Even in the highly competitive universe of the super-hero, the new crime-fighter on the block--the one they call M.A.N.T.I.S.--would seem to have quite a few things going for him.
M.A.N.T.I.S. has the power to run with lightning speed, to leap over pursuing cars and to toss criminals through the air as if they were soccer balls. One of his main weapons is a high-tech vehicle that can fly and go underwater.
M.A.N.T.I.S. is also a rarity in the super-hero world: an African American. Unlike other black super-heroes such as Meteor Man or Blankman, M.A.N.T.I.S. takes crime-fighting seriously. He is the alter ego of Dr. Miles Hawkins, a brilliant biophysicist who was paralyzed after being struck by a bullet during an urban riot while saving a young boy, then helped develop an exoskeleton that would enable him to get out of his wheelchair--the Mechanically Augmented Neuro-Transmitter Interactive System.
But even with all these qualifications, there are those who say that they are bugged by "M.A.N.T.I.S.," the drama series premiering on Fox at 8 p.m. Friday.
A newly formed media watchdog group and an actor and actress featured in the series pilot that aired in January have leveled charges of racism against the show's new producers, complaining that the ethnic makeup of the cast was reduced and the tone of the series was radically changed from the pilot to de-emphasize the African American flavor and attract more white viewers.
"People in the community really had their hopes invested in the series, and now I'm getting calls from people who say they feel a sense of betrayal that so much has changed," said Eddie Wong, head of the Rainbow Coalition's 2-month-old Commission on Fairness in the Media. "It was a show that showed African Americans working together. The reasons why they changed it is not acceptable to us."
The charges have been vehemently denied by the new producers and network executives, who said the changes from pilot to series were made strictly for creative reasons--to increase the story possibilities and to make the show flashier.
"I would not have taken the job if I had been told that I had to whiten the show up. That is ridiculous," said Bryce Zabel, who with James McAdams took over the reins from the original executive producers, Sam Hamm, Sam Raimi and Rob Tapert, after the series was ordered. "There was never any direction (from Fox) to cast a new character as black or white. The pilot was a fine piece of entertainment, but we need to make changes in order to create a franchise. It's frustrating that people think otherwise."
In the "M.A.N.T.I.S." pilot, Hawkins (Carl Lumbly) was assisted by two young African students with heavy accents dressed in traditional garb (Christopher M. Brown and Wendy Raquel Robinson). Also featured were two other black characters: a female assistant coroner (Gina Torres) and a cocky television reporter (Bobby Hosea).
All four of those supporting characters were axed from the series, replaced by three new characters, two of them white: John Stonebrake (Roger Rees), Hawkins' best friend and a quirky British scientist who comes up with gadgets for M.A.N.T.I.S.; a young bike courier (Christopher Gartin) who also assists M.A.N.T.I.S., and a black police lieutenant (Galyn Gorg) who slowly becomes romantically involved with Hawkins while simultaneously accelerating her quest to hunt down M.A.N.T.I.S., considered by police to be a vigilante.
The pilot was set in Ocean City, a fictional but gritty, largely African American community populated by many black professionals as well as gang members and white bigots. The script was loaded with urban slang and racial references.
The racial references are all but gone from the first episodes of the series, and M.A.N.T.I.S. now operates in the multicultural environment of the fictional West Coast city of Port Columbia.
"I thought the pilot was too grim and too realistic," said Bob Greenblatt, senior vice president of drama series development at Fox. "We wanted to bring out the fantasy element in the story. We didn't want to do episodes about the human condition every week."
He added, "There were lots of problems creatively with the pilot. There were holes and inconsistencies in the story, and there were a lot of problems with the characters and the actors. We were never happy with the way the African students were rendered. We also felt they didn't really provide a way to bring stories to M.A.N.T.I.S."
Lumbly, who stars as Hawkins/M.A.N.T.I.S., said he was concerned when he learned that Hamm and Raimi, who wrote the two-hour pilot, were being replaced and that cast changes were being made.
"Based on my own experience, I thought it must have something to do with color. I would be lying if I didn't say that didn't come into my mind," he said. "I was told there was not a mandate from the studio, but that Bryce felt that the placement of some of the regulars made it difficult to evolve the show. They did not serve 'M.A.N.T.I.S.' as a series.
"All of that said, it was still disappointing," Lumbly said. "But as we have moved into the series, I am very hopeful. Much of the feeling that was stated in the pilot--what my character has stood for--has remained intact. The lighter tone in the initial episodes is not something that will affect this world. We will stay realistic--in fact, in some instances, even more so than the pilot."
Two of the actors who were replaced aren't so certain. "I felt we were doing something really unique in the pilot, something groundbreaking," Torres said. "It was important to create relationships that appealed not only to cartoon and comic-book lovers, but spoke to another generation that didn't have a black super-hero when they were growing up."
She added: "The high ratings of the pilot say to me that the formula worked. The audience responded to the characters and concept. To strip it, literally to change the bones of it, negates what was there in the first place."
Brown, in a recent interview in the Wall Street Journal, said, "It's a slap in the face to the audience. The network will say that M.A.N.T.I.S. is still black, but that's not the issue. There were all these black people who were helping him do it. Those messages were almost as important as the character M.A.N.T.I.S." (When asked for further elaboration by The Times, Brown, through a spokesman, declined to comment.)
"M.A.N.T.I.S." creators Hamm and Raimi don't want to discuss the alterations. Though they still appear in the credits as executive producers, they are not involved with the series. In a cryptic statement to the press, they never referred to the specific reasons why they left the series, saying only that the pilot "represents the vision of the creators" and that due "in part" to prior commitments, they "felt strongly" that they "would be unable to contribute the creative oversight the series deserved."
As for the casting of the new character Stonebrake, Greenblatt and Zabel said they were simply looking for the best actor, with no regard for color. "We were looking at all ethnicities," Greenblatt said. "We tested Richard Roundtree and Paul Winfield, but they were not right for the part."
Torres' coroner character was eliminated because they didn't want to have a death every week, he said, but Hosea's reporter character may return in future episodes.
Zabel said that the new "M.A.N.T.I.S." would ultimately be more realistic than the pilot: "What makes this series work is still intact. Only now, he will be in a multicultural world, which is what we live in."