On the ethnicity of superheroes

Whitewashing is complicated, but still awful

Neil Sheppard
Apr 17, 2016 · 9 min read

By definition, superheroes are iconic figures. Superman’s ‘S’, Batman’s cape, Spider-man swinging over the city — it’s a visual medium and every revision of any of those classic characters’ designs is a hot topic; never more so than when they are adapted into another medium.

On the other hand, comics are a quick-cash industry. It’s pretty easy to bung out a new comic when you feel there’s the potential to hit a zeitgeist and no-one seriously thinks of it as high art, so the comics medium has never been afraid to exploit a fad or appropriate a fashionable culture. This mercenary attitude has given artists a back door to portray under-represented cultures and races in a positive way, to everyone’s benefit.

Captain America, Iron Man and Punisher may all be white, but they have all been replaced by black guys for periods of their publishing history, and that’s not even to mention heroes like Black Panther, Luke Cage, two incarnations of Batgirl/woman and Midnighter, who were all created to represent sub-cultures in the media. There’s even a plus-size superhero nowadays.

Either way, fans care passionately about how superheroes are interpreted by Hollywood, both for aesthetic reasons and for deeply-political ones. These characters have been around for so long that people have grown up with them and expect them to be as they’ve always enjoyed, particularly readers who feel ignored in fiction and are passionate about characters that represent them. Hollywood has managed to screw this up in both directions.

On the one hand, films like Spawn and Wanted have cast white actors as black characters for no particularly-good reason; though, admittedly, Spawn kept the race of its protagonist and Angelina Jolie’s character in Wanted was almost unrecognisable from the one in the source material — still, it justifiably rankled fans who were now excluded from one of the few places they were represented in the media.

Conversely, Sony upset Fantastic Four readers by casting a black actor as Johnny Storm in their latest attempt to reboot the franchise. Certainly, a lot of the backlash was pure racism, but there was also a subtler point that was hard to argue with. It may have been noble for Sony to try to add diversity to the cast, but doing so with a character whose sister was also on the super team without casting a black actress in that role suggested it was a token gesture enacted by someone who only casually glanced at the plotting of the film itself — corporate, rather than creative, thinking. If they truly wanted a more-diverse cast, why not cast a black actress as Sue Storm too and introduce an interracial romance? At least they tried.

Netflix seemed to be doing much better until recently. They had an interracial romance between their version of Luke Cage and Jessica Jones in her series, with Cage to be spun off into his own show, which is set to tackle New York’s racial issues in its plotting. The next series to be announced, however, has drawn some controversy as the streaming service has cast a white actor to play the superhero martial artist Iron Fist.

Now, Iron Fist is difficult to begin with. The character was a blatant attempt by Marvel to cash in on the 70s fad for Kung Fu movies with their own dragon warrior. Alas, they made the dubious decision to make their own version of Bruce Lee white.

Thankfully, that was the only dodgy choice they made. The Iron Fist comics have been largely respectful of Asian culture (at least for comics), and feature Luke Cage and two kickass women, black and Asian respectively, as supporting characters.

Iron Fist earns his powers in another dimension accessed by a secret portal in the Himalayas and he is an expert in all martial arts, including fictional ones, so technically, the inspiration is more of a general martial arts trend than a specific appropriation of Asian culture. Marvel does also have a few actually-Asian martial arts superheroes, like Shen Kuei and Shang-Chi, the latter of which will appear in the Iron Fist series as well.

Of course, particularly as a white man, but also in general, I don’t have any right to tell people what they should be offended by, but surely what we want is the casting of an actor to be entirely dependent on the way they portray the character, not on their ethnicity. As such, whether a white actor is cast should be irrelevant, so long as the right actor is cast and, hopefully, there is a roughly-equal representation for all races and persuasions.

While it would have been admirable for Netflix to cast an actor of an under-represented race as Iron Fist, I can’t really blame them for casting an actor who looks like the character from the comics. On the other hand, insisting a Kung Fu master character has to be Chinese seems a bit racially insensitive in itself. I mean, don’t get me wrong, the more representation for different races on TV, the better, but as such, why not make Iron Fist Arab or Mauri – he doesn’t have to be Asian just because he does Kung Fu?

There’s plenty of room for diversity, so long as the right person is chosen for the right role. For example, I’m still hoping they’ll cast Freema Agyeman as Captain Marvel, simply because I think she’d be great as Carol Danvers. Conversely, I’m opposed to the recent fan petition to cast Sue Perkins as Dr Who, not because she’s a woman, but because she’s not had much experience as an actress. Likewise, I prefer Tom Hardy over Idris Elba to play James Bond just because I think, as good as Elba is, Hardy would do a better job.

That’s absolutely not to say that whitewashing is acceptable and there is one Tippexed franchise that I am very much up in arms over. I’m a huge fan of Ghost In The Shell and have every incarnation of the series from the manga to the anime and love them all, but I am fearful of the upcoming Hollywood adaptation because of the casting of Scarlett Johannson in the lead role.

Many are furious about this because the new live-action movie adapting the Japanese series is to be set in America and comprise a whole cast of white actors. I actually think this is understandable. If you want authenticity, go read the manga. The purpose of making a Hollywood remake is to bring the story to an audience who would otherwise be put off by the admitted opaqueness of Japanese media. If you insist on remaking the first film at all, then anglicising it is par for the course. Equally, making the film down the road with a local cast is more financially sensible than going all the way to Japan. It’s the same reason Ridley Scott cast Russell Crowe as Robin Hood and Captain America is played by a Canadian — it’s not a big deal.

There is, however, a major issue with recasting GITS that is more to do with culture than race. As comics writer John Tsuei pointed out recently, Ghost In The Shell is very much a commentary on Japanese culture. It’s all about the Japanese obsession with technology; the nation’s far-right leanings; the story is rooted in Shinto philosophy; and that story is decorated with Japanese fictional motifs like robot tanks and android geisha. An American version of the story will lose almost everything that makes GITS unique.

All this aside, though, the whitewashing of GITS still grates. Making the movie in the States may ruin the story — and I suspect it will cause it to flop by offending fans and making the finished product just another generic action movie — but it’s understandable. Since the film is set in America, it makes sense for the cast to be mainly white. What isn’t understandable is why they couldn’t have at least cast an Asian lead. There are Asian Americans, after all, and we are, like Iron Fist, looking for someone who resembles the character.

You want someone to play Major Kusanagi? Kelly Hu, Elodie Yung, Bae Doona, Rinko Kikuchi, Maggie Q, Ming-Na Wen, Michelle Yeoh — all capable actresses, all with experience in stunt work, all with Hollywood success under their belt, all a better fit for the character of Major Kusanagi than Johannson, all actually Asian. Kikuchi is specifically Japanese and was in Pacific Rim, a major success. When casting Professor X, the studio went straight to Patrick Stewart, to everyone’s joy, so why an American actress of Danish descent for Kusanagi when she doesn’t particularly strike anyone as being right for the role?

I actually don’t think it’s about racism so much as sheer capitalism. Johannson has made a string of successful action movies ever since appearing as Black Widow in Iron Man 2. Hollywood thinks America is so sexist and racist that they won’t go to see an action-oriented movie with an Asian, female lead, and they very much want a guarantee of making their money back on a film they’re spending so much on FX for.

We know, of course, that this is bollocks. Pacific Rim, Star Wars, any of Denzel Washington’s action movies, Rush Hour, The Matrix, Beverly Hills Cop, Hancock, Men In Black, Fury Road, I, Robot, Zorro, Blade, Fast and Furious, Crouching Tiger, Salt, even Lucy itself — all massively-successful action movies with ass-kicking main characters who aren’t just white dudes.

This is what is so insidious about racism: no-one sets out to be racist. To racists, racism is just sound logic and the fact that it oppresses a group of people who are different to them is just an unpleasant side effect. Hollywood is a business and it needs numbers to push things forward. We can shout at studios for whitewashing films all we want, but they aren’t going to listen until films representing under-represented races and cultures start making box office.

In a capitalist society, you vote with your wallet. So, how about when the Hollywood GITS comes out, we all just go buy a special edition of the anime and give the new movie a miss? I strongly suspect you’ll have a better time even while making a political statement.

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Neil Sheppard

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Just a word-nerd trying to make the world a little bit more awesome. Writes about bad movies, parenting, scifi, grammar, copywriting, nerd rage and facepalming.

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