There’s a change to the new Fantastic Four movie, and some fans aren’t happy about it. It’s Johnny Storm, the Human Torch, who is now adopted and black. This change has its defenders as all changes do. See also Heimdall in the Thor movies, Nick Fury in the Marvel Movieverse (which should be blamed on the Ultimate Universe who was based on Samuel L. Jackson–can you really fault Marvel Studios for jumping on that?), and Perry White in Man Of Steel (and I wish that was the biggest screw-up in that movie but sadly isn’t).
This leads to two questions. 1) Was this change necessary? 2) Is this change bad? Naturally, I have to comment on this and was planning to despite not really caring about the Fantastic Four in any medium. But then someone in the reviewing community put out a video that brought me from “hey, this is an interesting discussion topic” to “you said WHAT? ARE YOU KIDDING ME?” and thus demanding I had to write this response.
Now I don’t know personally the host of The Graphic Novel Picture Show, a series that usually reviews comic book adaptations. I’ve seen a few episodes and “Solkir” raised good points in his reviews, but we’ve never talked personally. Recently his split personality (we’re going to assume in-show character), Sybil Pandemic (get it? get it?), has taken over the show with commentaries. Again, I haven’t watched a lot of the Sybil-hosted episodes so I don’t know if this is a full female persona or a drag queen persona but for the sake of ease we’re going to refer to “Sybil” with female pronouns and if I feel the need Solkir with male ones. Because something she said in this video got on my nerves.
Before I start ranting I want to be sure you have the proper context so watch her commentary first. You can watch more episodes over at The Agony Booth, and I do recommend it if only out of curiosity. He/She (depending on which personality is hosting at the time) usually makes some good points. Just not this time.
Yes, we’re challenging Sybil’s “racist” claim. But I’m a white Christian conservative so she probably doesn’t care what I think already. I’d say she’s not necessarily a bad person but being not very nice appears to be part of Sybil’s character. (I’ve seen the episode where she takes over.) Still, for the purpose of this commentary we’re taking her at face value.
First off where we agree. Yes, when superheroing began it was a time when racism was in charge rather than on the run. Yes, Whitewash Jones and Ebony White were bad ideas by today’s standards and one of those “period” things even I can’t defend. Yes, superheroes of color are poorly represented today, as are female characters. (I am one of those voices saying Wonder Woman is getting the short end of the Trilogy but it IS hard to outdo Linda Carter–and yet she still manged to escape stereotyping. Go figure.)
Where we first begin disagreeing..is the “hella racist” line, but sticking to the actual discussion, is the notion that we crackers aren’t going to see a movie starring a black man. I could just point to Will Smith, Samuel L. Jackson, and Wesley Snipe and move to the next topic. They have movies out that any race would go see. Hell, I went to see the Shaft movie and I don’t usually go to “R” movies. My point is Hollywood has this idiotic notion that they can’t make a movie every race wants to see with a black man in the lead, so if he is the guy is usually a hood who speaks ebonics so much you need subtitles or he’s the guy who acts whiter than white and needs to find his “blackness”, whatever the blue blazes that means. Alternately you have the badass but that’s universal to every race.
Then she brings up the idea of a white Black Panther not making sense and while she’s right, why go with Moon Knight as your example of “whitewashing” T’Challa? You have a much better example available to you.
There are plenty of similarities between T’Challa and Kit Walker. Both pass the mantle down. Both could be called rulers of their part of Africa. However, having a white man in command of a country of black people would not only break out cries or racism (and even if the creator hadn’t intended it there was still no reason to make the change so you might as well pencil your name on the card at least) but it would be a different story. There are reasons why the Phantom was so easily accepted as leader of the local tribes that wouldn’t be a proper adaptation of the Black Panther’s story and just wouldn’t work as well. It would be a poor adaptation and people would be asking “why didn’t you just make a Phantom” movie?” and I would be one of the people asking that question.
However, nothing about Luke Cage or The Falcon have to be black to fit a Hollywood film. Please hear me out because I would be strongly against these changes. There would be no reason for them other than the false perception that Sybil and some directors/producers have about whites not wanting to see a black lead. Luke Cage is a criminal who agreed to being experimented on rather than rot in prison. (Because giving a criminal invulnerable skin is always a good idea.) He ended up using this new gift as a “hero for hire”. Nothing about that NEEDS to be black as an original concept. “Power Man” (as he used to call himself) was an answer to blacksplotation movies but I’m taking about the origin. No comic fan of any race would stand for someone who isn’t black playing Luke Cage even if he was Asian or Latino or something. (Imagine a Hawaiian Luke Cage. Actually, nobody complains about a lack of Hawaiian superheroes, do they?) That’s because “he was always black” and that’s defined his character over the decades. He’s a representation of black people (usually as perceived by white guys unless it’s an old Milestone title or something) who grew up in “the hood” and his representation has changed with the culture. (Or if your reading a Brian Bendis book, a false idea of the culture. LUKE CAGE NOT SWEARING IS CANON!)
What about the Falcon? Sam Wilson was a minister’s son who ended up with the mob following his dad’s murder. Fate brought him back to the good guys, allying with Captain America. He didn’t have wings for some time. Again, nothing about that origin demands he couldn’t be white or Latino. Heck, I don’t know how much his race even affects his personality but it isn’t even close to Luke Cage. However he’s always been black and frankly the guy who will be playing him in The Winter Solder is a dead ringer for Wilson, and not just the same color.
I don’t care about why “x” was written like “y”. Batman used to carry guns, Superman couldn’t always fly, The Hulk started out gray, Power Pack played musical chairs with their superpowers for a while, and Falcon didn’t always have a flight suit or pet bird. Times change but there are certain depictions that always change. Watch how fans get mad when they change a costume for Pete’s sake. You know what else I can point to? HAIR. Longtime BW readers have read me writing that skin color to me is no different from hair or eye color. I just have to grab a different coloring pencil or click a different area of the palette in whatever image editor I’m using. It’s only the stupidity of humans that for far too long has made color of skin more important that content of character and you should know who I’m quoting.
There’s a reason a blonde dyed her hair red (or wore a wig) to play Mary Jane Watson and why a redhead went blonde to play Gwen Stacey. There’s a reason three of the live-action Lex Luthors (Smallville, Superman Returns, and the second movie serial Atom Man Meets Superman) either wore a bald wig or went the extra step of shaving their head (I’ve seen Rosenbaum with hair and that’s a sacrifice!) rather than having their character wear a wig (Gene Hackman) or simply keep his hair (Superboy and Lois & Clark). We DO want to see the character we’ve been reading about since we first picked up a comic they appeared in and not somebody who just bears the name. I point to various Battlestar Galactica comments I’ve made. By the way, the two main black characters became white or…
As hot as she is, and as good an actress as she his classic Boomer was really cool and I liked the original Col. Tigh better than what I’ve seen of the new one. Anyway, these things do matter to rabid fans who, again, will complain if the costume is wrong. It’s the kind of nitpicking they do and to write them off a bunch of closeted Klansman is a huge insult, I don’t care what Sybil’s character is supposed to be.
(By the way, my problem with a black Perry White was more the actor playing him didn’t have the right personality. They did a decent job making him look the part, but speaking of Lois and Clark they picked the right actor and then screwed up his character. Badly. “Great shades of Elvis” my foot!)
I do agree that there aren’t enough superheroes of color in the theaters. Off the top of my head you have Steel (a terrible adaptation and it felt more like a made-for-TV movie than a theatrical one, but I still liked it), The Meteor Man (put down by people but I enjoyed it), Blankman, Hancock (both movies should be magically switched with the lost Doctor Who episodes and the world would be a better place), that one guy in Mystery Men (I didn’t see that movie), Storm, War Machine, and upcoming the Falcon in The Winter Soldier. I don’t consider Blade a superhero but if you do there’s another one. There are too many on TV to list here, so they have a better showing there (I wouldn’t argue they’re underrepresented but they have it better than other “race” groups) at least as far back as Filmation’s Super Stretch and Microwoman. (Because I don’t treat animation any different from live-action.)
However, the solution isn’t to alter the race of other characters but USE those other characters to get more superheroes of color on the screen, and not just black heroes. There are plenty of superheroes (and supervillains..nobody cares if they’re not racially diverse and in fact people praised the Mandarin in Iron Man 3 for being white) of color who could make appearances in the X-Men, Avengers, Spider-Man, and even Nolan’s more “realistic” DC Universe that could get those characters in. Sony’s talking about building their own Spidey Movieverse to keep hold of those characters. I want to see The Prowler get a movie! Heck, if they did it right and didn’t take a shot at one or the other’s political views I would pay money to see an Icon and Rocket movie and I’m surprised there isn’t one for Static considering all the trouble and morally questionable acts DC did to grab hold of the character. A Blue Beetle movie with Jamie could be amazing…if not done by Nolan’s crew. These character exist. USE THEM!
As for Johnny being adopted, if you think that doesn’t change his character regardless of his skin tone then the Storm family was darn lucky the neighbor kids didn’t find that a teasing subject, or Johnny Storm never wondered about who his real parents were or why they gave him up. That affects character motivation, people. Even minor changes can affect how you approach a character and his or her interactions with people and situations. This is why a good writer keeps a character bible nearby. Yes, the character comes before race or gender but they do have influence, if only in how the readers view their actions. See also where they grew up, how their family and schoolmates treated them growing up, and other influences we call life.
Am I saying that there aren’t people who hate this because they’re racist jerks? I wish I could, but to say that everybody, or even a majority, who is against this are racists is insulting, mean, and shows how little they get fan rants. If Johnny were white they’d complain that he’s a redhead with a goatee and tattoo. Fans freaking out is nothing new. Look at the current flap over whose playing Batman and Wonder Woman, and those two look the part. They complained about Robert Downey Jr. playing Tony Stark but from day 1 I knew he was perfect for the role–and he was. This is what fans do; nitpick until there are no more nits to pick…and keep trying anyway.
If you aren’t going to give us the characters we’re reading or grew up with, the basics of multiversal continuity, the basic look and personality of the character (which does allow for minor differences in interpretation to bridge the medium or to give a writer/director/actor some leeway to put their “voice” to him or her), you’re going to get angry fans. Just ask Godzilla fans. And to me it IS the same thing. In my little world, the race war is over. The humans won.