The Black Guy is Ruining the Fantastic Four Reboot!

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Oh, what?  He isn’t?  Are you sure?  I mean.  He’s black.  That means, like, Sue has to be black, right?  She doesn’t?  Johnny or Sue could be adopted?  Or they could be children of different mothers or fathers or maybe they’re interracial or something?  But I thought if you’re half black and half white you just look almost white?  That’s not true?  Really?  Well, the original Johnny was a white guy, so he has to stay white.  What about Idris Elba?  Oh, yeah, he was cool in Thor?  The original character wasn’t a black guy?  Oh, well, then that’s OK because he’s not a major character.  Besides, this doesn’t have anything to do about race.  I know I keep talking about it.  But just because I talk about race doesn’t mean what we’re talking about is actually about race, even if the only reason we’re talking about it is because a black guy might be the Human Torch.  It’s just not about race, OK?

That pretty much sums up the stupidity you’ll find online about the rumor of Michael B. Jordan’s (of Chronicle fame) possible casting as the Human Torch in the reboot of The Fantastic Four.
Cracked.com has a brilliant take-down here.  Read the comments on the first link at your own risk (I’ll post some gems below).

Let’s call this for what it is:  soft racism.  For example, here is this amazing quote from The Wrap (linked in the previous paragraph):

This is a horrible idea. Johnny Storm is an iconic Marvel character, a blonde, blue-eyed, party boy daredevil. He’s not a second string character, he’s a principal team member of one of Marvel’s flagship series. As a long-time comic book collector, it would completely distract from any story to change Johnny’s ethnicity. (It was bad enough that Jessica Alba was such an awful, awful blonde). Johnny once dated a Skrull – an African American could play her, or She-Hulk is an ancillary FF character – her ethnicity could be changed with little distraction, even Ben Grimm would be less distracting as another commenter suggested, although that would raise the question of whether Ben would stay Jewish (there are far less Jews in Marvel Comics than African Americans). But Johnny Storm? Comic book fans take “canon” very seriously, and this idea just smells like disaster.

Translation:  Johnny Storm was white in the comics, and if you made him black, we’d all get distracted because he’s black; if you’re going to have black people in this, let them play aliens or green rage monsters who are secondary to the plot, but don’t you dare put a black guy as a main character, because I’ll just be so distracted by…black guys.

Clearly, none of this has anything to do with race, am I right?  If you’re distracted by black people, you’re not distracted because they’re black; you’re distracted because they…are…look at the beautiful sunset!  There are a lot of people arguing variations of this type.  The irony is that in throwing a hissy fit over this topic, these commenters have inadvertently punched themselves in the face.  It’s not possible to wiggle out of a soft racism charge when your main argument is “black people are distracting when they are in my movies about white people.”

Some, however, have taken a different strategy, such as this fellow over at IGN:

The whole “defined by whiteness” arguement is stupid (by that same standard many black heroes should easily be recast as white as they’re not “defined by blackness”), the guy is wrong for the role plain and simple, it’s about race because that’s where he’s wrong for the role…if he was a 300 pound white guy that could nail Torch’s personality exactly, he’d still be wrong for the role. Rather than taking the time to proper cast the movie the guy is trying to go with an associate wrong for the role, it doesn’t matter how good he can act, Johnny Storm is white, and people are looking for proper adaptations for things of this sort…try creating or utilizing the existing black super heroes if it’s that important rather than lazily shoehorning bad choices for the sake of it.

i.e., even though the Human Torch is not defined by his whiteness, he can’t be played by a black guy because he’s not black.  If you can see the circles going around and around here, you deserve a pat on the back.

The irony with statements like these is that they often not only refute themselves, but they also fall for the typical anti-racist-is-code-for-anti-white rhetoric that assumes that because you can’t do the same thing to other races, it is just as racist to do it to white people.  Let’s set aside the fact that changing the Human Torch’s race isn’t really an insult to white people (after all, it’s not like we don’t have a shitload of white superheroes in film already *coughWolverineCaptainAmericaCyclopsProfXBatmanGreenLanternOnAndOnAndOncough*).  What is alarming about arguments like this is the bizarre amnesia to which their proponents have succumbed.  Not to beat a dead horse, but racism is alive and well in this country.  This is why I find historical amnesia on this subject disturbing, since it allows people of any race to make arguments that are counterproductive and, in some cases, damaging.  The two positions are not equal:  casting a white guy as Luke Cage is not the same as casting a black guy as the Human Torch.  There is no history of white people being denied entry based on their race (especially in American comics).  Isolated cases may exist, but one cannot rationally argue that whites are discriminated against at the same level as blacks (today and in the past — see here) — it’s an absurd claim.

None of this is new to the world of film adaptations, though.  We saw something similar when Idris Elba was cast as Heimdall.  Not surprisingly, when the film came and went, it didn’t seem to have that much of an impact on, well, anything.  Are people still throwing a hissy fit about it?  Not really.  It turned out that casting a black guy for a role previously written as white really didn’t matter (and let’s admit:  Elba was pretty awesome as Heimdall).  If Michael B. Jordan is officially cast as the Human Torch, I doubt anyone but the fervently racist will really care.  The only difference, of course, is that the Human Torch is a larger role than Heimdall, which has some people in a tizzy — hence the “just cast some black folks as secondary characters” argument.

There are also comments like this:

honestly I am not racist..but I am a die hard fan of the fantatisc four..and I dont want them to just cast a black guy because…of whatever reason.its like they are not even trying at this point. He was white for petes sake ..if this is real i am not watching it

The infamous “I’m not a racist, but…” phrase.  I suppose the historical absence of black superheroes in the classic Marvel canon has remained unknown to this author.  There are a lot of them in terms of gross numbers, but most of them have remained relatively obscure (or firmly as secondary characters).  Few can name many black superheroes who have been around since the Silver Age who have the same staying power as the Fantastic Four.  Luke Cage and the Black Panther are about it (and you’ll never get a movie about the latter because of the name)(please correct me if I’m wrong about this).  I don’t actually know why there are so few black superheroes who have the same “fame” as the Fantastic Four or the Avengers or X-Men.  Maybe we need something along those lines one of these days…

Of course, I’m sure this person also doesn’t know that another always-has-been-white character was fairly recently replaced by a black guy.  Also, a latino.  Both in alternate Marvel universes (Ultimates and 2099 respectively).  Somehow, those changes didn’t destroy Marvel forever!

However, I think the more humorous comments fall in the “you can’t change things” category, such as:

Make a movie for actual black characters from the comic books. The background is already there why change it up. A Luke Cage and a Black Panther movie and a Storm movie I would watch. Changing Nick Furry (sic) black actually made him better but making Johnny Storm Black well then you have to make Sue Storm black as well and honestly I wouldn’t watch it if you paid me.

Of course, this individual is oblivious to the myriad of ways that Sue and Johnny could be different races (adoption, different mothers/fathers, or, you know, maybe Sue ends up mixed race and the entire universe collapses).  The commenter even makes the amusing argument that it was OK for Nick Fury to end up black, but you can’t blackify Johnny because…err…Mr. Angry Comment just won’t pay to see it.  In other words, he’ll pay to see black characters if they are secondary to the narrative OR if we are talking about imaginary film adaptations, but if you screw with a major character, well, no money for you.

But what is truly amusing about this is this individual’s profound ignorance about the Marvel universe.  Marvel has already changed characters.  Most famously, and not without controversy, they completely rebooted a sea of characters when they created the Ultimates imprint — they changed background stories, updated the settings, and so on (and, yes, switched some characters’ races).  There are numerous instances in the Marvel universe where alternate worlds have come into existence, characters have been completely rewritten, and so on and so forth.  The Marvel universe is called a multiverse for a reason:  it’s full of pocket universes, external realities, and so on.  Ultimates literally occurs in a different continuity — a different “universe,” if you will.  And since the film universe is already completely different from the comics, it is no less ridiculous to change Nick Fury’s character than it is to change the Human Torch’s (or Heimdall’s, for that matter).  These film incarnations of the classic heroes are not the same heroes from your comics.  They aren’t even the same heroes from the updated Ultimates line.  They’re not the same heroes from any of the other side universes either (except, perhaps, the Marvel Now universe, though I haven’t read my Iron Man comics yet, so I can’t say whether this is true or not).  They are completely different versions of our favorite heroes, and even more so now that Columbia has rebooted Spider-man and, now, The Fantastic Four.

Lastly, I think the only thing that really matters is whether Michael B. Jordan can perform the role well.  Having seen his work in Chronicles, I think there’s potential.  Whether he will have the same cocky attitude as Chris Evans in the first two Fantastic Four movies, I cannot say (assuming that’s what we’re looking for, here).  But I can say that all of this hubbub about how wrong it is to have a black guy as the Human Torch has made me realize that I really shouldn’t care if Idris Elba becomes the next 007.  Anyone who has heard me argue against Elba’s casting in that franchise can officially toss out everything I said as nonsense.  If Idris Elba brings something to the table as a possible future Bond, then let him have a stab at it.  And that means we should all support him for no other reason than whether you think he, as an actor, can play the role.  Who cares if James Bond has always been a white guy?  Not me.  Not anymore.

(Idealistic Shaun for the win.)

About the Author:

Shaun Duke is an aspiring writer, a reviewer, and an academic. He is currently a graduate student at the University of Florida studying science fiction, postcolonialism, posthumanism, and fantasy.

10 thoughts on “The Black Guy is Ruining the Fantastic Four Reboot!

  1. Yep, as I told you in email, Shaun, this is a nothingburger. Idris Elba did a fine job as Heimdall, and any comic book fan knows the Ultimate versions of heroes are different.

    Or to put it another way–did people complain when Nick Fury turned into Samuel Jackson?

  2. Brilliant point about all the comic reboots that these so-called comic "purists" ignore in favor of proclaiming that, as comic readers, they can't go see a film adaptation (which is itself a reboot, fer chrissakes) because they're…adapting it? And rebooting it? Just like they do in the…(wait for it)…comics? Ha.

    That said, and while all the painful quotes you pulled from the "I'm not racist" commentary was indeed painful and not well argued or said, there is the question of whether it's fair to allow someone to argue that it's a negative thing to not be faithful to the source material when making an adaptation when one of the (many) non-faithful acts is a change in a character(s) race. There's definitely a problem when it's focused on too intently, and raised above all the other non-faithful decisions the adapters are making (as is the case here). But from a purely philosophical standpoint, it should be allowed to be called "unfaithful to the source" (because it is) and it's probably true that the filmmakers aren't doing this to appease the fan base so yes, they "aren't even trying anymore". The core comic fan base no longer needs to be appeased with comic movies. The studios do far better when they appeal to the larger mainstream public, and that frankly demands more diversity than 50's and 60's comic mags allowed.

    So I'd say the complaint is valid (if rather egotistical). But the complainers do belie their self-proclaimed post-racial mentality by talking way too much about the race involved.

    • I don't see a problem with argument for preserving the original source material. After all, I've argued about poor adaptations before. The problem is that I don't think the charge applies here. What exactly constitutes "the source" in relation to Marvel? The adaptations are already outside of the realm of the comic universes anyway, so unless these same people are going to complain about all the other worse changes to the characters and plot. Hell, if one minor change (race) deserves this kind of hate, why aren't these same people losing their frakking minds over the setting changes in Iron Man or the other changes in the FF stuff? I'm sure they're arguing somewhat, but not to the same extent as changing the Human Torch into a black guy.

      I just don't know when the "not faithful to the source" applies when it comes to these franchises.

    • To be fair, there is still a "source" even in Marvel/mainstream comics. While there have been numerous reboots and whatnot those are relatively recent inventions, and ultimately there IS a "source" version that all others derive from, which at this point in time still in quantity outweighs all the reboots/re-dos.

      As for why changing the race of a major character can create more outrage than all the more minor changes – we connect with the characters in stories far more than settings (this is basically how fantasy and sci-fi works – the settings can be altered tremendously so long as the characters remain accessible). Minor characters naturally don't impact the story as much, or are meant to have us connect to them to the same degree. We might not like a change to a minor character but we have the sense that it won't in fact impact our ability to connect with the adaptation as much.

      A major character is one of the core connections that has to be made to enjoy any story. If there's a sense that such a connection can't be made (i.e. "Johnny Storm is already known to me and so changing him into someone that even on the surface I can see is not the same character, could put a wall between me and the story I'd LIKE to connect to"), then the story could be theoretically "ruined" for that audience member.

      An inability to allow a major character to be of a different ethnicity within a frankly different context (the movie is not the source material, ultimately) without losing all ability to connect to the material because such a change is inconceivable, is pretty close-minded. And in that sense doubles well for racist worldviews ("Black people can't be Johnny Storm"). But it is still an authentically weightier change to the source material than any change to either setting or more minor characters.

    • True. While I agree that the original comics are the default position from which all adaptations have sprung, I'm not convinced that is a valid basis for arguing against changing a character's race. These same people would have to despise a great deal of the changes already made in the various films to make that argument, but they seem perfectly fine with everything else. Just don't touch their white characters…

      I'm not convinced that changing the race of a character necessitates a weighty change in the character itself. Unless we are suggesting that race is at most the ultimate determination of one's possible personalities, then…no, never mind. Even in that case, we're unnecessarily reducing people based on assumptions about race. There has to be a deeper motivating factor for disliking a race change here that can be disentangled from the argument that changing race means uprooting the entire character. I'm not convinced in the slightest that race changing in this case will have any serious impact on the narrative or the characters. Maybe it will, but I highly doubt their going to inject racial politics into these movies…it's just not really in their bag of concerns, I'm afraid.

  3. Agreed – to clarify, all I'm arguing is that changing ANYTHING (though in this case it's race) of a main character is "weightier" than changing anything in setting or minor characters (two things you mentioned that no one seems to care so much about). So main character changes do naturally stand out, regardless of whether it's a racial change or something else, like a sex or gender change, or suddenly making the character a robot or disembodied voice (Jarvis, anyone? Who is a minor character and so this wasn't a major deal), etc. The argument that an adaptation isn't sticking to "source" material is a valid complaint. The end.

    I think it's important to separate the non-race-based complaint (not adhering to the source) from the race-specific complaint, and acknowledge that ANY "I'd rather they stuck to the source" whine-fest is valid, because if we don't acknowledge this the complainers will forever fall back on the fact that their complaint isn't about race and not racist, blah blah blah. To get past that – and actually convincing people to get past this is crucial to evolving the argument – it has to be conceded that okay you don't have to like any deviation from the source, and main characters are more important than minor ones, right. But now we need to look closely at why in god's name we're hating and not celebrating the fact that Hollywood can now turn Johnny Storm into an African American – something that would have been unheard of not too long ago – and not only is it not a terrible idea, it's a MAINSTREAM and highly marketable idea! Progress! Of a sort.

    I don't think I can look anyone in the face and tell them that changing the race of a character isn't a major event still. If a black hero was turned into a white hero, that wouldn't be something that had no meaning or impact, and it would be a decidedly negative one. Likewise, turning a white hero into a black one does have significance, but the real argument is that the significance of this latter event is almost entirely positive, our race relations and history being what they are. The idea that adhering to an outdated source is more important than being able to make a white heroic icon black after all this time…well, that's a mix up of priorities and wholly selfish right there. And THAT is what the complainers need to figure out.

    I think the only thing I don't agree with is that race doesn't (although I agree that it shouldn't) make any difference, because that's the flip side to the "I'm not racist" coin where you're arguing that we're post-racial when we really, really aren't. That's definitely the ideal, and what we strive for, but we shouldn't fake that moon landing, we should actually get there.

    • Part One:

      Agreed – to clarify, all I'm arguing is that changing ANYTHING (though in this case it's race) of a main character is "weightier" than changing anything in setting or minor characters (two things you mentioned that no one seems to care so much about). So main character changes do naturally stand out, regardless of whether it's a racial change or something else, like a sex or gender change, or suddenly making the character a robot or disembodied voice (Jarvis, anyone? Who is a minor character and so this wasn't a major deal), etc. The argument that an adaptation isn't sticking to "source" material is a valid complaint. The end.

      I think "valid" is incredibly subjective here. Yes, a complaint about a change to the source can be valid, but I don't think it is inherently so. That said, I generally agree that many complaints about source changes are valid, provided they are well-reasoned and that they acknowledge the sad truth that films are themselves separate mediums (and, in some cases, separate mediums across different temporal moments — so film adaptations in 2013 are drastically different from adaptations from the 1950s). So, for example, the complaints over the exclusion of Tom Bombadil are essentially valid when treated uncritically, but they fall apart under scrutiny precisely because the only basis for arguing for his inclusion is because "it was in the book." I've yet to see an argument in favor of Bombadil that can explain how his inclusion is absolutely crucial to the overarching narrative. Including Bombadil would, if anything, ruin the pacing of the film, let alone the film's continuity. The same could be said of these complaints about the Human Torch. What exactly does changing the race of a character do to the character? All they can say is "IT WILL CHANGE HIM FOREVER," but they cannot explain why (at least, not without resorting to racist statements). They just want him to be white cause he's always been white. Neither of these, in my mind, are valid complaints about source changes.

      But I think I may be quibbling over the term "Valid" here. I just think there is a difference between acknowledging a source change (this isn't in the book) and complaining about it (this isn't in the book and I don't like it).

      (Changing a character from human to a robot, however, could very well constitute a source change that might matter, just as the major source changes in Iron Man 3 do have a significant impact on the development of the narrative. In that case, I think you can make a perfectly valid argument about why such changes are a bad idea.)

      "If a black hero was turned into a white hero, that wouldn't be something that had no meaning or impact, and it would be a decidedly negative one."

      This is an argument some people made. The problem with it is that the changes are not equal. Historically, the power relation has favored white characters, so when a black character is changed to a white one, it has a different sort of resonance. The worst part of electing a black president in the U.S. is that it gave legitimacy to a sea of historical amnesiatics — largely white males who didn't get what was the big deal with race anyway who can now say "see, we got a black guy as president, so racism is over." Of course, that's simply not true. (I recognize that this is not your argument and that you are well aware of these issues).

    • Part Two:

      "Likewise, turning a white hero into a black one does have significance, but the real argument is that the significance of this latter event is almost entirely positive, our race relations and history being what they are."

      The positive/negative axes are important to acknowledge.

      "The idea that adhering to an outdated source is more important than being able to make a white heroic icon black after all this time…well, that's a mix up of priorities and wholly selfish right there. And THAT is what the complainers need to figure out."

      Word.

      "I think the only thing I don't agree with is that race doesn't (although I agree that it shouldn't) make any difference, because that's the flip side to the "I'm not racist" coin where you're arguing that we're post-racial when we really, really aren't. That's definitely the ideal, and what we strive for, but we shouldn't fake that moon landing, we should actually get there."

      This is actually a very valid point. I agree that there are some differences in experience between, say, myself and someone of African descent in a similar financial situation. As an anecdote, one of my colleagues (a black woman) who came from relatively modest upbringing (close enough to myself); when she first entered the English program here, she was told honestly by one of the professors that her status as a black woman would be met with a great deal of barriers in the job market. He wasn't being mean about it; he simply wanted her to understand that, fucked up as it may be, the world is not yet where it should be.

      And so, yes, there are certainly some differences in terms of upbringing, etc. that would impact a race change for someone like the Human Torch. In all fairness, I actually think that would make the character more interesting. One of the things I didn't much care for in the last FF movie was that so few of the characters were sympathetic in my mind, least of all the Human Torch (who comes off like an asshole, etc. etc. etc. etc.). This is why I actually appreciated the changes to Wolverine in the X-Men films; they made him aggressive and a bit of a smartass (as I remember him from the comics and the old 90s TV cartoon), but they also added a lot of emotional layers to him to give the character some staying power. A lot of folks weren't happy with his relationship with Rogue; I think it was actually for the better, since it gave Wolverine/Logan a hint of that human-ness we really needed in him (especially if he was going to be so central to the narrative).

      Hopefully this all makes sense.

  4. I don't think you can really use the "that's not the way he looked in the comic books" argument here. There has really been no one, save Patrick Stewart as Professor X and Christopher Reeve as Superman, that has looked exactly like the characters in the comic books. Hugh Jackman did a good job as Wolverine in the movies, but in the end, Hugh Jackman is 6'3" and Wolverine is maybe 5'8" in the comics. Nobody's going to look exactly like their character, and as long as they keep to the essence of Human Torch's character (womanizer, self absorbed, smartass) they wont have a problem. What bothers me is when you intentionally change that character's core, because then they are no longer that character. What angered me about the new Spiderman movie is not how the guy looked (which is actually closer to the comics), but how they changed Peter Parker's character. What drives him is completely taken away. He isn't so much of an outsider in the movie as he just wants to be alone. Spiderman was always an appealing alter ego for Parker, as that character was loved by most of New York, while Peter Parker was ridiculed by those same people. The movie never conveys that. They never convey the sense of obligation he has towards the city after Uncle Ben is killed. He just becomes Spiderman because…you know, his Uncle died and with great power and other stuff.

    I personally don't care who plays the Human Torch, so long as the actor understands the essence and personality of the character. Idris Elba did a good job as Heimdall, yet they never changed the inner motivation of that character. You can slightly change the origins of the Human Torch to fit the story, but you should never change what makes the Human Torch who he is. Same with regular books. You change the motivation of Ender in Ender's Game from not being like his brother to being the greatest ever to play the games, it changes the entire character and possibly makes him less interesting and complex. If you think I've made a faulty argument here, please correct me.

    Oh, and Court of Owls was really impressive. I'm hooked.

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