I’ve been thinking about this but didn’t get a chance to respond yesterday. I think it’s a bit odd that so many people complain about these characters being replaced when it has been done so many times in the past. The Captain America, Iron Man, Thor, Green Lantern, Flash, Batman and even Superman roles have all been filled by people who weren’t Steve Rogers, Tony Stark, Odinson, Hal Jordan, Barry Allen, Bruce Wayne or Clark Kent. Some of those guys aren’t even the original bearers of those titles.
I think gender and race do play a role. In the past, even the replacements were mostly white and all men. I don’t think it’s the major one though. I think the big one is portrayal in other media. With US comics, the reach of the comics themselves pales in comparison to the reach of other media like film and TV. Those are generally the portrayals that get lodged in everyone’s psyche at an early age.
I think it’s why so many insist on a Superman that is closer to the one portrayed by Christopher Reeves or Marvel characters closer to the ones they’ve seen in the films. There’s oddly a generational element to this too. You can see it in people’s preference for the kind of Batman they want whether it’s more like Adam West, Michael Keaton, Kevin Conroy or Christian Bale.
There is one point where this created an odd wrinkle from my point of view. When the Green Lantern film came out, I kept seeing people protest that Ryan Reynolds couldn’t play the character because Green Lantern was black. As a comic fan, I originally just kind of wrote this criticism off as people just not knowing their comic history. Now I realize that we’re getting a clash of generations over who is their Green Lantern. The older generation who grew up on Super Friends sees it as Hal Jordan. Whereas, a younger generation that grew up on Justice League sees it as John Stewart. With that case in particular, neither character is the originator of the title.
Some of the replacement characters are genuinely great characters and ideas as replacements and not new characters. Rhodey was always amazing as Iron Man/War Machine. John Stewart makes a great Green Lantern. Jane Foster as Thor has me more interested in that character in a way I haven’t been since The Ultimates. However, their status always feels very ephemeral. We all know that at some point Tony or Hal or Odinson are going to be back to take back their mantle. Unless…
The one place where this all changes is the films. It could also be a way of kicking that ball to the second generation in a new and different way that lets the story continue and doesn’t just keep James Bonding it. If these replacements could be used as the next generation in the films, I think the change would stick because it would cement these characters in a wider consciousness.
I would love to see a Thor film starring Natalie Portman or an Iron Man film starring Don Cheadle. Though I think it’s going to be even more important to bring in young actors that could be the next to take up the mantle. There are hints that the Wolverine franchise might go this direction and replace Hugh Jackman with a younger female playing the Laura Kinney version of the character. I hope they do. It could be the first in a whole new future or younger more diverse characters telling new and interesting stories.