Monday, March 21, 2011

Thor and the 21st Century

By Joanna Shearer, Assistant Professor of English

Movie Poster Image Courtesy of Paramount Pictures
According to many in the comic book world, Hollywood has once again made an egregious casting error in an effort to promote diversity in films.  In the upcoming summer comic-book blockbuster, Thor, Hollywood cast Idris Elba, a black actor, into the role of Heimdall, a character who has been drawn white since the beginnings of the comic in the 1960s.  The question becomes: why is everybody so upset? 

For many, the answer to this question would be obvious, for “obviously” modern films, in an effort to promote color-/gender-blind casting, consistently seek to make changes based on race, ethnicity, and gender to make films more diverse, but in doing so, the Hollywood “machine” often makes significant changes to the original source material that the narrative’s purists simply cannot stomach. 

For this devout group, the film version of the comic should remain as true to the original source material as possible, regardless of modern concerns about racial tensions and equality.  Indeed, if one considers the travesty that was the G.I. Joe film, with the Baroness becoming a bubbly, blond, brainwashed, and American cipher of her former self, one can see that the comic book purists may have a point.  As a medievalist, where I constantly see Hollywood making horrific errors in plot (Beowulf and Troy), historical inaccuracies (Robin Hood, King Arthur, Kingdom of Heaven, etc.), and characterization (see all of the above and many, many more) supposedly for the sake of capturing the interest of a modern audience, I cannot entirely discount those who are feeling righteously indignant. 

On the other hand, I must recall the unfair treatment of Katee Sackhoff when she took on the role of Starbuck in the remake of Battlestar Galactica.  Many fans of the original show were down right incensed that a woman had been cased in this pivotal role.  And yet, when the show began, those doubters became some of her biggest fans, which is a testament to both Sackhoff’s abilities as an actor as well as her courage and grit in the face of wide-scale public vitriol. Consequently, my advice for this situation is the same as I said to many about Sackhoff: give Elba a chance.  He is a fantastic actor, and he just might do a good job.

Ultimately, the consumer has the power here. Marvel has warned its audience ahead of time of its change to the mythology, and so they have taken the risk of lower box office returns months before the movie will be released.  By contrast, Those Who Shall Not Be Named in charge of G.I. Joe produced an exciting trailer with no warning of the major revisions to the original mythology that led many of us old fans to pay good money to see a travesty of a film. 

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