With a new "Fantastic Four" underway, the question has come up - can Johnny Storm, the Human Torch, be played by the African-American Michael B. Jordan? And with a new Spider-Man sequel next year, Andrew Garfield has asked why Spider-Man can't be gay? For that matter, why can't Batman be black? Why can't Superman be Samoan? Why can't Green Lantern be a Scientologist? The list goes on and on. I'll be frank - there's aren't enough high profile minority characters in comics, despite some major advances in the last decade. But changing an established character from one thing to another can be tricky - and here's why.
The first fundamental question one has to ask is does this change undermine the core concept of the character? Generally, the answer is no. After playing Clark Kent in an SNL skit, Dwayne Johnson was asked if he'd ever suit up for the real deal - to which he replied America probably wasn't ready for an African/Samoan Superman. But I have to disagree. Superman is from Krypton. Whose to say everyone on his planet doesn't resemble the Rock? Similarly, Batman's race doesn't have much impact on the fact that he's the gosh-darned Batman, the World's Greatest Detective. (My pick for the next Batman - Idris Elba) The only exception I could think of was Captain America. Long before Chris Evans took the role, there was rumors of a black Captain America. The problem is Captain America is from the 40's, when African-Americans were treated very differently (see the excellent comic "Truth: Red, White and Black" for more) and it would be a mistake to gloss over that. Thus, period characters and pieces are probably the one exception to the rule.
But the second fundamental question is does such a change affect the context of the character? This is actually where I'm inclined to respectfully disagree with Andrew Garfield. We comic book nerds identify with our respective superheroes on a deep, personal level. One of the selling points of Spider-Man is that he doesn't get the girl, at least not easily, even as a hero who typically makes the right decision, putting others first. Spider-Man's girl troubles are an important part of the character's context as well as a big part of how and why fans identify with the character.
One of my favorite characters is Kitty Pryde, who is Jewish. But let's say I am writing her, and I think she should be Presbyterian because I'm Presbyterian and there just aren't enough Presbyterian superheroes. At a glance, changing Kitty Pryde's religion doesn't affect the character on the surface - she has the same personality, same powers, same appearances, and arguably, close to the same upbringing. But I do so at the expense of a fans who identified with Kitty Pryde because of her faith, because of what originally made her unique. That's ultimately what such a move would come down to.
The good thing about comics, however, is the medium's long history allows for multiple interpretations of characters. Look at how much Batman has changed over the decades, from costumed pulp avenger to colorful crime fighter to dark and brooding vigilante. Beyond this, there are one-shots like the "Earth One" series, which re-imagines the origins of DC Comics superheroes in modern times. On top of that, there's alternate realities like the ones presented on both DC's "Elseworld" series as well as Marvel's "Exiles", many times involving traditional superheroes re-imagined in different time periods, races, backgrounds and orientations. So, with that said, a mini-series involving a gay Spider-Man like Andrew Garfield describes is entirely possible as part of an alternate reality or out-of-continuity comic.
The problem is the comic book companies have had a habit of too closely tying their comic book stories with their cinematic one. After "The Avengers" made big bucks at the box office, the comics introduced Nick Fury Jr., who appears to be a dead-ringer for a young Samuel L. Jackson. Before that, the Samuel L. Jackson version had only appeared in the Ultimate comics set in an alternate reality. It's not a huge deal, because generally comic book fans loved the idea of Samuel L. being essentially the "M" of the Marvel Universe. But again, the change worked because fans bought it (especially given how excited they were to see Samuel L. Jackson in the post-credit scene of "Iron Man"). If the comic book companies, and by default, their movie counterparts made essential changes to a character's core concept, they might not be so lucky with regards to fan approval.
What has always appealed to me about comics is there are essentially for everyone - they are a multi-generational industry, transcending boundaries of race, gender, orientation and more. That said, there's a right way to do this - and it's the one that makes sure there's a voice for everyone in the book without taking away what what person likes about a character to make room for someone else's. Comic books, at least as we know them, have been around for at least seventy-five years, and some of its most recognizable heroes have been around for almost as long, changing with the times. But just like Batman is big enough for Adam West, Michael Keaton, Christian Bale and more, I think every superhero is big enough for multiple faces.
(That's it for this rant. Check out a new Blue Yonder next week!)