Monday, December 20, 2010

Does it make sense to boycott the new Thor film because Heimdall is black?

All this controversy over this COMIC BOOK character?

 The Guardian is reporting that a group called The Council of Conservative Citizens is urging a boycott of the upcoming Thor film, not because it looks like a high-end remake of Masters of the Universe, but because the director, Kenneth Branaugh, cast a black actor, Idris Elba (of the great tv show The Wire) as one of the Norse gods, Heimdall.

From one page of the Council of Conservative Citizens's website:
This week Marvel Studios, a company already known for pushing left-wing ideology in its movies, released its trailer for Thor. The movie re-writes German mythology with a multi-cultural slant. The God Heimdall is played by a black man. An extra Chinese character is added to the pantheon for good measure as well.
There is much to be critical of in those sentences. First, I would like to know what "left-wing ideology" is being pushed in Marvel Studios movies. Their biggest success, the first Iron Man film, was a neoconservative fairy tale about a weapons manufacturer who builds himself a suit of armor and then uses it to enforce the GW Bush interventionist foreign policy agenda. Iron Man 2 was about the "privatization of world peace." So he went from neoconservative to vaguely libertarian. The Incredible Hulk was a jumbled mess about a military experiment gone wrong, or something, I couldn't quite follow it, but maybe that's what they're talking about?

The comics are another matter entirely. I've already written about Captain America's oh-so-brave stance against the Tea Party. And the infamous Spider-Man-Barack Obama fist bump.

As for the second part -- isn't mythology meant to be re-written? Myths, the stories of god(s) and heroes that were the superheroes of their time, were created to help people explain concepts that they could not yet understand. Things like death, the changing of seasons, the passing of day into night, a poor crop, etc. Today we know (well, most of us do) that the earth is round and revolves around the sun. Those old stories are now artifacts of the past that haven't nearly the hold on us that they once had.

Check out the cast for the movie Percy Jackson and the Olympians. That's a fairly diverse group of actors playing Greek gods. That's just one example.

And here's something else:

Who is that guy? Well, according to Popular Mechanics, it's what no less a figure than Jesus Christ probably looked like.
From the first time Christian children settle into Sunday school classrooms, an image of Jesus Christ is etched into their minds. In North America he is most often depicted as being taller than his disciples, lean, with long, flowing, light brown hair, fair skin and light-colored eyes. Familiar though this image may be, it is inherently flawed. A person with these features and physical bearing would have looked very different from everyone else in the region where Jesus lived and ministered. Surely the authors of the Bible would have mentioned so stark a contrast. On the contrary, according to the Gospel of Matthew, when Jesus was arrested in the garden of Gethsemane before the Crucifixion, Judas Iscariot had to indicate to the soldiers whom Jesus was because they could not tell him apart from his disciples. Further clouding the question of what Jesus looked like is the simple fact that nowhere in the New Testament is Jesus described, nor have any drawings of him ever been uncovered. There is the additional problem of having neither a skeleton nor other bodily remains to probe for DNA. In the absence of evidence, our images of Jesus have been left to the imagination of artists. The influences of the artists' cultures and traditions can be profound, observes Carlos F. Cardoza-Orlandi, associate professor of world Christianity at Columbia Theological Seminary in Atlanta. "While Western imagery is dominant, in other parts of the world he is often shown as black, Arab or Hispanic." And so the fundamental question remains: What did Jesus look like?

An answer has emerged from an exciting new field of science: forensic anthropology. Using methods similar to those police have developed to solve crimes, British scientists, assisted by Israeli archeologists, have re-created what they believe is the most accurate image of the most famous face in human history.
Emphasis added because if Jesus Christ, who is still actively worshipped by billions of people all over the world can handle being portrayed as different races, surely Heimdall, a character originating in Norse mythology, can.  And Jesus Christ has been handling it for a long time.
The race of Jesus has been a subject of debate in the western world academia since at least the nineteenth century in Europe, and today in the Anglosphere. The physical appearance of Jesus of Nazareth was debated by theologians from early on in the history of Christianity, though with no explicit emphasis on race.

Different societies have depicted Jesus and most other biblical figures as their own ethnicity in their art; for example he is primarily European in the West. The current dominant opinion among historians and scientists is that he was most likely a Galilean Jew and thus would have features which resemble modern-day persons of Middle Eastern descent.
I grew up around depictions of Jesus Christ looking like this:

Yeah, that's probably not what he really looked like.

And Heimdall's not even an actual historical figure. (In fairness, there's a some question as to whether or not Jesus Christ actually existed, either.) He was the "white god" who guarded the Rainbow Bridge and, um, well, here's wikipedia:
Heimdall (Old Norse Heimdallr, modern Icelandic Heimdallur) is one of the æsir (gods) in Norse mythology, in the Edda called the "white god" (hvítastr ása "whitest of the aesir Sæm 72ª; hvíta ás "white as" Sn. 104).

Heimdall is the guardian of the Bifrost Bridge (i.e. the rainbow), and thereby the link between Midgard and Asgard. Legends foretell that he will sound the Gjallarhorn, alerting the æsir to the onset of Ragnarök where the world ends and is reborn. Heimdall was destined to be the last of the gods to perish at Ragnarök when he and Loki would slay one another.

Heimdall, as guardian, is described as being able to hear grass growing and single leaves falling, able to see to the end of the world, and so alert that he requires no sleep at all. Heimdall is described as a son of Odin, perhaps a foster son.
A foster son to the Norse god Odin, who is called the "white god," and is black-skinned. As much as it pains me to write this, that actually sounds kind of clever. Still not all that interested in seeing the movie.

DJ Heimdall.

As for the idea of re-writing German mythology, well let's just cut to the chase. These are comic book characters for crying out loud. Co-opted from Norse mythology by Stan Lee, Larry Lieber, and Jack Kirby for their own purposes in 1962. Those purposes were to make money, and to sell merchandising. They are not the original Norse mythology characters. They are "superheroes." How much merchandising money is there in German mythology? Is there as much money as there is in superheroes? If so, Germans should have trademarked all their gods, including Heimdall, the way Marvel trademarked Thor. 
The real story would have been if Marvel had hired Idris Elba to portray Thor in the movie.

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