One of the touchiest subjects in the cultural zeitgeist as of late is the stigma of bullying. The idea of somebody, even while young, harassing and abusing someone weaker just to deflect their own pain is justifiably considered deplorable and looked upon as a major societal flaw. As a testament to that, there have been some notable changes to the very mythos of recent movies based on intellectual properties. Finding ourselves in this seemingly perpetual trend of reboots and reimaginings, many of the usual tropes in regards to the typical “bully” characters’ roles have seen some major changes. While it makes sense to want to shy away from promoting the very act, one can’t help but wonder why stories with pre-established bully characters would need to undo that when the protag/antag dynamic in many ways has worked so well for so long.
Many were upset with some of the changes made to the new version of Eugene “Flash” Thompson in the recent ‘Spider-Man: Homecoming’. Considering the change in his ethnicity is not (and should not) be the issue, let’s focus on the change to his role in Peter Parker’s life. The decision was made to change the character from the traditional jock/bully to more of an academic rival. There were a number of reasons why the filmmakers opted for the alteration. One is due to Midtown High School being written specifically as a gifted magnet school, as opposed to a traditional high school, which means there’s no room for a jock archetype. Mainly, the zero tolerance on bullying which people have grown into over the years is to blame. That’s not to say it’s unjustified, but our culture has matured enough to be disgusted by the idea of a bully, as most would argue it rightfully should. In order to serve the dynamic between Peter and Flash, a palpable animosity needs to remain, but that doesn’t mean it has to come from physical and emotional harassment. Essentially, Peter and Flash need to have that one-sided rivalry, making the way for the inevitable friendship that develops after the two leave high school and enter adulthood. Flash has become a character we root for in a way. We need to believe that one day he really will grow up and see Peter as an ally, eventually becoming a hero in his own right. That eventuality becomes more difficult to envision if he’s portrayed as someone totally unlikable as a result of being so abusive. While he may have been insulting and clearly just deflecting his own inadequacies, this new Flash isn’t “hateful” as much as he is “obnoxious”. He’s nothing more than a kid who knows Peter is smarter, so he feels the need to draw negative attention towards him, but an actual bully he is not.
Case in point, Joe Manganiello’s version of Flash Thompson from the ‘Spider-Man’ of yesteryear, way back in 2002. That take on the character was a simple-minded, unlikable, “my fist breaking your teeth” bully. By the time Peter humiliated him in front of everyone, he had already garnered so much resentment in what little screen time he had, solely because of how much of a bully he was. Nobody wanted him to pick himself up and have a cathartic revelation; we wanted to see him get thrown around by a newly super-powered Peter Parker. 15 years ago, things really could be that simple. As we move on to ‘The Amazing Spider-Man’, we start seeing the first sign of a reversal. While Flash was a definite bully from the start, we see real humanity from him after Uncle Ben was killed. He was one of the few who actually held Peter and expressed genuine compassion for his loss.
A similar observation can be made about the recent ‘Power Rangers’ movie. One of the more glaring exclusions from the source material was that of Bulk and Skull. Over the course of the original series, those characters become beloved, not just because they were a constant throughout the entire Zordon era, but because they had the chance to develop and grow the most. They started out as bullies…whether they were good at bullying or not. They mostly picked on Billy since he was the most timid, only to end up making asses out of themselves. They still remained likable because they were bumbling, dim-witted, and never showed signs of hatred or malicious intent. Eventually having been inspired by the Rangers to be productive members of society, they became security guards, later joined the police academy to become actual cops, all culminating in the pair leading a revolution against the Machine Empire and Divatox’s forces in the ‘Power Rangers in Space’ finale.
History lesson aside, there’s just no room for “wacky” bullies with hearts of gold in this modern retelling of ‘Power Rangers’. Whether they’re comic relief or not, audiences nowadays will likely still see bullying as bullying. This meant a vacuum was created in the lore that needed to be filled. Thanks to the updates made to Billy specifically, this antagonist is now known as the kid who physically abuses an African-American autistic boy; a form of bullying that simply cannot be overlooked. With the risk of completely alienating fans of the original series, Bulk and Skull could never be the ones harassing someone to such a terrible extent, so all the disdain fell on a random character simply credited as “Bully”. No one could ever care if this new character grows into someone better because he was written to be violent, angrier, and drastically less empathetic. Creating a placeholder with which audiences can deposit their disapproval was necessary to keep Bulk and Skull from leaving a pretty bad taste in everyone’s collective mouths, all of which are measures taken just because of the stigma surrounding bullying.
Fans often see changes to the stories they hold close as a grievous offense. However, culturally, evolution is necessary. The fact of the matter is, your typical leather jacket-wearing, Roger Klotz bully has become antiquated and almost anachronistic. That’s not to say bullying is coming to an end, because it will likely always exist in one form or another, but altering a character that has an active role to play as an antagonist (usual supervillains excluded) is paramount in altering how we view the situation as a whole. By demonizing the act of bullying in popular culture and searching for the humanity within the person behind it, even with fictional characters, we can begin to see their transgressions in a different light. Altering personality traits in some of the more abusive characters may not leave the story as recognizable as it may have been, but as long as the usual dynamic between your main characters holds true, they prove themselves necessary in order to bring these stories into a more modern, civilized era.