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No More Mutants #7 by Andrew Wheeler – A Norse Is A Norse

No More Mutants #7 by Andrew Wheeler – A Norse Is A Norse

In my most recent column I talked about the somewhat too-fervent passion that some superhero fans bring to the subject of diversification. I mentioned comics' black Captain America and the campaign to cast a black actor in the new Spider-Man movies, both of which were met with strong opposition, but a fresher example has since presented itself.

In the forthcoming Thor movie, the character of the Norse god Heimdall is played by English actor Idris Elba. This is problematic to some, because the Norse gods are Scandinavian and therefore presumed white, while Idris Elba is black and therefore not white. One group has called for a boycott of the movie for this reason.

Andy Khouri at Comics Alliance has written a brilliantly acerbic piece on the subject, and I didn't think I had anything to add, but it occurred to me that this is a timely chance to examine the attitudes that I had written about previously. As with the 'black Spider-Man' controversy, this is not about superhero comics, and the critics are not just comic fans, but it is about a superhero comic adaptation, and the objections are the same from all quarters.

The major critic in the Thor case is the Council of Conservative Citizens, a successor to the same White Citizens' Councils that Mississippi Governor Haley Barbour recently got into trouble for praising. The Council describes itself as the sponsor of the proposed Thor movie boycott at the prosaically named website.

The Council of Conservative Citizens is not a group that invites sympathy. It has been called a white supremacist organisation by the Anti-Defamation League and a neo-Confederate movement by the Southern Poverty Law Center. Its Statement of Principles says, "we oppose all efforts by the state and other powers to weaken the structure of the American family through toleration of sexual licentiousness, homosexuality and other perversions, mixture of the races, pornography in all forms, and subversion of the authority of parents". Speaking as a liberal progressive homosexual, I have no common cause with the Council of Conservative Citizens. I oppose their ambitions, and they oppose my existence.

Yet when I first heard that Idris Elba had been cast as Heimdall, more than a year ago, my reaction was not entirely removed from theirs. I thought it seemed silly. Heimdall is called "the white god"; the whitest of a group of Scandinavian gods, so casting a black actor struck me as obtuse.

Mind you, I also thought it was silly to cast a blond actor as James Bond, and I got over it. It's only a movie, and it's only one version of a story, and we all have to accept that sometimes things happen in life that are not exactly as we would prefer them – though straight white men are a little less used to that experience than some.

The chaps at are not inclined to get over the casting of Elba. They call it "social engineering" and an assault on white culture – a politically correct attempt to change people's attitudes on race, and to promote minority interests at the expense of white identity.

The view seems to put a neurotic and egocentric spin on positive intentions. There are those who wish to see greater diversity of representation in fiction and media, to the betterment of life for those in minorities. It is conspiratorial to construe this as an attempt to marginalise the majority, who are well served now and will still be well served in a shared spotlight. White characters are not going to disappear from our movies or our TV shows. Angelina Jolie and Robert Pattinson will still get work.

In their FAQ, the boycotters say that they also object to "white actors playing the roles of non-whites in films". The argument has the appearance of fairness, but it is only fair if all else is equal – and if all else has always been equal. It sounds fair to say that everyone should be allowed to keep their portion, but it is not fair if I have been given twice as big a portion as you.

I am in favour of turning white characters into minorities in adaptations in those cases where whiteness is not integral to the character. I would be equally comfortable with the reverse in a perfect world, but as things stand today turning minority characters white (or in any other way making them conform to the majority) is almost always objectionable. There is nothing contradictory or hypocritical about this position. Both arguments serve the same end; visibility for the invisible.

The dominant majority got to set the rules and establish the standards for our media and entertainment, and they did not do so inclusively or generously. Those that cherish 'white culture' can only imagine how it feels to be unrepresented and invisible in the mainstream. They seem to understand that there is pain and oppression in being invisible, because that is what they fear for their own cultural identity, yet they show a remarkable lack of empathy for those who already suffer that pain.

Turning the heroes in The Last Airbender into white kids diminished the already small pantheon of Asian kid heroes in Western media by three. Turning Alicia Masters, Wilson Fisk and Nick Fury black in movie adaptations of their comics made no noticeable dent in the number of white characters in fiction. Anyone who can't see the difference between taking bread from the starving and taking bread from the well-fed has never known starvation. White people have never been starved of white people.

There are sometimes reasons not to change the ethnicity of a white character. If a character's race is core to their concept, their race should be respected. Heimdall, the "white god", would seem to fit that category. Yet there are a few counter arguments.

First, Elba himself has raised the 'a wizard did it' defence. It's magic. "Thor has a hammer that flies to him when he clicks his fingers. That's OK, but the colour of my skin is wrong?" Norse mythology is full of fantastical elements; giant wolves, eight-legged horses, witches, elves and the enormous 'world tree'. Having one god in the pantheon with a skin colour that actually exists is not so fantastical.

Second: there may be an in-story explanation for the casting. The film won't be out for months yet. It has not yet made its case. It seems premature to ascribe a motive or to arrive at any conclusions.

Third: this is not a movie about Norse mythology. This is a movie about Marvel comic book characters based on Norse mythology. Marvel has never been fully faithful to its source material. Thor should not be blond, for example, and the Warriors Three should not exist at all. Liberties have been taken. So why only focus on the diversion that involves a black man? Marvel's Heimdall is a ruddy man in brown furs; he is not the "white god' of legend.

Fourth: if it's white Norse gods you're after, the movie still has plenty of those. White people have not been chased out of the story. The lead is actually more Aryan than the mythology would have him, though the Council of Conservative Citizens does not seem the least bit upset about it.

Fifth: if white Anglo-Saxons can repeatedly be cast in the role of a spiritually significant Middle Eastern Jew named Jesus Christ without any threat of boycott, why draw the line at a black man playing a far less famous figure from a much less popular religion? Anyone who was silent to the casting of Jim Caviezel as Jesus has surely implied their consent to the casting of Elba as Heimdall?

If none of those arguments seem convincing, here's the argument that persuaded me that Elba was a smart casting decision, though it's the least palatable argument for folks like the Council.

The decision to put one black man in the Norse pantheon was probably very deliberate. As far back as the runes used in the insignia of Hitler's SS, Norse mythology has been part of the symbolism of Aryan and white supremacist movements. Neo-Nazis still use runic symbols as their emblems, and Germanic Neopagan movements often have a white supremacist element. The Norse gods are not quite as radioactive as the swastika, but they belong on the same spectrum.

Neither Marvel nor Branagh want their movie co-opted by fascist or white supremacist organisations. It would be a PR disaster. Casting Elba as Heimdall has made the movie anathema to such use, and I think that was a very deliberate and canny decision on the filmmakers' part. This is not social engineering or political correctness; this is keeping your action figures and lunchboxes free of fascist associations. Money is the most plausible motive.

And if Marvel did not want white supremacists claiming their movie for themselves, they must be absolutely delighted that the Council of Conservative Citizens took the matter one step further and set itself up in opposition to the movie. In that sense, the Thor boycott is a wonderful thing. It lets us all know where we stand. The Thor movie is not Aryan propaganda, and those of us who want movements like the Council to continue their slide into irrelevancy and oblivion can buy our movie tickets with a clear conscience.

I still think that casting Elba as Heimdall was an odd decision, but no reason I can muster for opposing it is as great as the reason I have for supporting it. It offends all the right people. Besides, I would never have cast a blond actor as James Bond, and that worked out rather brilliantly, so perhaps it's just as well that these decisions are not made by sanctimonious loudmouthed idiots on the internet?

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Rich JohnstonAbout Rich Johnston

Founder of Bleeding Cool. The longest-serving digital news reporter in the world, since 1992. Author of The Flying Friar, Holed Up, The Avengefuls, Doctor Who: Room With A Deja Vu, The Many Murders Of Miss Cranbourne, Chase Variant. Lives in South-West London, works from Blacks on Dean Street, shops at Piranha Comics. Father of two. Political cartoonist.
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