Battle for Asgard

April 28th, 2010 by | Tags: , , , ,

Comic fans are funny.

From the Guardian the other day, in an article about Idris Elba playing Heimdall in Marvel’s Thor movie:

His view was not shared among the more vehement of the comic books’ fans. “This PC crap has gone too far!” wailed one. “Norse deities are not of an African ethnicity! … It’s the principle of the matter. It’s about respecting the integrity of the source material, both comics and Norse mythologies.”

Fellow fans were quick to nod their horn-helmeted heads.

“At the risk of sounding like a bigot, I think this is nuts!” said another. “Asgard is home to the Norse Gods!!! Not too many un-fair complexion types roaming the frigid waste lands up there. I wouldn’t expect to see many Brad Pitt types walking around in the [first mainstream black superhero] Black Panther’s Wakanda Palace!”

I had a hunch, so I got on the googling machine and found out that they were from (wait for it) ComicBookMovie.com. The guy also hit up everyone’s favorite bastion of good taste and peaceful tolerance, Newsarama! The conversations on both sites go about how you’d expect. The usual protestations against political correctness, “what if it was a black guy being replaced by a white guy,” blah blah blah. It’s the same argument you’ve seen on every comics site ever since Elba was announced as playing the role. I’m sure you can find it on CBR, Scans Daily, and whatever forum you care to name. Sometimes people are reasonable, sometimes people fight back against affirmative action. There’s a range

But, really, Captain I’m Not A Racist BUT has a point. Heimdall is a Norse god, and specifically considered to be the whitest of the gods. Idris Elba… isn’t. It’s race-changing for no good reason, beyond having a little more color in the cast and a talented dude getting work. It’s no different than Michael Clarke Duncan as Kingpin in Daredevil (though he is the only actor I can think of with the physique for that role) or Alicia Masters in Fantastic Four.

But on the other hand… Marvel’s Thor is a sci-fi infused mythological remix, where gods dress like people from outer space and live in golden, gleaming spires. Asgard’s most popular non-Thor deities are a space horse, Errol Flynn, Charles Bronson cosplaying Genghis Khan, and Falstaff. Liberties have already been taken, what’s one more?

I guess what I’m really trying to say is…

sucks to be you, homey. There’s no pity in the city.

(Schadenfreude? What’s that?)

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53 comments to “Battle for Asgard”

  1. Personally, plotwise, I’m thinking there’s going to be some kind of “gods reborn on Earth” theme. That would echo the most recent series reboot and tie quite neatly into Thor’s original origin anyway. Some doctor was actually the reincarnation of Thor? Sure, and some black guy was the reincarnation of Heimdall.

  2. Kind of beside the point, but: I never thought I’d be even slightly interested in a Thor movie unless A: I was intoxicated or B: it was a high quality animated movie based solely on Simonson’s run. But when they announced Branagh as director, I couldn’t help suddenly taking an interest, and then adding Elba has sealed it. I can’t wait for this film. Oh, it has Thor in it? Pfft, whatever. Viking Driis, man!

  3. We had our Twitter discussion, but there’s absolutely no disagreement to be had here. The Cap’n did have some basis in rational thinking for what was really a knee-jerk racist complaint. Your stance and Joe’s reincarnation-to-explain-multi-market-casting are far more reasoned than the whiner’s position.

  4. Y’know, there’s a horrible strain of white supremacy hiding among modern worshippers of these deities. A lot of the old Norse pantheons symbols and deities have been appropriated by neo-nazis. So, as a neopagan inclined towards the Norse Pantheon and Heimdall in particular, I’m grinning my ass off at this. I really am.

    I’m suspecting it’s Joe England’s theory, but even if it’s just “I’m Heimdall and I can look like whatever the fuck I want so bite me” I’m just grinning at this.

  5. It seems to me that this kind of casting-against-the-script goes on in theater all the time. Women play Hamm in Endgame; African-American actors routinely play roles in Shakespeare (and not just Othello). Whatever. Theater isn’t as literal in its imagination and is more willing to take an expansive, playful attitude to casting choices. Sometimes this is for the purpose of countermanding expectations, sometimes just to get the best actor in a part. I don’t think it’s a big deal. It’s just a sign that Branagh has a more theatrical orientation and, with it, probably a greater creative capacity than a lot of Hollywood directors.

  6. My fuss comes from being an anal retentive nerd. I like it when they stick closer to the source material.

    It goes both ways, too. M. Night Shyamalan got some flack for casting white kids in Avatar.

    That said, in my old age, I find it doesn’t matter to me nearly as much as it used to. I liked Duncan as Kingpin (well, the idea if not the actual performance). I liked Liam Neeson as Ra’s Al Ghul. I really didn’t give a rat’s ass about who played Alicia in the FF movies. I did pause a bit when they announced the actors for the Warriors Three, but I like Elba (not familiar with many of the other players), and I’m much more interested in the movie than I have ever been in the comic.

  7. Genghis Khan as played by John Wayne

  8. Eh, I liked Elba a lot in The Wire, but I raised an eyebrow when I read this news because it didn’t match up with the Heimdall I imagined, which yeah, was a big burly white guy. I do think it’s a left-field choice and I’m not thrilled about it, but I don’t think it’s going to break the movie and I won’t wig the fuck out like other people are doing. I haven’t even seen a trailer yet.

    I want to say a lot more about your last big paragraph, because I hate the reasoning of “wacky/dumb stuff has happened before, why not this?” but that might be too much of a digression. And I totally agree with you on Duncan; I have yet to meet anyone that thought he was a bad choice for Kingpin.

  9. KentL: I don’t think it’s exactly the same. I think maybe if a couple of characters had been cast as white in Avatar, it would have been annoying to purists, but not caused the same flack as the fact that the majority of the cast (except the Fire Nation) was changed.

    Here, we’re talking about one character. Like the Kingpin. Like Alicia. It’s a change, but not really a negative one.

  10. It actually makes sense. Heimdall’s the dude working security at the gate while folks party inside. He’s the cat in the expressway tollbooth or parking garage booth with an iPod in his hand and a textbook in his lap. The one who makes change and punches tickets. OF COURSE they’re gonna get a brother to play that role! Either that, or get Kevin James to reprise his “Paul Blart” role with a ram’s horn helmet.

    No, actually, I kind of agree with the naysayers about Elba’s casting. I did think the hubbub over Michael Clarke Duncan as Kingpin was a bit much, namely for the reasons you cited. Who else had the heavy, muscular bulk and acting chops to play the Kingpin? There’s nothing inherent in the Kingpin that says he must be a White guy. However,as much as I like Idris Elba as an actor, when I think Norse gods, I don’t think Stringer Bell.

    Nonetheless, I you do make a great point, especially when it was punctuated by that hilarious GIF.

  11. I’m glad that the casting of a strong actor in the role means that Heimdall is gonna be an active character in the story.

  12. “Charles Bronson cosplaying Genghis Khan,”

    They actually got a real asian superstar (motherfucking Tadanobu Asano) to play Hogun

    Also probably the greatest .gif ever

  13. I really think Big Dris should have played Thor instead. Imagine the racist nerd rage frothing to the service like lava bubbling up from hell. Helheim? Do the Vikings even have an afterlife for bad people considering what they designated as ‘good’?

  14. @one zen bullet: Hel was where cowards went, and considering most nerd racism is thinly veiled cowardice…

  15. kalinara: I don’t really follow Avatar, so didn’t pay much attention to the casting. I didn’t realize they’d switched it up that much. I just remember Shyamalan getting a lot of flack when the main character was cast. I would still argue that it’s basically the reverse thing, just on a much larger scale. They decided to not treat race as a factor in casting, and as such deviated from the source. I’m also not sure it affects that particular story. Again, I don’t really follow Avatar beyond seeing snippets here and there when my stepson used to watch.

    Was there much fuss over Liam Neeson playing Ra’s Al Ghul.

    Oh, and agreed with everyone else on the GIF. Is that a GlobeTrotter?

  16. @Nathan: I am appalled at this, because clearly Hogun should be Arabic. His homeland was conquered by this guy because it was so close to his Mystic Mountain; how could it be any other way?

    (But seriously: I have high hopes for Tadanobu Asano – who, like John Wayne, has played a bad-ass Genghis Khan.)

  17. @one zen bullet: @Lugh: Hel was just for the noncombatants, it’s not a bad place and hela’s not a bad goddess. Cowards and Oathbreakers go to either Niflehel or Niflheim. (Niflehel is the coldest part of Helheim, and Niflheim is the freezing cold place that creation flowed from. I’m not sure which is the punishment place, but the dragon that snacks on the roots of Yggdrasil eats you there.)


  18. @David Wynne: Haha, yeah. Thor basically either needs to be just a Simonson riff or have some ridiculous crew… which this one does. Anthony Hopkins, Natalie Portman, Idris Elba, Branagh, etc etc. I can’t help but call it “Kenneth Branagh’s Thor” because hey, why not.

    @Ragnell: Yeah, that trips me out. I ended up on Stormfront by accident for the second time in like 30 days googling around looking for info on Heimdall. Know who else likes Thor? Tons of rappers, including Public Enemy. That Jack Kirby/Walt Simonson stuff went a long way, and a dude with a hammer is always cool.

    @Dane: My point is not so much “wacky stuff has happened” as “the comics are only barely even faithful to the original myths at this point, one more change won’t ruin it.” The most popular Thor character is a horse from space who beat Thor up and stole his hammer and became a space horse version of Thor. The Warriors Three are pretty much not Norse at all. They’re Robin Hood, Genghis Khan, and Falstaff. That’s okay, but Idris Elba isn’t? That’s all.

    @Jay Potts: You basically just put me in mind of Heimdall as Uncle Ruckus and now I’ll never be able to unsee it. “Don’t trust them new Asgardians over there!” etc

    @Nathan: Charles Bronson was partially descended from Lithuanian Tatars, whose origins go back to Khan’s empire. It’s kind of clever the way that ended up, actually.

    @KentL: It’s too grainy for me to ID the jersey, but he’s just some streetballer.

  19. What I wante to see is the reaction from ACTUAL racists and white supremacists (you know the aryan wackos who actually pray to Odin), their response is going to be hysterical (at least if they don’t get violent)

    @david brothers:@Mark Cook: Huh. Guess you really do learn something new every single day.

    Still though Tadanobu Asano is great, he was cool in Zatoichi and Mongul

  20. an aryian played by a black guy.
    thats cool, but I can see how people could be exasperated by that if this were a more realistic movie based on earlier norse stories, whoever I doubt these guys will be speaking scandanavian, so really who cares?

  21. or however.

  22. I’m good with this kind of casting if it makes sense, and the actor’s good. Duncan as Kingpin: I only had to believe NYC’s top mobster was a black guy. Maybe an expert on East Coast organized crime and the Mafia would never believe it, but I just had to believe that Duncan was so smart and so bad that he came out on top. No problem, and Duncan was great in the role. Now, if you cast the Red Skull as a black guy, I’m going to be pulled out of the story to say, “Hitler’s right-hand man in his campaign of white supremacy and global subjugation was a black dude? Really?” It would take some extra explaining to make sense of that. Hell, go ahead and cast Captain America as a black guy, but pay a little attention in the script to making that make sense in an early ’40s America.

    There was talk — fan talk if not much more — about casting Beyonce or Gina Torres as Wonder Woman in that movie that’ll never get made. Gina Torres as Wonder Woman is sheer genius, and it would’ve worked for me because the Amazons have always (at least since Perez) been portrayed as a mix of races, ancient Greece was at the center of a hodgepodge of seafaring races and nations, and Diana isn’t really ANY race. She’s made out of clay — if Themiscira had had a high iron content, she’d have come out bright red. Million reasons Diana doesn’t need to be cast as traditionally drawn.

    I’m also alert to the bogusness of the argument that “It’s just as bad as making a black character white,” ’cause that’s stuuupid.

    So … a Norse god who’s not Nordic? On the face of it, I’d say that would pull me out of the story. The first comment suggesting the gods be reborn in mortal form, and therefore their hosts might not look traditionally Norse — that would do it for me, and it would be a lot more fun. A line of dialogue saying that the gods are bigger than the Vikings (connecting Odin to Zeus, say, and Baldr to Apollo, and on through world myth), I’m fine. Hell, maybe I’m even fine with no extra effort whatsoever — that bit of casting is not likely to be either the best or the worst thing about the movie, anyway.

  23. @david brothers: Okay, looking at the GIF further, I can see it’s on an outdoor court. My stepson and I saw the Trotters a year or two ago (awesome!), and I could swear that looks like a move one of them did.

  24. On Tadanobu Asano: if you haven’t seen ICHI THE KILLER (live-action), then I would recommend it. Some bits aren’t for the squeamish, though.

    And by “some,” I mean, like, all of it.


  25. Dude, if we want to get all wah-wah “mythologically, they were all white” and whatever, I got the quickest fix imaginable:

    Loki is a shapeshifter.

    Any face you see it’s ’cause that’s the one he has AT THE MOMENT. Don’t get used to it ’cause in a half hour he’ll be a she-wolf and give birth to Fenris and THEN where will we be?

  26. David, that’s fine, and I’m not saying the Thor comics are a pure representation of the Nordic religion either. For a lot of comics to work in the long term, it’s a balance of suspension of disbelief and maintaining some level of coherency in its own narrative. Everyone likes to pull out Space Horse when they compare such things to Thor, but I read those Simonson comics, and the thing I noticed was the pains he took to make it work. The guy built a history around Beta Ray Bill’s race and took the time (at least in those compressed pages) to show how Bill’s noble character and actions made him a spiritual brother to Thor. On its face it’s weird, but Simonson wrote it where Bill earned what he was, and that’s why people like Beta Ray Bill to this day. He fits because they took the time to make him likable and to have him fit in the on-going tale, as I suspect (I haven’t read a lot of Warriors Three stories) it was a similar thing with the Warriors Three. Yeah they’re not really Nordic, but work in the narrative so well that these days we can’t imagine it without them. Just saying there are co-stars that are alien or Asian doesn’t really do the situation justice.

    Those characters work because the audience is willing to suspend their disbelief and enjoy the characters, just like the movie Kingpin. At the end of the day the Kingpin is a large bald man that runs crime and is an imposing figure. Besides race, Michael Clarke Duncan fit that bill great, and he was one of the few good things about the Daredevil movie. I’ve seen Elba in 28 Days Later and The Office, and I think he’s a good actor, but there’s nothing about him that screams “Heimdall” to me, physically or otherwise.

  27. @Dane: There’s something about Heimdall that screams any actor at you? The character is practically a blank slate…

  28. I just thought “woah, cool.” Remember, this is the same Brannagh who cast Denzel Washington and Keanu Reeves as brothers in Much Ado About Nothing back in 1993. The right actor for the right job, pure and simple.

  29. http://www.slashfilm.com/wp/wp-content/images/thor-first-image.jpg

  30. I was cool with an all-white 300 (the Spartans, specifically) and I’m cool, more or less, with an all-white Asgardian cast. In fact, I’d prefer it.

    Some ethno-change-ups don’t contract the substance or the spirit of the source material. Changing Heimdall’s does, in my opinion.

  31. give the part to forest

  32. the part of thor.

  33. http://movies.ign.com/articles/108/1086955p1.html

    Elba talks on this

  34. @West: @West other than skin color, how does it change the character? If the character is portrayed in the same manner as the source material, what does race have to do with it?

    If Elba portrays the character verbatim, line for line, motive for motive, as the character in the comics and people still complain, it is based solely on race and the complaints stem from idiotic fanboy literalism at best and racism at worst.

  35. and let’s be honest, MCD as Kingpin was a good example of color-blind casting, but he was not any good as he isn’t a very good actor. Someone like John Goodman could have been cast, but the script called for the more active physicality of the character for the obvious Hollywood punch up ending.

    Elba as Roque in the Losers on the other hand, THAT was genuinely great casting, race or not.

  36. @seth hurley: John Goodman would have been fucking horrible as Kingpin (yes, worse than MCD). It’d be like casting Tyler Mane as Thor just because he’s a big guy with long blonde hair.

  37. @Paul Wilson: Goodman is a great actor & can handle drama & menace 100x better than MCD ever could, just check out anything he has done with the Coen Bros.

    He would have been the physically imposing Wilson Fisk who may have pulled a Vader & snapped someone’s neck if they pushed, just to show everyone he isn’t The Blob. He would have thrown Bullseye at DD to do the dirty work, but Hollywood wanted a punch up at the end between the two, so they went another way.

  38. honestly, if you can’t look past race in a movie, you can’t look past it in real life.

  39. @seth hurley: John Goodman seems very… jolly. It’s like when Anthony Anderson plays a bad guy, like in The Shield. THere’s this weird dissonance, like “What is this Santa Claus slash Fred Flintstone lookin dude doing trying to be menacing?”

    I think he would’ve been an interesting Kingpin, but I don’t think he was even on my list for ideal Kingpin actors.

    Tyler Mane would make a dope Ares, though.

    Elba as Roque- I really enjoyed that. The bit where he’s looking at Jensen’s pink shirt and goes “Am I the only one seeing this shirt?” Dude’s got good comic timing.

  40. @david brothers: outside of Roseanne, I’ve never seen Goodman in anything other than Coen flicks.

    Roque’s knife fight at the end got me thinking of what damage he is going to do with a broad sword.

  41. Dudes, Jack Kirby would be pleased as punch with this casting and would have included black Asgardians himself if he’d started Thor a little later than the early 60s. We already saw them in the spiritual sequel to his Thor work: who has ever questioned the ethnic diversity of New Genesis?

  42. Idris Elba is an amazing actor. I’m sure he’ll do a great job portraying Heimdall — and, it wouldn’t surprise me if the screenplay includes some rationale (reincarnation, etc.) that makes the casting seem a little more plausible than it currently appears to be.

    All that said, anybody who thought the Avatar: TLA cast whitewashing was awful but somehow manages to be cool with this is a hypocrite of the highest order.

  43. @JM Ross: Of the highest order? Nah. Changing one white guy in a sea of white guys to a black guy is one thing. Sub-optimal, yes, but far from changing every single Asian hero into white kids. C’mon, son.

  44. Someone wrote in to the Guardian a couple of days later: “What’s wrong witha black Norse God? No-one ever protests against a white Jesus.”

  45. Personally i’m going to be really angry is Idris-Hiemdall doesn’t either tell Thor to close the door or teach him something about economics.

  46. I always think of Hogun the Grim as based on
    Attila the Hun.

  47. @Stig:
    but people DO protest against a white Jesus.

  48. […] David Brothers of 4th Letter caught a few fans protesting the proverbial too much over the casting of The Wire's Idris Elba as […]

  49. Spot on David…spot on…1 change is ok..2 is tolerable….but the original casting on The TRUE Avatar had everyone white except for the Uncle and a few others….

    To think the Asian community and other Avatar fans WASN’T going to get upset by that is foolish…

    Clarke Duncan did a good job as Kingpin…I do not think Goodman could have done better

    Elba as Heimdall I do have a lil reservation about… but if he commands his scenes like in The Wire…the transition will be seamless…

  50. Black, white, orange, purple, I don’t care what color Heimdell is supposed to be, I’m just happy glad to see the guy who played Stringer Bell get more exposure. (And hopefully he’s used better here than in the Office).

  51. […] in Norse mythology and Thor, God of Thunder, flies down from Asgard and helps out mankind. Over at 4thletter.net writer David Brothers writes about how some fans have reacted to this casting. One fan doesn’t […]

  52. […] Idris Elba to play Heimdall in Thor movie […]

  53. […] Idris Elba to play Heimdall in Thor movie […]