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I’m just going to come right out and say it: The whole thing about Jimmy Olsen being reinvented as Jenny Olsen for Man of Steel? I am not only in favor of it, but I wish that other superhero movies were willing to do the same kind of thing.
Don’t get me wrong; I don’t have anything against Jimmy as a character or concept, per se (My love for Jack Kirby’s 1970s run with the character is a strong and passionate one, if nothing else), but changing Jimmy into Jenny manages to rectify a problem with the traditional Superman set-up – That there’s only really one woman in the regular cast, and she’s the love interest – without really changing anything about Jimmy’s character. After all, there’s nothing that’s actually gender-specific about Jimmy’s dual role as photo-journalist and Superman’s pal, and there’s even something particularly appealing about the notion that Superman’s best friend is a woman, in a way. Look! Up in the sky! A man who can have a platonic friendship with a woman! if you see where I’m going.
The gender shift in the character is, for me, as positive a sign for Man of Steel as the casting of Laurence Fishburne as Perry White. Both decisions demonstrate a willingness to recognize the traditional dynamics offered by the Superman supporting cast but – and this is the positive part for me – an equal willingness to play around with that dynamic and the details in order to shift the status quo into something more contemporary and less rooted in the white patriarchy of the character/franchise’s 1930s/40s roots (For those who are outraged about this shift: Your hero is still a white guy called Superman. I think you’ll be okay).
It’s that lack of being beholden to the source material that makes me eager to see where Man of Steel ends up. As much as such changes make some fans nervous – Do the changes come from an understanding of what can be changed without uprooting the essential appeal of the supporting characters, or just a desire to shake things up in general? If it’s the latter, does that mean that other, more important, things could also be changed or lost somewhere else in the movie? – I’m finding myself more excited to see a movie that isn’t as married to its comic book incarnation as 2011’s Green Lantern, for example, which felt weighed down by the many ways in which what should’ve been Easter Eggs for the comic book faithful instead turned into gigantic, unavoidable declarations of “authenticity.”
If there’s one thing that the best of Marvel’s movies have demonstrated, it’s that the way to make great superhero movies seems to be to strip the concept back to its bare bones, and then rebuild from there. Imagine an Iron Man movie where Robert Downey Jr. had to stay consistent with the comic book incarnation, for example, or an Avengers that replaced Mark Ruffalo’s snarky, sardonic Bruce Banner with the nervous, panicked version from the comics at the time of the Avengers’ formation, and shoehorned in Ant-Man and the Wasp instead of Hawkeye and Black Widow. Okay, maybe Ant-Man might have been a little more useful than Hawkeye, but you see what I mean.
Jenny Olsen may, of course, turn out to be a bad idea; the movie is still four months off, and we literally haven’t heard one word from the character yet in any of the teasers or trailers to date. But if she is, it’ll be because the moviemakers managed to screw up the character for reasons that have nothing to do with the fact that she’s not a man called Jimmy. Instead, let’s take this as a sign that Warners and DC has learned from their mistakes and Marvel’s successes. For now.