Idris Elba basically oozes everything one associates with James Bond. Pretty much everyone recognizes this. He’s also an amazing actor (see: BBC’s Luther, among other things). But recently, author Anthony Horowitz (who apparently writes James Bond novels?) thinks he is “too street” to do the job right. There are lots of problems with this, racism being the most apparent, but I’m also really interested in how this reflects our attitude toward longstanding franchise characters.
As Kevin Smith often says, we live in very exciting times. Pretty much anyone who grew up loving a character, whether it be from a comic book, a cartoon series, a toy franchise, or even a ride at Disney Land (?), chances are you will see that character come to life on the big screen.
Of course, there are downsides to this, but that’s for another discussion. The upside is that because of vicious corporate greed an a lack of creativity, many of us are finally getting to see our childhood heroes come to life in exciting ways.
But one of the challenges with this new wave of marketed nostalgia is the politics of adaptation. Fans typically want absolute fidelity to the source material. But both the creative minds that are adapting, and the studios that are financing, are often interested in making substantial changes to characters in order to increase interest or relevancy.
For some reason, the casting of the next James Bond tends to be a constant reminder of this. Last go around, everyone was all concerned about Bond being blonde (which is really really really weird to me). This go around, it’s all about race (to be more precise, skin color).
That’s why Horowitz’s comments have caused such a stir, being that Elba is black. But while I definitely see the problem with Horowitz dismissing Elba on what appears to be strictly ethnic reasoning, I’m also confused by what’s so bad about James Bond being “street.”I write that as someone who has only seen like three Bond films, and only enjoyed two. But my point is, James Bond could certainly use a shakeup, so why not have him be a little rougher around the edges? Now, I also must say that if that is the goal, I think Elba might actually be a bad choice (which is why Horowitz’s criticism is so strange). I think someone like Mark Wahlberg comes off as more “street” than Elba.
At the root of this, I think, is how we view these legacy characters. I, for one, like the idea that characters that transcend generations (James Bond, Batman, Sherlock Holmes) should be constantly reevaluated and molded to fit new audiences. I just think that’s a natural way for them to evolve, and it’s the only way to keep them interesting. I think fans should judge changes to the characters strictly on whether or not it’s a compelling change. Judge it on its artistic merits, not its adherence to orthodoxy.
And in reality, that’s how most of these characters are anyway. Every time a new writer tackles Batman, he changes. Sometimes pretty dramatically. Frank Miller’s hard-boiled cynical anarchist Batman doesn’t actually have all that much in common with Peter Milligan’s bleeding heart social justice warrior Batman, but they are both great interpretations. I just don’t think I understand why something like skin color should be seen any different.
To take it a step further, I can’t help but feel that outrage over changing the skin color of a fictional character stems from our continuing misconceptions about race. The fact is, someone having a different skin color does not actually indicate that they are of a different race, because they are not. At least not biologically speaking.
I also think the same way about gender. While this certainly doesn’t apply to all characters, I think that adding some gender diversity to our stories wouldn’t be as hard to do as some might think. Over the course of Batman’s reign in Gotham city, plenty of people have donned the cape and cowl besides Bruce Wayne (In fact, right now it’s Jim Gordon), so why not just hand the reigns over to Cassandra Cain for a while? She’s an amazing character that could easily carry the book.
The reason these characters have so much longevity is because there’s something about their essence that has lasting power. As we’ve already seen with Bond, that essence clearly doesn’t include brown hair, so why should it also be concerned with skin color? And irrespective of pigmentation, Bond’s essence probably has room for a little more “street” as well.