If you’ve seen videos of cosplay or the various ‘Cons’ the first thing you notice is that they feature all sorts of quirky, colorful (and often brilliant) costumes, which is why it’s understandable if you thought that that was what comic geek culture was all about (besides costumes and the–virtual–worship of certain movies and comic characters).
And for the most part, you’d be right, though there are instances when a comic character that began “life” as a white person, and is reinterpreted as a person of color in the movies (Oddly, when a male character was reinterpreted as female, in the case of 2004 reboot of Battlestar Galactica, when Starbuck was underwent gender reassignment, fans only offered token resistance while most were relatively sanguine about it) when you often see the ugly side of fandom.
Before I begin, you’ll noticed that I deliberately don’t use the term “race” because, besides being a misnomer, it has always bothered me because white people are genetically identical to black people, yellow people, beige people, and so on.
I bring this up because the reaction to John Boyega, dressed as a stormtrooper in the beginning of the Star Wars: The Force Awakens trailer, has been pretty distressing for some members of the fan community.
Comic book fans tend to be sticklers for detail, which to a degree I can understand. If someone has been following a character for the better part of their lives, it probably feels amazing to see the character on the big screen; till that is, they see that the character has been interpreted in a manner opposite to what they have known and anticipated.
That being said, it feels that whenever an actor of color is cast in a prominent role in a comic book movie, some in the fan community lose all sense of propriety, and logic goes out the window.
Now, part of this tendency is due to the very nature of the Internet, which enables a person to say virtually anything they want about anyone they want, with little in the way of repercussions.
Something people tend to avoid in real life because not everyone responds well to insults made to their faces.
Though the reaction to the casting of people of color in prominent roles that some would think would perhaps be better held by whites is all out of proportion to the (perceived) offense. For instance, when Idris Elba was cast by Kenneth Brannagh as Heimdall in 2011’s Thor some in the fan community went insane over the idea that a black person could be cast in a role that, in the comics, was a white person.
This is besides the fact that Heimdall is an extremely minor character in the comics that most people would have cared less about otherwise; the comic is called “Thor,” not “Heimdall” for a reason.
Besides, what some seem to forget is that Thor was introduced in 1962 (in Journey Into Mystery, No. 83 and Marvel’s first black character was Black Panther, who appeared in July of 1966 in Fantastic Four No. 52–the first African-American character was the Falcon, who appeared in September, 1969 in Captain America No. 117.
So, if filmmakers stuck to the comics literally when it came to translating superheroes to the screen, then there would be even less faces of color than there currently are.
Which isn’t to imply that there aren’t times when drawing attention to such casting makes sense, such as when Ridley Scott cast cast Christian Bale as Moses and Joel Edgerton as Ramses in his upcoming feature, Exodus: Gods And Kings.
There’s no such thing as color-blind casting, and choosing a white person from Britain and another from Australia to play Moses and Ramses is on the face of it a particularly arrogant thing–which was significantly easier to do in 1956 a version of The Ten Commandments was made starring Charleston Heston as Moses–than it is today, when people are more likely to call out things they interpret as problems.
There was considerable uproar over the casting of a primarily white cast in M. Night Shyamalan’s The Last Airbender in 2010 that ignored the fact that many of the characters from the cartoon it was based on were various shades of brown.
Another particularly grevious example involved the 2004 SyFy channel (formerly known as Sci-Fi) miniseries upon A Wizard of Earthsea and The Tombs of Atuan by Ursula LeGuin, which the author complained about.
LeGuin herself described all the characters of her books as “…they’re mixed, they’re rainbow.”
Maybe it’s about time that Hollywood thought in a similar fashion.