In the comics world, the word “Retcon” short for “Retroactive continuity” is used whenever something that was previously established, such as a character’s origins, is changed to something new. For example, before the New 52 reboot, Tim Drake was one of the most notable men to take the role of Robin in Batman history, leaving to focus on the Teen Titans and taking a new identity for himself. When the universe rebooted, however, he was given a new backstory in which he never was Robin, instead stating that his leadership of the Teen Titans is the only involvement he’s really had with the Bat family. This is a silly thing to change, and one that most assuredly angered Tim Drake fans for no real value, but that isn’t the kind of retcon about which I want to discuss today, as these things are just a part of comics, and after a while, you just learn to roll with the punches.
No, today, I want to discuss the kind of retcons that are systematically offensive on some level, and over the course of the past week, I sadly experienced two of them involving series I actually like. And both of them involve the monster that is modern Hollywood. The first is more high profile, but the second is, in my opinion, one of the more frustrating things I’ve seen Hollywood do. I can’t stand either decision, so let’s get right into this.
In Zack we trust?
First up is Man of Steel. Yes, that upcoming superhero movie by Zack Snyder that we all really, REALLY hope is good. What do you think of when you think of Superman? You probably think of his incredibly overpowered abilities first, then perhaps how he stands for truth, justice, and the American way, followed by how ridiculous that kind of idealism sounds in this overly cynical society, and, perhaps, if you’re like me, how you’re glad that he still maintains that naive adherence to what he believes in light of everything else. Perhaps you think of Lois Lane as his one true pairing (unless you’re DC and decide he should be with Wonder Woman because Kingdom Come was great right? Ugh…). And maybe, just maybe, if you’re enough of a fan of the comic books, you’ll think of Jenny Olsen, that red headed kid who’s always been close to the Kent family and serves as one of Superman’s best friends.
Wait, no, that’s Jimmy Olsen. Who the heck is Jenny, and why is she being played by an non-redhead? This, my friends, is what we call a gender swap. Warner Brothers decided they’d rather turn Superman’s best bud into an attractive woman than let one of the longest running and most respected side characters in the DC universe make an appearance. Just great, guys. Really, well done.
Now I know what you’re thinking: this doesn’t seem that offensive at first glance. After all, we have no idea what role this Jenny Olsen is going to play. And perhaps my cynicism is just high when I know superhero movies are marketed towards men and marketing towards men is quite…lacking nowadays, if not downright offensive. Until the movie comes out, we really don’t know what will happen, so perhaps I should back off of this one.
But here’s my counter: what GOOD reason could Warner Brothers have had to make this decision? Honestly, what can possibly be gained from this switch. Just by doing it, they’re likely to have offended a large portion of comic fans that really enjoyed Jimmy, so why do it? The most obvious answers are not ones of which Warner Brothers should be proud. More than likely, this is going to be yet another female character that’s used to be drooled over and get men in seats. Perhaps they’ll introduce an awkward love triangle between her and Lois that doesn’t need to happen and makes no sense with Superman’s character from the comics, but would make sadly a lot of sense with what Nolan is likely to do with him. And let’s face it; Zack Snyder isn’t particularly known for his portrayal of deep female characters.
Adding what it looks like Warner Bros. and Zack Snyder are bringing to this role creates many more problems than it does solutions. At best, this is going to be just another source of eye candy, and honestly, do we really need more eye candy in Hollywood movies? I can’t imagine the number of people that are going to see this movie because there’s another beautiful woman in it is higher than the number of people that will be offended by the mishandling of Jimmy’s character. And honestly, this is more than just a poor decision. Lois Lane is one of the few females in comics that I can say isn’t (overly) sexualized as a general rule. She’s known for her smarts, determination, and compassion more than anything else, and that’s why comic book fans love her. Superman’s relationship with women as a whole goes to show that men don’t always have to fulfill that macho persona of having all the ladies or hooking up with the hottest babe around. Man of Steel should have been an opportunity for Hollywood to show that even superheroes can have relationships based on more than powers and looks. Now…I’m not so sure it will, and that’s the second worst kind of retcon to me.
Taking some liberties…
The worst, you might ask? Race Lift retcons. For those of you who don’t feel like clicking that link, race lifting is when the race of a character is changed from the original source material such that it can appeal to a more mainstream audience. Now, if you’re like me, you already see the big problem here, but I’ll give my reasons why this offends me so much in case it doesn’t yet follow. Race lifting tends to work in two directions. In the first, side characters are turned into minorities to purposefully diversify the cast. As such, either their race plays no role in their character (which often makes no sense), or they play up those racial stereotypes for humour (particularly in the case of comedies). These can both offensive on different levels, mostly because it stems from the idea of “Wait, we don’t have enough minorities; just go find one so we can fill our quota and not look racist to the public!” but I at least get that decision, mostly because it would look genuinely racist to have an all white cast in something like Thor just because the original source material for the mythology was Scandinavian and thus didn’t contain many other races. But, like in Thor, at least that type of race lifting can be done well if its handled with sensitivity (and for the record, I think Marvel Films has handled this quite well).
The other type of race lifting, however, is far less forgivable in my eyes, as it takes a protagonist that previously belonged to a different race and changes them into the ethnic majority in an attempt to make the character more readily marketable. This kind of casting just flat out sucks, and I was sadly made aware of it while writing my most recent review of R.I.P.D. City of the Damned. For those of you unfamiliar with the series, R.I.P.D. tells the tale of Nick Cruz, a police officer who is killed in the line of duty and brought to work for the Rest In Peace Department, also known as God’s police force. He’s promised that by doing so, he’ll discover the identity of the man who killed him, and what follows in the original book is a fun, B-movie action romp with enough comedy and heart to earn a solid recommendation. The second book was a cheap, rushed cash-in that missed what made the first book great, but given that not a single member of the original creative team was involved, I can’t really blame them.
No, the blame for the decision that’s angered me so rests squarely on Universal Pictures, who decided that the movie adaptation coming out this summer can’t possibly star a Hispanic protagonist. Apparently, having some diversity in a leading role would be way too scary for an American audience to handle, so they changed his last name to Walker, took out all the Hispanic traits his appearance previously had, and then cast Ryan Reynolds to play the lead. Well, at least they picked a guy with a sterling record of quality performances in comic book adaptations, right?
Look, I can make some cheap shots about the fact that a movie that’s coming out in July starring Ryan Reynolds and Jeff Bridges and yet refused to release a trailer until last month probably has other issues to worry about than a race lifting protagonist, but the reason this decision bugs me has nothing to do with Reynolds or the potential quality of the movie. The hispanic and latin american communities are so poorly represented in movies, its terrifying. And when they are represented, they are rarely portrayed as protagonists. See that stat there? 1.2% of movies have Latin American protagonists. Of the largest racial groupings in the United States, only Native Americans are more poorly represented. And now, we have a character in an action movie with Latin American roots that’s just begging to give that community a comic book hero with whom they could positively identify…and you took it away from them for Ryan frickin’ Reynolds. And no, I don’t find your cheap attempt to keep the original last name by making it his middle name cute, either.
I know both of these types of decisions are by no means limited to these two movies. Again, look at this information. It’s horrifying. But it’s not going to change until people demand better. So today, I look at you, Warner Brothers and Universal Pictures, and I’m demanding better from you. I’m not asking for much, just women who aren’t forced into love triangles or constantly sexualized, and leading roles in colours other than white. These communities deserve better than this, and you’re capable of so much more. Come on, Hollywood.