Despite the turbulent news this past week, there were some exciting character announcements that made us all sit up. In comics, the mantle of Iron Man will soon be taken over by Riri Williams, a black teenage girl. In movies, we’ve heard that the popular Star Trek character, Sulu, will now be an openly gay role. If you know me, you know I was excited about both pieces of news. But as I dug further, I had to tamper down my hype. There are some things that could prove problematic if these characters are not handled correctly. Even after being brought down to reality, I still believe that these changes are a step in the right direction.
It’s been reported that after the current Civil War 2 series ends, Tony Stark is retiring and giving a young protege the reins. My enthusiasm for a character like Riri was tempered after reading how some people responded. Some issues included the possibility of this fifteen-year-old being seen as an adult (Iron Woman) or misgendered and called a man throughout the series because of the title she’s taking over. There’s also concern about the handling of such a character from writer Brian Michael Bendis, and the issue of no black female writers at Marvel to handle a story like this. All of these issues are summed up quite nicely in a post by Son of Baldwin. However, the one topic that I found most interesting was the changing of a character just to appeal to a diverse audience. This is something that is going on in a certain spacey movie universe as well.
In the latest installment, Star Trek: Beyond, it was announced that character Hikaru Sulu was written to be openly gay. Apparently, this was done as a tribute to George Takei, but surprisingly he wasn’t so open to it. In a statement to The Hollywood Reporter, he says, “Unfortunately, it’s a twisting of Gene’s creation, to which he put in so much thought. I think it’s really unfortunate.” Simon Pegg, the writer for the new movie, is quoted in a TIME article mentioning the trouble about creating a completely new character. He reshaped the existing role to escape tokenism, believing a entirely new person may end up being “primarily defined by their sexuality.” Again, for diversity’s sake, we have the transformation of an established personality, but this begs the question, which way is right?
Old vs. New
The arguments against this method of character change are many and show up almost every time something like this happens. They’ve been put forward when Miles Morales was introduced as Spider-Man and when Michael B. Jordan played the Human Torch / Johnny Storm in the Fantastic Four. Many fans feel like it’s a slap in the face because they’ve grown to love everything about a character and suddenly it all changes. There are also those who say that it seems like the writers are pandering to a community for a quick buck, only for the role to change back later. Lastly, there’s the idea that it doesn’t solve any long-term diversity problem the way the an original character would. There are some points on the opposite end, however.
The flipside is that an original character is hard to get excited about. So, it’s easier to just rewrite an existing person with tons of popularity and fill the diversity gap. It’s instant minority gratification (in theory). Again comes the question, which way is the best?
When I think about how I grew up without seeing or reading of people like me in extraordinary fictional circumstances, I can’t help but side with the rewriting of a character. It’s a big boon to the children coming up today to see that they can be amazing, too. That sense of possibility that gets instilled outweighs any figurative slaps to the face that fans may feel. However, I do think that if more original diverse characters were created and properly pushed to audiences, we’d have less of a need to do this. While I’m pleased to see more diverse stand-ins / rewrites, I think the most energy should be spent on new ideas that solve the problem. We have yet to see how Riri and Sulu are going to be handled, but for now their presence is a good one in my book.
On which side of this argument do you fall? Write a comment below!