Though this space is typically reserved for films directly from Marvel Studios, this week we’re looking at 20th Century Fox’s upcoming Fantastic Four, and how fandom reacts to the idea of white superheroes being cast with nonwhite actors in films. Right now, Michael B. Jordan (That Awkward Moment) is the heavily rumored front-runner for Johnny Storm aka the Human Torch in the Josh Trank reboot. Chris Evans played the role twice before “upgrading” to Captain America, and he was a picture-perfect version of the blond-haired, blue-eyed hero. There are fans who bristle at the idea of Jordan, a completely capable black actor, portraying a superhero who’s only ever been presented as white on the printed page and silver screen.
How important is race to the role of Johnny Storm? His personality is defined by his immaturity and ego, not by the color of his skin. There seem to be three major arguments that are dragged out when people oppose casting against race.
1. “That’s not the way they are in the comics.”
Ignoring the fact that no two artists draw characters the same (how does Steve Ditko’s Peter Parker look like John Romita Sr.’s and how does Romita’s look like Todd McFarlane’s), there may be no pleasing the fan who wants his films to mirror the comics with perfection. For me, I’d rather the personality and attitude be made present on the screen. I don’t care that much whether it was established in an annual from 1974 that a superhero had brown eyes and not green ones as depicted on film.
The best example in favor of casting to type and not color can be seen in the director’s cut of Daredevil, where Michael Clark Duncan makes an impressive Kingpin (moreso than in the weaker theatrical version). For his character, the casting priorities were for a specific physical type and ruthless presence. Duncan fulfilled those requirements and was cast on those strengths. There are no concessions in the film that speak to Kingpin’s racial swap, because Duncan’s silhouette matches the physicality of the character and he makes an effectively menacing crime lord. Daredevil’s overall weaknesses as a movie are not, in any way, due to Kingpin being a black guy instead of a white guy.
2. “It’s a political agenda to force diversity for no reason than to force diversity.”
This is the one that skirts the edges of out-and-out racism more than any of the other arguments. There’s something in it that sounds like white paranoia of being pushed out of power positions. It’s something that still denotes a superiority of one race over another. “Why would you put different races in something where there needs to be no other race but white?” It’s an awfully closed-off, alarming worldview. Somebody needs less white friends.
Like I pointed out with Duncan, he was cast because he fit. He also happened to be black. He wasn’t cast because he was black. Trank worked with Michael B. Jordan on Chronicle. Jordan could certainly play the part of a likeable-yet-cocky superhero, and if Trank finds him an easy collaborator, then he has all the reason he needs to put him in the role.
But let’s say for a moment that race swapping is motivated by a PC desire for diversity. How is this a bad thing? Can’t white people open the doors and welcome all comers to superhero fandom, especially if the character’s ethnicity has absolutely nothing to do with the role?
It’s tougher to make the Thing black, for example, because so many elements of the character came directly from the life of his cocreator Jack Kirby. Ben Grimm is Jewish and grew up hanging out with low-rent NYC streetgangs; so did Jack Kirby. Johnny Storm was only supposed to be indicative of an all-American teen (Peter Parker’s hip opposite), and in the early '60s, that meant a white guy. Kirby was a much more diverse creator than his contemporaries, especially after his celebrated run at Marvel, working black characters into his comics when none of them had to be black. If the Fantastic Four were being created now, there’s no telling what Kirby’s version of an all-American teen might be, but he certainly wouldn’t have been against the idea of a black teen, on color alone.
3. “You wouldn’t make a black character white.”
Well, no, because there aren’t nearly as many. There’s no good reason to take the few existing black superheroes away from readers. White people don’t own the world, and some of these fans need to start thinking beyond their own sphere in regards to what’s actually being represented on the stands and learn how to share. If someone took your favorite white superhero book and recolored the skin to reflect black characters, how would your enjoyment of the title change? The writing and art would remain the same; only the skin color changed. If this presents a problem to you, stop and think about why you think that’s a problem. Confront your own racism, however minor it might be.
This argument usually targets characters who are very specifically black, like Black Panther (“Would you like it if they made him into White Panther?”) or Luke Cage. This gets back to my argument about Thing. If their culture is a huge part of who they are, race swapping is almost always out of the question. Black Panther was an African king. Luke Cage was an ex-con from Harlem inspired by both '70s blaxploitation films and a wretched history of medical experimentation on black males. Race swapping those characters requires changes to who they are (whereas Iron Man, who is defined by his tech, has seen the armor shared by white Tony Stark and black James Rhodes, without many heroes in the Marvel Universe even catching on that a completely different guy was in the suit) Human Torch is a charmer who catches on fire and flies. There’s nothing inherently black or white about that.
At first, I was resistant to the idea that Johnny would be black but that his superhero sister Sue Storm (the Invisible Woman) would be white. The two are blood related and should be the same race, whether or not that means black or white. I wondered if explaining away their relationship as adopted somehow weakened their relationship with each other. The more I reflect on it, the more I realize it marginalizes adopted siblings as lesser.
One of the reinforcing themes of the Fantastic Four is that the quartet is united not just as a superhero team but as a family. Reed Richards has no blood relations on the team, neither does Ben Grimm, but they are all loving, protective and trusting of each other in a way that goes beyond the relationships found in the Avengers or X-Men. As I really thought about it, casting Storm siblings that aren’t related by blood really drives home some of the Fantastic Four’s core concepts -- that these four people could be united as a family by one specific, life-changing event and not just because a shared upbringing. That’s what I hope they get right in the film, no matter the color of the cast.
(But the Thing better be orange.)
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