On Why the Fantastic Four May or May Not Be Racist

(Editor’s note: This post is going to be real. Potentially serious. Perhaps even real serious. Reader beware.)

So, Sony Pictures (holders of the rights for Marvel properties Spider-Man and the Fantastic Four) has announced most of the main cast for their new reboot of the Fantastic Four franchise, according to Variety.

Cast members include Miles Teller as Mr. Fantastic (Reed Richards), Jamie Hill as The Thing (Ben Grimm), Kate Mara as the Invisible Woman (Susan Storm-Richards) and Michael B. Jordan as the Human Torch (Johnny Storm).

Let’s take a look at the FF, as they appear in the pages of Marvel Comics:

Fantastic-FourHere’s the cast of the new film, as announced by Variety:

fantastic-four-castingNotice anything?

Michael B. Jordan (far right), as much as he’s not His Airness, is in fact African-American. Not a big deal at first glance, obviously, until you get into the canonical relationship between his character and Susan Storm.

They’re brother and sister. Not adopted, not half-siblings, but full-blooded brother and sister.

So there’s the…well, not problem, exactly, but hang-up. As a comic book nerd, I understand there’s a line between doing things the “right way” and doing things the “lets the movie get finished” way. The best, and probably most well-known example of this is Peter Parker in the (Tobey MacGuire version) Spider-Man films. Rather than spend precious screen time detailing how Parker is a super-genius who designed his web shooters and web fluid (something no one else on the planet had done), the filmmakers decided to just say “Hey, he can just shoot webs from his hands. Moving on.”

I didn’t like it at first, but I understood the necessity in the grand scheme of things. I got over it.

Some things, however, no one will ever get over. Ever.

Some things, however, no one will ever get over. Ever.

So they cast the Human Torch as a black guy. Right now, the movie will be a “reboot,” which could mean any number of things. It could make the FF robots, or squirrels in human suits, or walking fungi for that matter. It could (perhaps more realistically) make Johnny and Sue step-siblings, or adopted siblings, or what have you. Or, they could completely ignore the sibling bit entirely and change the character’s name to Johnny Cloud or something.

My issue, and the reason I even bring it up at this juncture, is this: the chicken and the egg discussion. The script is done, so which came first? The decision to cast Jordan, or some (as yet unknown) change to the story that would require casting a black man?

If it’s the former, that tells me the people behind the production could give two shits about the consistency of the source material, which may or may not be a great sign for the success of the film. They merely decided to cast a black actor for the sake of diversity in a medium that’s come under fire for being “too white.”

If it’s the latter, much like the case of changing Marvel’s character Nick Fury from a white man to a black man for the Ultimate Marvel comic line (which was an entirely separate universe from the one more well-known, where characters had completely different origins, relationships, and even ethnicities), I have absolutely no problem with it.

If they hadn't, the world would be a significantly less badass place, motherf*cker.

If they hadn’t, the world would be a significantly less badass place, motherf*cker.

The problem is, however, that at this point we can’t know which is the case.

If there is a legitimate lack of racial and gender diversity in comics and their film adaptations (which, I’ll admit, there may well be), there are several factors to keep in mind:

  • The Fantastic Four were conceived, just like most of today’s popular superheroes, in the 1960s, in the early days of the civil rights movement. Comics weren’t concerned with espousing social issues, they were concerned with selling more issues. “Diversity” as a general rule did not exist.
  • There are, in fact, black superheroes that would make perfectly serviceable film franchises. Wait, what’s that? Somebody already did that?
'Sup.

‘Sup.

That’s Wesley Snipes as Blade, Marvel’s resident vampire hunter. He’s a supporting character in the Spider-Man circle of heroes, killing vampires, demons, and all other manner of badness. He made three movies in the late 90s-early 2000s to a relatively high degree of financial gain. Not Avengers-level, mind you, but good for the time.

Oh, and let’s not just pick on Marvel!

Gentlemen. I'll be your hero this evening. Please keep it in your pants.

Gentlemen. I’ll be your hero this evening. Please keep it in your pants.

Allow me to introduce Vixen, a sometimes member of DC’s  Justice League and teammate of Superman, Batman, and so on and so forth. You’re telling me that movie wouldn’t make bank? She can channel animal powers and, you know, looks like that. In spandex. This isn’t a difficult process, people.

Ok, fine. Maybe sometimes it is. The less we say about this, the better.

Ok, fine. Maybe sometimes it is. The less we say about this, the better.

All I’m saying is this: if the casting of Jordan as the Human Torch was because of something the script already says, I have no problem with it. Whether or not the script’s reasoning makes sense doesn’t matter. It was part of the process, and not everything can be a home run like Samuel L. Jackson.

If, however, the studio and others made the decision to cast Jordan and then made the writers make him fit, that’s unacceptable. Even worse, if they A) ignore the fact that he’s black completely, leaving audiences clueless or B) ignore completely the canon of him and Susan being siblings, it’ll be a fan riot.

Of course, I personally don’t care why the film will be an unmitigated failure, because that failure will hopefully show Sony they need to give the rights for the characters back to Marvel.

Look, this has nothing to do with racism (although I can completely understand how some people might believe that). I have no problem with black actors, black superheroes, or casting black actors to play black superheroes. A white Blade, for example, would have caused this same column if I were less concerned with boobs when the first Blade movie was released.

Look, I didn't go see it for the writing, okay? Sue me.

Look, I didn’t go see it for the writing, okay? Sue me.

The same goes for an Indian Superman, or an Asian Spider-Man, or a partially-disabled alien James Bond. If it makes sense in the reboot, I’m on board. If it is simply to create some sense of diversity for diversity’s sake, and you’re intentionally crapping on decades of entrenched canon, not so much.

Hopefully, obviously, more information on the new film will bear out the “we wanted a black Johnny Storm because of X” path. I for one don’t want to be caught up in a wave of wild nerd rage.

In closing, I’d like to discuss this image:

shortpacked-making-racists-angryAny artist, writer or other content creator who truly believes this is not just a short-sighted hack, they’re a troll.

Making Superman black (or Latino, or Korean, or whatever) simply to “make racists angry” doesn’t actually fix anything. People (most people, anyway, I’m fully aware bigotry exists and always will) wouldn’t be upset about a black Superman because he’s black. They would be upset about a black Superman because as they know him, Superman is not black. If you explain why he’s black (show Krypton full of dark-skinned Kryptonians), no one would give a shit. Nerds, geeks, and so forth don’t have time for petty things like racism or homophobia. They want a good, cohesive and captivating story. Changing elements of that story for no other reason than to make some sort of statement will only piss them off.

So sayeth the white guy.

 

 

 

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5 responses to “On Why the Fantastic Four May or May Not Be Racist

  1. “People wouldn’t be upset about a black Superman because he’s black. They would be upset about a black Superman because as they know him, Superman is not black. If you explain why he’s black, no one would give a shit.”

    If they really really wanted to, they could show that Kryptonians have just as much diversity as humans do. That would work well enough. I think that’s the main flaw sometimes. They change the main cast to show diversity but often still have the background characters white washed. If I use your example of Superman, even if they showed diversity in Kryptonians they would still have to show or imply that at least one of Superman’s parents were black.

    They could still make this work with the Fantastic Four. Wouldn’t it be possible for them to be siblings if one parent was white and the other black?

    • A diverse Krypton would actually make perfect sense in a film featuring a black Superman. To my knowledge (which, admittedly, is thin) Kryptonians are just lily-white as all hell.

      In the new FF movie, like I said, if they explain the racial disparity between the siblings as “Mom and Dad were mixed race” would work, but only on a few conditions:

      1. It’s not done through dialogue, which might sound clunky and forced (if you use, say, a wedding photo while one of the characters is talking about the Storm parents).

      2. The effort to explain the mixed-race siblings is even made in the first place (this is still an unknown).

      3. A mixed-race parentage might work, but is Michael B. Jordan even visually believable as a person of mixed race?

      • I agree, they’d have to do it in a way that makes sense in the film. I don’t have any good suggestions. The one that comes to mind is that they could open with the two of them playing as children and have their parents in the room. I’m not 100% sure how that would fit in with the story, though.

        As for your third point, I have no idea. I feel like I would need some knowledge of biology and genetics to know whether or not it’s believable. But, I’d be willing to be the average person doesn’t have that knowledge either, so they might be able to get away with saying they are mixed race if no one is the wiser.

      • I don’t know that you need a large (or even medium or fun-size) amount of biological or anthropological knowledge to look at someone and have a relative sense of their racial background as far as that’s concerned.

        Like I say in the piece, though, it’s all about the chicken and egg: which came first, the script or the casting?

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