To be a fan of anything is to be an amateur casting director. There’s more joy in imagining potential entertainments than in their actual consumption; it’s why we leave a movie after waiting patiently for the now-traditional mid-credits stinger, and immediately start brainstorming ideas for the sequel the instant our feet touch lobby carpet. The announcement of the latest inevitable reboot is met with all the enthusiasm of having to clean out the catbox, until we catch ourselves playing in that grimy sand, pushing recycled ideas around like kitty pickles; What if Spider-Man did this? What if the Terminator did that? What if so-and-so was the Doctor?
This past weekend, a new Doctor was chosen. Peter Capaldi is a great actor, and a wonderful choice, not only for the energy he can bring to the role, but for the fact he’s a massive Doctor Who nerd. But there was still disappointment to be found, partially because you just can’t please everybody, partially because he’s in his fifties and not conventionally attractive, and partially because he’s the twelfth straight white dude to play the character. Thirteenth, if you count John Hurt, who is playing a one-off version of the Doctor in an upcoming special.
Steven Moffat, Doctor Who’s current emperor, took time during the half-hour live press event announcing Capaldi to throw shade at the idea that the Doctor could be anything but a white guy, namechecking Dame Helen Mirren’s volunteering for the role, and smirking up a one-line dismissal about how he can’t wait until a man is chosen to be Queen of England.
So with those specific TARDIS doors clicked shut, pop-culture addicts have to move onto other scenarios with which to disappoint themselves, scenarios that almost always involve the same guy:
James Bond will have to be recast soon! Idris Elba would be perfect for that! There’s those new Star Wars movies, Idris Elba could be a Jedi! Maybe Warner Bros. can finally get a Wonder Woman movie off the—nah. It’ll never happen. People wouldn’t know what to do with a woman action hero. It’s too risky. Oh yeah, there’s gonna be another version of Batman in the sequel to the Superman reboot! Sure, people are talking about Josh Brolin & Ryan Gosling. But what about Idris Elba? Maybe?
(This fan-addiction to Elba is interesting to see, considering that while he can now be imagined as anyone who has ever appeared in a comic-book, from Lex Luthor to Shazam, the instant he was cast as goofy-assed Heimdall in the first Thor movie, people freaked out. Seems so long ago.)
Where these endless debates on Twitter/Facebook/forums become illuminating is when someone suggests casting a black person in a role that's traditionally been white. I don’t know if Mr. Elba knows just how many arguments his mere existence has recently sparked, but hopefully he's flattered that so many people find him so perfect for so many iconic roles, including, most recently, the Caped Crusader.
It wouldn’t even be that hard to do. Simply change Martha Wayne’s race from white to black. Now young Master Bruce is a mixed-race child. It’s not as if Batman does what he does because he is a white guy. His racial identity really doesn’t factor into any of the character’s motivations.
But often, this suggestion induces significant pushback, an understandable reaction after 70+ years of a character’s look having been burned into your brain. It typically takes the form of three basic arguments for why Batman can’t be black.
* The idea of a silver-spoon-fed socialite being a young mixed race child isn’t exactly plausible, which will make that child’s plausible transformation into a body-armored bat-themed super-ninja for justice really silly.
* The idea of taking an established superhero and just willy-nilly (it’s always willy-nilly, or thoughtlessly, needlessly, carelessly, etc) changing his race is insulting to current readers, and shameful pandering/race-baiting to potential readers.
* Why potentially ruin the appeal of an established, popular superhero when real diversity can be had by inventing a completely new one instead, letting them stand on their own feet, instead of an existing heroes’ shoulders.
These arguments have some merit, I guess, although they seem to me to be varying degrees of cynically conservative. But none of those make the case for why Batman can’t be black. They make the case for why a person doesn’t want him to be black, but you can’t say that out loud, because then you’re open to charges of intolerance, and that shit stings.
People don’t like the implication they could be the bad guy on this issue. Racism is bad. That’s axiomatic. Thus, arguments against changing Batman’s race tend to go like:
“It’s not that I don’t want Batman to be black. With the right writers, I bet it'd be cool! I’d love for popular culture to be more diverse! It’s just that, unfortunately, it simply can’t be done in the case of Mr. Bruce Wayne. There’s too much history and continuity. It’s a shame, but that’s just the way the world works. “
Which is bullshit. Bruce Wayne doesn’t exist. He’s not real. It wouldn’t take a miracle of genetic engineering to somehow flip the needed switches in his DNA to transform him from a rich white guy to a rich black guy. He’s completely fictional. Of course he can be a black man. He’s been a lot of things over the course of his 70+ years in existence, most of them infinitely more ridiculous and unbelievable than possessing a darker skin tone.
Yet his character has persevered and thrived over the course of those 70+ years. It can be argued that’s because of those reinterpretations, from talented writers providing their own takes on the character, enriching him in ways most writers never did; honestly, the large majority of comics writers throughout the 40s, 50s, 60s, and ‘70s were fucking awful; hacks in the truest sense of the word, people who didn’t really care about their craft, only their check. It seems weird to argue that Batman could survive that decades-long onslaught of mostly-terrible storytelling, but couldn’t survive a change in melanin levels.
“But why do you have to force racial diversity on readers by changing an established hero’s race? Why can’t you just create a new character, and let them be their own thing?”
I don’t think efforts to create new heroes for readers should be minimized. They absolutely should be encouraged and championed. But I also think this question is slightly disingenuous. Because most readers know new heroes usually don’t gain much traction; new minority heroes even less. For a genre of fiction so chained to the past, introducing spandexed strongmen without any real legacy is a handicap. Unless your character is part of an existing crossover event, or is sidekicking for an already established superhero, any hypothetical Black Superguy or Black Batdude probably isn't going to stick. So the question is really just a disguised statement:
“Look, just create a completely separate black superhero, and put them in their own book, because that way I can easily ignore them. You make Bruce Wayne black, now I have to pay attention to his black ass and I really don’t like that idea.”
It’s a strange tug-of-war that many superhero fans are engaged in. There’s the desire to see superheroes look and act more like the people reading their stories, watching their movies, downloading episodes of their television show. And with the knowledge that everything will likely be rebooted/remade on a 10-15 year cycle anyway, part of the appeal in following superheroes is seeing how these characters are reinterpreted, what new twists are applied, what new beats can be dropped in the newest remix of a significant piece of pop-culture.
But how much can you really want a more diverse pop-culture landscape when you’re not even willing to sacrifice the imaginary racial identity of a completely fictional person? If that’s the price that must be paid to help get that playing field just a bit more leveled out, how can you balk at that?
Unless the racial purity of a make-believe crime-fighter who dresses like a flying rodent to punch out fat socialites is too socially important to play with; that it’s too risky an answer to the question “Why aren’t there more black faces in our escapist fantasy fiction?”
Maybe that’s all there is to it. Batman staying white is more important to people than pop-culture more closely mirroring the audience engaging it. That’s why Batman can’t be black, and the Doctor can’t be a woman, because even at such a low cost-of-entry, that price is too high.