This article in The Atlantic led me to comments here objecting to Michael B. Jordan’s being cast as Johnny Storm (The Human Torch) in one of the “Fantastic Four” films. Below are the text of the Atlantic article and excerpts from the comments. Many of the comments most interesting to me come from the handle Joker06.
The Incoherent Backlashes to Black Actors Playing ‘White’ Superheroes
Comics have a history of altering characters’ races and ethnicities, but outcry over Michael B. Jordan’s next role illustrates that, in American racism, only certain differences matter.
FEBRUARY 20, 2014
Michael B. Jordan has been cast as Johnny Storm in the new Fantastic Four movie. For many prospective viewers, that announcement will raise the question that any announcement of a Michael B. Jordan movie raises: Will he be shirtless, and for how much screen time? Other superhero fans, though, are distracted by less wholesome concerns. Johnny Storm, they have noticed, is white. Michael B. Jordan is black. How, they wonder, can this be?
The outcry over interracial casting here appears to be much more muted than the stir over Idris Elba’s role as Heimdall in the Thor franchise, which provoked boycott threats. Still, I’ve seen people on Twitter talking about how the casting will “ruin” the franchise. I’m not going to link because I’m leery of shaming people that way on a mainstream site, but if you look around you can find them without too much trouble. (Niki Cruz has rounded up some of the response, with names redacted, here.) This echoes earlier controversies in which a campaign to get Donald Glover cast as Spider-Man met with racially fraught backlash, while the casting of Amandla Stenberg as Rue in The Hunger Games provoked angry social media whining.
People say they object to black casting because it’s untrue to the original source material, and a betrayal of the characters—a claim that seems particularly dicey in the case of The Hunger Games, where Rue is black in the original novel. But even in the case of the Fantastic Four, where Jack Kirby and Stan Lee did in fact make the team white, the plea to be faithful to the founding seems to raise a lot of questions.
After all, it’s not like there’s been one, true, unwavering Fantastic Four over the decades. The Thing was originally drawn by Jack Kirby as a lumpy mess; it took a while for him to settle down into the more-streamlined orange form fans know and love. Sue Storm at first could only turn invisible; it was some time before she developed the invisible force fields that made her useful in a fight. For that matter, She-Hulk replaced the Thing on the team for a while. And then there was a popular series where the Fantastic Four turned into zombies. Comics are serial soap-opera fantasies; people change costumes, grow blue fur, die, grow a third eye, come back to life, are replaced by a clone and turn to the dark side. Nothing stays the same. Why, then, is this particular, relatively minor alteration in canon seen as a betrayal?
You could argue that racial difference is more noticeable, or different in kind, than plot-driven death or blue fur or zombiefication. But then, how account for the fact that in the comics characters like Iron Man, Spider-Man, and Green Lantern have, at various times, been black? More, certain changes in racial background or casting seem to provoke little comment. No one, as far as I’m aware, has complained about Scarlett Johansson’s casting as the Black Widow on ethnic grounds. Yet Johansson’s background is Jewish. The original Black Widow, Natalia Romanova, has what appears to be an ethnic Russian name; there was no indication that she was originally supposed to be Jewish. Given the anti-Semitism in Cold War Russia, a Jewish ethnic identity would in context be a significant alteration to the character. Why, then, do people care about Storm, but nobody cared about Romanov?
The answer is obvious enough. American racism holds that only certain racial differences matter. Jews, Italians, Eastern Europeans, Irish—all those people are white and can play one another with nary an eyebrow raised. Nobody is worried about whether Sue Storm has exactly the mix of Irish, German, and French-Canadian ancestry as Kate Mara, who has been cast to play her. For that matter, no one would say a thing if the actors cast to play Sue and Johnny, sister and brother, came from different ethnic backgrounds and didn’t look much alike. It’s only when one is black and one is white that you need to start worrying about family logistics. (And yes, you can find folks doing that on Twitter as well—because getting turned into living fire by cosmic rays is an everyday thing, but adoption is weird.)
“Fans often seem to believe that if a character is changed from white to black, they will no longer be able to identify with that superhero” Aaron Kashtan, a postdoctoral fellow at Georgia Tech who teaches a course on transmedia storytelling, wrote in an email to me. Kashtan adds that this is an example of “unconscious or overt racism”—a point underlined by the fact that the barriers to identification are so clearly arbitrary. Certain different people—Jews, or Irish, or folks with a hide made of orange rock—can be points of identification. Others, especially African-Americans or anyone with dark skin, can’t. The issue here isn’t staying true to the original. The issue is racism.
Kashtan points out as well that staying true to the original is in itself not easily separable from racism. “Superhero comics were developed in the cultural context of ’60s America,” he says, “where it was just normal for all the characters to be white. When Stan Lee included a black character, Gabe Jones, in Sgt. Fury and the Howling Commandos, he actually had to tell the color separators that this character was supposed to be black, because the default assumption was that every character would be white.” Kashtan adds that, “This default assumption of whiteness is no longer acceptable.”
That’s a good thing. Hopefully, Fantastic Four will be a hit in part because of Michael B. Jordan (shirtless or not); Hollywood will continue to put African-American superheroes on screen, and eventually folks won’t feel any more need to grumble than they did when that non-Kryptonian Henry Cavill was cast as Superman.
sigh…because of Michael B Jordan. Dude’s a good actor and I would like to see him in a comic role or in other movies. But he does not fit Johnny Storm. Race is an issue, not because I care, but because the character is white and he has a white sister. It just doesn’t work.
I’m not racist, I’m just a fan of Fantastic Four. He shouldn’t be black. Nor adopted or anything of the sort. That’s like making Shaft or Black Panther an Asian dude. It’s just so far left field and asinine. [frick] this movie.
Really, what the hell Marvel with all this propaganda stuff. It shouldn’t be a damn film where you have to question racial issues I just came to see a movie about four super powered people! Unless they make Sue Storm black just no to Johnny Storm. They are supposed to be brother and sister we are actually supposed to feel a real emotional connection between them. For the sake of comics the 2005 Fantastic Four movie is already starting to sound more accurate. The only character I would be fine with this change would be The Thing. Not the good ole wise cracking Johnny Storm. Plus the last Fantastic Four film wan’t too long ago, didn’t they think the audience would question this. They better change it and right now.
I don’t get why Hollywood likes changing the ethnicity of people in movies. They do it in so many movies like Avatar: The Last Airbender. Now Gods of Egypt & this one. What is so wrong with sticking with the original concept.
This is another example of race propaganda happening once again in comic book films. Why can’t they just keep the original don’t fix what was not broken. He is a recognizable main character not only in film but appearances in television and tons of comics. This is going to confuse a lot of people and not just the main general audience.
Look, I have absolutely no problem with black people at all…but I’m going to be the first to admit that I don’t like this because Johnny Storm and his sister are white in the comics and I think they should stay true to the source material.
However, if there are changes…based on race, sex, sexual orientation, politics, worldview, culture or whatever…so what??? Why would I be mad if Sue Storm is cast with a Latina? Why would I be upset if Johnny Storm is cast with a Black man? As far as I’m concerned, Reed Richards could be cast as Asian. Whatever. Have the vision. Write the story. Make the comics or the movie. It will either work or not. But hopefully, the outcomes…positive or negative…won’t be about race or gender.
It’s a fantasy. Damn! (LOL). Once you are talking about “leaping tall buildings in a single bound”…it is kind of silly and petty to get so uptight about race and gender and so forth…as if these characters are real people.
Johnny Storm is SUPPOSED TO BE WHITE!!??? LOL. GTFOOHWTBS.
Isn’t Batwoman Gay today? And didn’t I hear that Alan Scott…Green Lantern…is Gay?
Do you remember way back when…when Invisible Kid was Black? In the Legion of Superheroes. Remember when Firestorm was Black?
Oh. But I guess the changes are okay with “support” heroes as long as the Major icons stay “whites only”. LOL. And somehow…that’s not racist at all. That’s just normal. Race doesn’t matter. As long as the original icons stay PURE.
Do these people listen to themselves? Do they even think about what they are saying? “I’m not racist at all. I just like my white heroes…WHITE.”
That ish is funny as hell. Give me a break.
LOL. Thanks GhostZillaRider.
I don’t have enough information to know “why” people come to the conclusions and make the statements. There might be different reasons for different people. But before I give my opinion, let me provide an analogy that might be rather innocent.
Imagine that you have the beverages of orange juice and milk in your refrigerator. You wake up in the middle of the night, got to the fridge for a drink of milk. You take a huge swig of “milk” only to be surprised that you grabbed the orange juice instead. And in your surprise…the orange juice offends your senses…such that you spit everything in your mouth out…as a first reaction. LOL. And it’s not that orange juice is inferior or offends you. Nope. You love orange juice. It’s just that you were expecting milk.
I think that this happens to us…without worrying about race or gender. I think that once we know and like something…sometimes we come to love and expect it in the ways that we are accustomed. What we “know” and are used to becomes “right” and “normal”. Any thing different…is a deviation from the “norm”. The new thing is just not “supposed” to be that way. Using my analogy above…it’s “distasteful”. It’s not what we expected.
I’m not immune to it. I feel it myself. I just try to take a moment to think about it. And then reserve judgment until after the actual implementation.
My axiom is: With great comic movie Nerdy-ness comes great sensibility.
I tend to agree with you. I just don’t get it. To me, once the racial identity for classic comic characters have been changed…it is testament to the fact that they can all be changed. It’s just a matter of vision and writing and producing and casting. I don’t see the point of arguing that some characters are too iconic to change.
Let’s step out of “race” for a minute in order to challenge the iconic argument and the origins argument. Away from the Fantastic Four for a minute. Lets consider the Avengers movie and then Avengers 2: Age of Ultron.
In the comics, the ORIGINAL Avengers are IronMan. Wasp. Ant Man, Thor and the Hulk. Captain America wasn’t even on the team for a few issues. But let’s not quibble about that. In the movie, there is no Ant Man and Wasp. The origin then…is jacked up. This is very interesting if you consider the (movie) sequel. Because we will have Ultron…but no Hank Pym. WTF? Hank Pym is the creator of Ultron. In the comics. How do you have Ultron with no Pym???
Oh…whew…wait, wait…I get it. Duh. The movies are not following the comic book universe(s). Icons notwithstanding. Comic Books are comic books. Movies are movies. Nothing is pure or sacred across genres and time. There is creative license involved. It’s not Burger King. You don’t get to just “have it your way”.
So for those who argue that certain icons should not be changed (by race) do you really believe in the fidelity to iconic class??? Should the Avengers have included the original team?
So for those of you who argue that the origins should be honored…do you really believe that should have been true for Iron Man? Thor? The Avengers. Etc. Are you satisfied that this occurred???
I’m just asking.
Because none of the movies really track fully with the icons and origins. Before you even get to race. Did those other things prevent you from attending the movies??? Somehow, I doubt it.
But some folks will draw the line and drop a gauntlet on race. LOL. It’s not really about the offense of tinkering with icons and origins. Nope. It’s about RACE. It’s about a feeling that some characters are SUPPOSED TO BE WHITE.
That is a (white) supremacy stance. Whether it is intended to be that way or not. That’s racism. In full expression. Full throated. By otherwise very nice and reasonable people.
‘m absolutely befuddled here……..
Can anybody please explain to me why a black Johnny Storm is so completely unacceptable, but having Ben Grimm/The Thing changed to a black man is totally cool? I’m on the verge of being offended after having read this declarative statement so many times. Here’s how my mind translates this:
“It’s okay for Ben to be black because we won’t see much of him before he becomes a CG Thing.”
“It’s okay for the one team member who becomes (what many would consider in real life) a grotesque monstrosity, to be black.” Black=disfigured, deformed, grotesque, monstrous, hideous, etc.? Really?
“Blacks are all brutish, so let’s make the team’s resident clobberer black.”
Someone provide me with some logic or reason for this school of thought. Please.
So once it’s white, for you, it should always be white. Or you can’t/won’t support it. You can’t tolerate the tinkering with the original character origins.
So how did you feel about the tinkering with the X Men characters? The Avengers? Iron Man? Green Lantern? Thor? To my knowledge, none of the movies have been absolutely true to the original storylines and characterizations.
Besides that…even in comic books, there are different “ages”, Right? Where the origins are updated and characters are reconstituted. Even if you accept the Batman movies as consistent with “The Dark Knight”…Batman was not your 1940s character. Robin and Batgirl were different than the original.
And I extend that observation and question to some of you who are upset about this announcement. Are you really saying that you have to have the movies be TRUE to the original portrayals in comics? If so, how do you support any of the superhero movies that are based on comics? I don’t get it. Because it seems to me that the movies are almost always different.
Thing is, this stuff has already been done. And the “uproar” seems to happen when a Black person is cast. Right? Right. With Thor. In the Hunger Games. And so on.
We didn’t hear the outcry when Jessica Alba was Sue Storm. We only heard minimal comments in The Airbender when Asian characters were portrayed by white actors. So those are two points. 1) white folks don’t generally use the “stick to the book” argument when the “racebending” is white. And 2) some of these protests (not all) are absolutely racist. Sorry.
Racism is not just about hatred or dislike of people of other races. It is about racial subordination of minorities. It is about maintaining race-based orientations and practices…or a racist status quo. It is about accepting the (racist) status quo as “normal” and “right”. It is not always mean and hateful. And it is not always intentional or mean spirited. Often, it is communicated by nice people. Just like up in here.
But Sorry. When you have an argument that “Johnny Storm should not be Black because the character has always been white”. That’s a white supremacy stance. The superior characterization is white. Not “because” of whiteness per se…but simply because it has “always” been that way…so that’s the way it “should” be. Yup. That’s a racist stance. It’s not mean. It’s not hateful. It is not really castigating a class of people. Not intentionally, anyway. But it’s a supremacy stance.
This is comic books and movies folks. Rarely do the screenplay and storyline and casting stick to canon. Some of the results have been pretty spectacular. In Battlestar Gallactica’s return to television, the engaged in both race and gender bending. No problem. The Characterization was pretty good. Different. But good. Some of you might be too young for this, but a good while back…again…on television…Cinderella was produced with Brandy as Cinderella, an Asian Prince Charming and an interracial couple as the King and Queen (Whoppi Goldberg, no less). EGADS! LOL. But the world didn’t end. It was a nice little production.
This is just the beginning. The characterization of the major (white) superheroes are going to get more and more diverse. (This notion that it is “okay” to have diversity in support characters, but not main characters is suspect IMO…a racial bias). We are going to see the inclusion of Asians and Latinos and East Indians and so forth. Whites Only Characterizations is a thing you will be telling your grandchildren about as something that happened in the past.
Hilarious. First, I must say that I love it when a racist says “I’m not a racist”…and then proceeds to spout racist content.
Look. Jessica Alba is not blonde haired and blue-eyed. She’s Latina.
Look. Nick Fury is Black.
In Thor, Heimdall is Black.
In the television show, Smallville…Pete Ross is Black.
Get over it.
Further, the Superhero Movies seldom track directly with the Comic Books, Right? Right.
This is not your grandfather’s Fantastic Four. LOL.
Producers are probably trying to expand the audience for the movies. Part of that is being multicultural.
If old, white racists don’t like it…no one will care much. You will be replaced. If you don’t like it, produce, write, direct and cast your own movies.
Nick Fury was not made black in Ultimates because Millar just loved Samuel Jackson. He did it because a 21st century version of the Marvel Universe should be more diverse.
Am I using diversity as a reason why it’s okay to race-bend a historically white character? Heck yes. We need more diversity in super heroes. One of the best ways to do it is to take some characters who are historically white and make them minorities. If you are so blinded by your need for movies to be as pure copies of the comics as possible that you can’t see the benefit of a more diverse group of heroes for young minorities to look up to, then that’s a shame.
They just changed Ultron’s Origins, yet thats not going to stop from seeing it
They made Spidey have organic web shooting in 3 movies but ppl went to see the movie
They turned Kingpin into a black character in Daredevil movie but yet it worked in the movie and not once did it questioned his color.
Dont even get me started on the X-films