her with an African American who will be playing a Norse goddess, the same problem they encountered when they casted Idris Elba as a Norseman. Talk about disrespecting your talent and turning up the dial on racial insensitivity! Studios want to increase diversity in their films, which is commendable. I think most fans are great with that. But at what cost? If talented artists are routinely undervalued and Oscar winners voice their disgust with studios driving the superhero genre, maybe it’s time Hollywood wises up.

Fans, feeling the studios aren’t listening, have said they will boycott films and are already taking it out on the publishing divisions of Disney, which owns Marvel. McGloin notes that the surge in sales that DC Comics and the DC film properties have been experiencing (as evidenced by the success of Suicide Squad, even after the disappointing revenue and outright angry reviews of their anchor Batman v. Superman) is a result of fans jumping ship from Marvel, which has changed the gender of Thor, changed the color of Captain America and then, when the original (white) Captain America suited up again, made him a Nazi. Iron Man was powered down and replaced by a Black teenage supergenius. It’s a bit excessive to take well-known characters like the Avengers and, in the space of a year between movies, change their gender, race, name, and the individual entirely – Iron Man is now a woman. Hunh? At least be aware enough to also change the moniker to Iron Woman, Iron Lady, Maiden, Girl, whatever. Something. It is instances like this that fans are offended over – not a character’s gender or race. It’s the blatant disrespect to decades of material that fans have invested in and experienced. But when fans voice their frustration and demand the editors return a character to their origins, the offense is compounded. When Captain America was returned to the more familiar white super-male, the editors made him a Nazi to intentionally screw with their base. Clearly, the editors are flipping off their readers and, as McGloin says, the fans have had enough.

You’ll be told to get a life if you happen to care that a character’s core is changed so much. You’ll be called names and belittled for caring about a fictional character, a character that you shell our your hard earned cash for, a character that makes these guys millions and billions of dollars, a character that some people have made or do make their living from, and a character that may have impacted your personal life.

Speaking as a former fan myself, I’m perfectly happy with the X-men of the mid-to-late Nineties. When Superman died in 1993, he stayed dead. Batman’s best run was under Greg Capullo and Scott Snyder. My graphic novel collection, which memorializes great writing, perfectly encapsulates those stories, like a good book, without supplemental materials or the retcons of other writers who make Batman gender nonconforming, the X-men time travelling teenagers, or Superman into a multi-dimensional electric entity who may or may not be okay with killing his (or her?) foes to save him/herself.

Where Marvel is concerned, I’ve passed through all of the stages of grief and finally accepted they will never make an accurate movie. Whether the property is owned by Fox, Sony, Disney, or Barstucks (yep, that’s an obscure comic reference) is irrelevant now. That we are still having this conversation despite fans making their disappointment clear time and again is evidence that those to whom these stories have been entrusted don’t care about either the story or the fans. Editors want to “change things up” instead of telling well-developed stories. Studios are looking to sell seats and are willing to abandon those “iconic” qualities that inspired generations to keep reading, keep dressing up, and keep buying movie tickets so long as a focus group unfamiliar with properties says so. And that, I think, is why fans so swiftly and intently take to online forums to voice their anger and disappointment. Marginalized as children, they are once again marginalized in adulthood and revert to the familiar, creating and joining communities of fans who agree that Superman doesn’t want to kill, the Fantastic Four are funny and ironic because they are self-aware white people, and Wonder Woman is in fact a woman.

Fans are afraid, like so many other areas of idealized nostalgia that they have had to give up as a price for adulthood, that they will become emotionally numb to this last sacred space. So they rage against the machine of studios and unconcerned caretakers. They rage even as they accept, with every new film, that no one cares. And that’s the real villainy –  destroying hopes and dreams for profit. This is the message they were raised on: corporations destroy the things we love the most. And now they are seeing those messages played out in real life. Except that in reality, there are no superheroes to stop this particular kind of evil and save them.

Still, there are fans who are willing to see the end of their fandom with a new hope. Kimberlee Ann Kelly, an EdTech Innovator and Nerd Culture Enthusiast, says she feels the changes that have been taking place may be upsetting to older fans, but are intended to reinvent the superhero genre for a new generation. In is, she reasons, a new social and political landscape. Comic properties, whether expressed in print or film, are reflecting those changes. While, like McGloin, she feels that new characters should be established to represent people of color, “I also realize our nostalgia for characters is often also a subtle manifestation of white privilege. We are fortunate to have characters that look like us and are culturally identifiable.” Kelly attends cosplay conferences around the world and adds, “I’m often hailed for how spot-on my cosplays are but the fact is, I just look like the characters. The characters are drawn in my image. That is my privilege. I was born looking like a Disney princess or comic book character. I can’t imagine what it’s like to not see myself physically represented in the legends, myths and stories I love.”

This can still be challenging to those who either do not recognize their privilege, or those who are willing to recognize it but still reject the migration toward political correctness. Kelly continues that she has been in education for over a decade now, and the lack of heroic figures is disheartening. “I am acutely aware of home much their faces, bodies and culture are either absented or [relegated to] supporting characters with purposeful flaws. Imagine how pervasive their experience is? Where are the heroes that look like them? When I think through that lense [and] put aside my fan girl obsession with canon, I see opportunities to recreate our iconic stories with a diversity of characters and a new respect for women that even 10 years ago we weren’t considering.” In the end, she says, “Maybe these films aren’t for us. Maybe it’s not about nostalgia. Maybe they’re for our kids, who don’t know the canon, but can grow up in a world where superheroes they recognize come in all shapes and sizes.”

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