Hollywood Superheroes Losing The Fight For Diversity

Originally published on August 9, 2011 1:18 pm

The big budget disappointment Green Lantern was about a superhero whose powers were only limited by his imagination. But I kind of get the feeling that Hollywood's earning powers are being limited by its lack of imagination.

Consider the box office potential if movie producers had been as bold as Marvel's Ultimate Comics Spider-Man series when it introduced Miles Morales — a part black, part Hispanic teen — as the new Spider-man.

It wouldn't have been much of a stretch for producers to reimagine Green Lantern as a person of color. In the comic book world, there's already a black Green Lantern named John Stewart who's probably got more name recognition going for him than his white counterpart, Hal Jordan.

So if Hollywood can crank out fantasy pictures with blue Smurfs, why is it so reticent to do the same with African-Americans, Hispanics and Asians? If second stringers like Thor can get the big-screen treatment, don't comic book legends of color like Luke Cage and Black Panther deserve the same?

Every hero needs a villain, and I can tell you from experience that supposedly "liberal" Hollywood loves to make the audience the bad guy. There's a self-fulfilling delusion at work in the studio system that white audiences won't pay to see black actors cast outside a narrow type of role.

There is, however, a bit of evidence to back that claim. In the concisely titled study "The Role of Actors' Race in White Audiences' Selective Exposure to Movies," Indiana University professor Andrew Weaver writes, "Movie producers are often reluctant to cast more than a few minority actors in otherwise race-neutral movies for fear that the white audience will largely avoid such films."

Weaver found that white audiences tended to be racially selective with regard to romantic movies, but not necessarily when it came to other genres. So, sorry, Hollywood. You can't blame it on the ticket buyers. And as the bankability of comic book franchises begins to cool — did we really need four hero-in-tights movies this summer alone? — you have to wonder if studios will ever get hip to the possibilities of going after multi-cultural audiences.

Casting Academy Award-nominee Laurence Fishburne as Daily Planet editor Perry White in the upcoming Superman movie is a good, if tentative, step in the right, non-traditional casting direction.

But for a real leap, how about casting Will Smith as Superman; Denzel Washington as Superman's father, Jor-El; and Michelle Rodriguez as Lois Lane? I guarantee you non-stop chatter until the film opens.

Clearly the folks at Marvel comics are open to the possibilities. Now, if only we could get Hollywood to make their fantasy pictures look more fantastic than your average gated community.

Copyright 2017 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

Marvel just shook up the pages of the comic book world. In its "Ultimate Comics: Spider-Man" series, Peter Parker, Spidey's alter-ego, has died. Taking his place is Miles Morales, a multiracial teen of black and Hispanic descent.

Turns out that comics have long been more open to racially diverse characters than some other forms of art, which got screenwriter and MORNING EDITION commentator John Ridley thinking about diversity in Hollywood.

JOHN RIDLEY: The big-budget disappointment "Green Lantern" was about a superhero whose powers are only limited by his imagination. I kind of get the feeling Hollywood's earning powers are being limited by their lack of imagination.

Consider the box office potential if movie producers had been as bold as the Marvel Universe with their new Spiderman, and had re-imagined Green Lantern as a person of color. It actually wouldn't have been that much of a stretch. In the comic book world there's already a black Green Lantern named John Stewart, who's probably got more name recognition going for him than his white counterpart Hal Jordan.

If Hollywood can crank out fantasy pictures with blue Smurfs, why is it so reticent to do the same with blacks, Hispanics and Asians? If second-stringers like Thor can get the big screen treatment, don't comic book legends of color like Luke Cage and the Black Panther deserve the same?

Every hero needs a villain, and I can tell you from experience that supposedly liberal Hollywood loves to make the audience the bad guy. There's a self-fulfilling delusion at work in the studio system, that white audiences won't pay to see black actors cast outside a narrow type of role.

In his concisely titled study "The Role of Actors' Race in White Audiences' Selective Exposure to Movies," Indiana University professor Andrew Weaver writes that, quote, "Movie producers are often reluctant to cast more than a few minority actors in otherwise race-neutral movies for fear that the white audiences will largely avoid such films," end quote.

But Weaver found that white audiences tended to be racially selective with regard to romantic movies and not particularly so with other genres. So sorry, Hollywood, you can't blame it on the ticket buyers. And as comic book movies as bankable franchises begin to cool - I mean, did we really need four hero-in-tights movies this summer alone? You got to wonder, will studios get hip to going after multicultural audiences?

Casting Academy Award-nominee Laurence Fishburne as Daily Planet editor Perry White in the upcoming Superman movie is a good, if tentative, step in the right, non-traditional casting direction.

But for a real leap, how about Will Smith as Superman? I guarantee you non-stop chatter until the film opens - and Denzel as Superman's father Jor-El, Michelle Rodriguez as Lois Lane.

Clearly, the folks at Marvel Comics are open to the possibilities. Now if only we could get Hollywood to make their fantasy pictures look a little more fantastic than your average gated community.

(Soundbite of music, "Superman")

INSKEEP: Screenwriter John Ridley whose superhero alter-ego is known as commentator John Ridley.

It's MORNING EDITION, from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

And I'm Renee Montagne. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.