Actor Casting in Beloved Franchises: The Thousand Pound Gorilla in the Room
The announcing of casting for a beloved character in popular franchises, especially in those based on comic book properties, is a highly anticipated event. It’s damn near a spectator sport. Although, unlike going to something like a baseball game, watching the reactions to these casting announcements is more akin to watching the Christians being thrown to the lions. You never really know what kind of reaction you are going to get, and yet somehow the reactions seem to always be cheers or jeers, with very little middle ground in-between. We live in a wonderful period in time when hundreds of movies and TV shows are being made out of comic book properties, young adult novels, and video game franchises. A major source of disconnect between fans of an original intellectual property and a filmed version of it is when the filmed version deviates from the source material in a big way. A lot of the time, the biggest culprits are design, plot, or out of character representations of beloved characters (like Andrew Garlfield’s Peter Parker in the 2012 Amazing Spider-Man film… fight me), however recently a lot of the ire of the internet has turned towards major casting decisions made by the production companies that make the final filmed product. The reason these casting decisions can be so controversial in fandom is because they change the characterization, race and/or sometimes the gender of the original character. The fan reaction to some of these changes can be a horrifying thing to take in and usually shows off the worst, most cynical aspects of the person that is criticizing the casting announcement. It’s easy to understand why the fan is upset. If they have read a comic for years that portrayed a character as one thing for a long period of time, and then a film comes along and changes all of it, the fan feels betrayed. It is an unfortunate scenario, but truthfully, these films are not for the fans and that’s why they do not cater/pander to the fans. To understand where I am coming from, it’ll be good to define terms upfront, so let’s start with these 2 words as defined by the Oxford Dictionaries:
- Movie: A story or event recorded by a camera as a set of moving images and shown in a theater or on television; a motion picture.
- Business: The practice of making one’s living by engaging in commerce.
It is important to define movie and business together, because a lot of folks somehow seem to forget that movies are a form a business designed to make profitable money for the people and the companies making them. This is key to several points that I will be making today and will hopefully illuminate why the film industry makes the casting decisions that they do. I will discuss the film industry, but even more important than that, I will be talking about fan reactions, and specifically the way these reactions occur on social media. I, of course, have famously blogged on my severe loathing of the way that social media has the capacity to turn seemingly rational human beings into complete and utter babbling idiots, which you can read by clicking here. So let’s dig into it!
Movies as a business and how it affects you: As discussed briefly above, when a company produces and distributes a major motion picture (as well as TV shows, digital content, and other such platforms) it is for the purposes of making money. Certainly, these production companies should want to make a high quality product as it will help them make more money, but regardless of the quality of the actual final product the bottom line is simple: they want it to make money by the truckloads. This is the reason that there are 23 (official) James Bond movies and only 1 for John Carter of Mars. In this scenario, 1 franchise continually makes a ton of money and the other (quite sadly) does not. Actually, let’s all just take a brief moment of silence for the John Carter film franchise. It should have been the Star Wars for the new generation, but somehow, despite it being an excellent film with pretty half naked people, it was not…
But I digress… The point that I am making here is that movies are specifically created to find an audience and make money. This is key to the major point that I am making, because once you quit looking at a film as a representation of a franchise, but instead as a vehicle designed to make money, then the end result should become painfully clear: movies based on existing properties/franchises are not trying to honor your fan boy/girl remembrance of that property, but to get a wide audience of people who are not nearly as engaged as you are to spend money to see a movie about that property. Ultimately, the movie production companies of the world owe you (the super fan) precisely nothing. Zero. Zip. Nada. Just to be clear, THEY OWE YOU NOTHING! This is true because they aren’t trying to appeal to you. They already put Spider-Man on the big screen doing Spider-Man like things (or insert your favorite character doing their specific thing for a more personal effect), which is usually more than enough to get most die-hard super fans of whatever franchise into the theater. So when they make a major tweak outside of the norm for the franchise, like say Marvel casting the mixed African American/Caucasian actress Zendaya to play Mary Jane Watson (which they just did, for the source click here), a character that has always been represented as a pale Caucasian redhead forever, it is not done to benefit the story or the legacy of the intellectual property, it is done to rope in a demographic that they believe will benefit the bottom line of the film. In this case, it is easy to assume that they are hoping to attract more African Americans and potentially the younger audience that have watched her over the years in various Disney Channel TV shows like “Shake It Up” and “K.C. Undercover”.
Marvel has done a variety of these race swapping type of casting decisions, Such as casting the following minority actors: Idris Elba, Tadanobu Asano, Tessa Thompson, Vondie Curtis Hall, Elodie Yung, Chiwetel Ejiofor, and Tony Revolori in roles that were all Caucasian characters in the source material. Marvel is not the only one doing this, as the new CW series “Riverdale”, based on the popular Archie Comics series of characters, has made a number of casting decisions that have switched the primary race of the main characters, including Veronica Lodge as a Latina, Dilton Doiley as an Asian, Reggie Mantle as an Asian, and Josie and the Pussycats as an all African American band. All of these decisions were made to diversify the casts and make them more accessible to a mass melting pot audience. None of these casting decisions are a bad thing and to be fair, a lot of the TV and Movies of the last 100 years have been skewed heavily towards the Caucasian persuasion. So in many ways, these shake-it-up style castings (see what I did there?), are attempting to diversify properties that are considered too homogenized racially, which makes them less accessible to a wider audience. I get it. For the most part, a lot of you do as well as most of these race swapping casts have been met with applause, which makes what I’m going to say next seem strange… When Marvel cast Tilda Swinton, a Caucasian female, in the role of the Ancient One, an elderly Asian male in the comic book, in the new Doctor Strange film they got hit by the internet at large for “whitewashing” the movie and stealing another job away from a minority. Wait. What? After all of the race swapping is said and done in these films, if I understand this correctly, it’s only OK if it reassigns Caucasian roles to minorities, but not the other way around. Right? Well that’s some Grade-A bullshit right there. This insurgent group of highly vocal internet twits cried foul when the following Caucasians were cast in minority character roles recently: Johnny Depp as Tonto in the Lone Ranger, Scarlet Johansson as the Major in Ghost in the Shell, Christian Bale as Moses in Exodus: Gods and Kings, Rooney Mara as Tiger Lily in Pan, Jake Gyllenhaal as Dastan in Prince of Persia, and the list goes on and on and on. Hell, there’s an entire wikipedia page about Whitewashing in Film, that you should not read for any reason, ever. I. SHIT. YOU. NOT.
Listen up nerds: you can’t applaud one casting decision that significantly alters an established character via characterization, race, and/or gender and then denigrate another because you think #HollywoodSoWhite. Also, you cannot get bent out of shape if a minority takes over the role of a Caucasian character either. This is a bold new world we live in, and you have to be willing to accept change, because it is a-coming. It is either fair game for anybody to be cast as any established character at all times in movies or TV shows, or it’s always unfair at all times and anybody who doesn’t perfectly fit the ideal of the established character must not ever be cast ever in the history of ever. There can be no middle ground. We either accept diversity in all its many forms, or we act like entitled twats and rage against the machine together in opposition to any and all deviations from our lovely (misguided) ideal of a perfect cast. So pick one now. You are either a hate mongering bigot or you are not. Pure and simple.
Look, we all get a little worked up about the franchises that we love, because we love them. We have an ideal in our mind of the perfect representation of our beloved characters and it can sting when we don’t get what we want. Also, I understand that there is a large contingency of fans that want to see more diverse characters in movies and TV shows as well. In the moment, we can all say some pretty stupid stuff, and I am no exception to this. That being said, I have never been ugly, racist, or downright hateful about my disagreements, and I have certainly never started a hashtag designed to piss people off. The levels of depravity that some individuals will allow themselves to dive to over trivial meaningless stuff is truly heartbreaking. I actually witnessed a group of grown people effectively go to war with each other because Marvel did not cast an Asian to play Danny Rand in the new Netflix series, Iron Fist. B.T.Dubs, Danny Rand is a Caucasian in the comic books, and they cast a Caucasian to portray him in the series. They were literally upset to the point of obscenities and Twitter rage and hashtags because a Caucasian had been cast to play the role of a Caucasian in a TV show about a guy who wears green and yellow tights and punches things really hard. Seriously, if you are the type of person that flies off the handle about something as asinine as that, then perhaps it is time for you to find a new hobby. Fandom already has enough toxic bullshit without having allegations of racism and/or whitewashing being thrown into the mix for no good reason whatsoever. If this is you, stop it.
Accept that there is no one perfect version of whatever it is you love, especially not if it is filmed, and either enjoy it for what it is, or don’t watch it altogether. Remember, movies and TV shows are a business and as such they are not looking to appeal to you specifically, they are looking to appeal to everyone generally. It’s not always about you. If you don’t like what they are doing, that’s cool, say your peace in a respectful but critical way. Don’t be a jerk, and definitely don’t try to alienate or berate an entire group of people just because you didn’t get your way in something as trivial as a casting decision in a movie or TV show. Civil discourse is the name of the game, learn how to do it ASAP. If you need a refresher course on how to engage properly in civil discourse, I wrote a wonderful blog post about the “Lost Art of Winning an Argument” that you can read by clicking here.
Just to sum up: movies and TV shows are a business designed to make money, they owe you nothing, they will cast whoever they think will gain a larger audience and make them more money, it’s OK to disagree with what they are doing with a popular franchise, it’s not OK to be an asshole and/or bigot about it. Got it? Cool. I knew you could do it. Now go back on to the social media platforms of your choice and play nice. Life is too short to spread all this hate and vitriol around. So next time you are thinking of having a verbal spaz attack on social media about how Company X ruined your life because they cast Person X in your most favorite-ist movie series ever, just remember what Frankie says… Relax, don’t do it!