Is it OK to have a traditionally white character played by a black actor or is this just forced diversity and an offense to comic book readers?

After the two incredibly cheesy and, at least in my opinion, badly-written Fantastic Four movies of the early 2000’s, it was announced in 2009 that the movie series would get a reboot. Almost 5 years later, in early 2014, the cast of said reboot was announced, starting off a great outrage all over the internet concerning what could be one of the most controversial casting decisions in comic book movie history: Johnny Storm, brother of the white Susan Storm, a traditionally white character, was going to be played by the black actor Michael B. Jordan.

Michael Jordan

Few people actually supported this, and most people complained about forced Political Correctness or a lack of accuracy to the source material. And I can assure you, almost one and a half years later, after the release of multiple trailers and with only few weeks left until we all get to see the movie in the theaters, the outrage is still there. Just cast your eyes to the YouTube comment sections: without having actually seen the movie, people already assume that it’s going to be awful and still complain about the same things. A few examples:

E Santiago says:

That’s stupid…that’s not accurate. That’s like making Blade a white guy…I don’t think I’m being racist at all with my comment….any black guy that disagree would be dumb.

David Gartner states:

We do not want or need your PC crap adultrating our characters that have always been traditionally white or black. Oh, and go ahead and call me a racist, I do not care.

And these are just a few of dozens of different concerns about Fox’s decision. But are these complaints reasonable? In order to answer that question, I think we will have to deal with the different complaints and ask the following questions:

1. Why is diversity in comic books or comic book movies a good thing?

2. Does the different skin color change anything about the character and thus make it less accurate to the comics?

3. Do comic book movies HAVE to be comic book accurate?

In the following article, I’ll try to find an answer to all these questions in order to find out whether the outrage is legitimate.

The Diversity discussion

This discussion has gotten more and more relevant amongst comic book fans in the last few years since more and more famous characters in comic books are women, homosexuals or people with a different ethnic or cultural background. But a few months ago, All-New X-Men #40 was the straw to break the camel’s back when it revealed that Iceman had been gay all along. People complained about “forced Political Correctness” and about an ideology being pushed into comic books.

And I will say the same thing about diversity in this article as I did back when the community went nuts about Bobby: more diversity amongst the most famous superheroes, even if that means changing the color of certain characters skins in new movies or replacing others with women or black people, is necessary to modernize the genre. The majority of heroes are still straight white men, but, in a realistic scenario, far more of them would be female, black or gay. In the 1960’s, when most of the famous characters we love today were created, we as a society were not developed far enough to embrace these groups of people and see them as heroes. But we have learned a lot.

A great example for such a modernization is the introduction of a black Nick Fury in the Ultimate Universe. It’s still the same character, but, since the Ultimate Universe is supposed to be a modernized version of the original Marvel Universe, it’s very likely that one of the characters who have always been white would be black. Remember, this is a separate universe, just like the universe the new FF movie will take place in.

Nick Fury

Michael B. Jordan himself stated in an answer to the internet’s reaction in Entertainment Weekly:

I can see everybody’s perspective, and I know I can’t ask the audience to forget 50 years of comic books. But the world is a little more diverse in 2015 than when the Fantastic Four comic first came out in 1961.

Many people argue that you could just introduce new characters instead of changing or replacing the established ones. I do see the problem, though, is that these characters could be far less popular than the already established, not diverse heroes. And, in this situation, it’s not really possible since the Fantastic Four, as a team, have a fixed cast of characters.

Ultimately, diversity has nothing to do with “Political Correctness” (a term that nobody really uses, apart from people who complain about it). It has something to do with being more modern and realistic: if the Fantastic Four were created today, they could very likely have a black person amongst them. You might still say that there’s a certain ideology behind it, but, then again, there is an ideology behind almost any piece of art when you think about it. Making a political statement has always been important for comics or movies, and you should not try to restrict artistic freedom by saying that these kinds of things don’t belong in blockbusters or comic books. And, in this case, the ideology is that black people and women can be heroes, as well. Which is not that bad, is it?

Black Johnny Storm: a different person?

Let’s just assume for a minute that the answer to question 3 is “yes, accuracy to the source material is essential for comic book movies”. If that’s true, is it possible to deliver a comic book accurate movie with one of the main characters having a different skin color (apart from the fact that, based on what we saw in the trailers, the movie seems to deviate from the source material in multiple ways, but that’s not the topic of discussion here)? Is this just a minor detail, or does it change something essential about the impulsive hero?

First off: no, the fact that Johnny is black in this fictional universe does not cause a logical flaw because his sister is white. For all we know, one of them could be adopted, or they’re half-siblings. And since they probably still grew up together, their relationship doesn’t change, either.

Sue Storm Fantastic Four

And here’s the thing: I really feel like the essence of his character will still be intact, even with a change of color. This is because his character was never really about being white, in the first place. At the time he was created, fictional characters being white was self-evident, and people of color as superheroes didn’t exist at all until Black Panther was created in 1966. Nothing about his character, his attitude, his behavior stop working if he isn’t white. From what we saw in the trailers, he acted like a childish, impulsive, good-looking young man driving fast cars and not following orders, exactly like he does in most of the comics. So it’s very possible that the change about him is visual only. This should not be a problem, since there have been many actors in comic book movies not visually fitting their comic book counterparts (Like Idris Elba as Heimdall, or Topher Grace as Venom).

Many people argue that they wouldn’t want black characters turned white, either, and that this is the same thing. In my opinion, this is not true. Many (not all) black characters like Storm, Black Panther and Miles Morales have been created in order to explore a different cultural or ethnic background. So their skin color is more important to their characters than Johnny Storm’s skin color is to him. He’s not white for a special storytelling reason. He’s white because that was the norm in the time he was created.

Miles Morales is Spider-Man

However, making Johnny Storm black could put another complexion on the character.  For instance, there are now possible situations where he could struggle with racism (which, as recent events show, many black people in America still do). But does that take anything away from the character? Isn’t it just an interesting new way to make a character created more than 50 years ago incredibly modern? You can’t expect your comic book characters to stay exactly the same after decades. In order to survive, the genre has to modernize. This means changing stuff about characters (without removing their initial character traits!).

Making Miles Morales white, though, would be a totally different thing- at least, if we assume that movies have to be true to their source material. But is that the case?

Comic book accuracy in movies?

This is a huge deal amongst all comic book fans. Back in 2006, the release of the third X-Men movie was a big disappointment for most fans of the comic book franchise since it failed to bring to the big screen what people wanted to see: a true representation of the “Dark Phoenix Saga”. In fact, many comic book fans despise the entire X-Men movie franchise for not being accurate to the source material. But is that necessary, at all? Do movie producers have a responsibility to make their movies similar to the original story?

Jean Grey X-Men 3

Well, to make it short: no, they don’t. Not at all. This is for a very simple reason, even if it is hard for fans to realize:

Comic book movies are not made for comic book fans!

Think about it. Comic book movies are made for a mainstream audience. In order for them to be successful, you have to try and appeal to a broader audience. Some things work in comic books or for comic book fans, but would be absolutely silly on the big screen, so it’s necessary to change these kinds of things to make the product more enjoyable for most people. Let’s just face it. There’s a lot of weird stuff in comics.  Meanwhile, some of the more recent comic book movies belong in the top 10 most financially successful movies of all time.

Let’s take a look at the numbers for a minute. X-MEN #1 from 1991 is, with more than 8 million pre-orders and around 3-4 million copies actually sold, the highest-selling comic book of the genre. It made around 7 million dollars. Marvel’s The Avengers, being the most successful superhero movie to date, made more than $600,000,000 at the box office (take a look at the BoxOfficeMojo page for superhero movies!). Of course, you can’t compare the money a movie and a single comic book each made. But this kind of shows that these are totally different dimensions we’re talking about, and a much larger number of people is reached with the film franchises. Only a small percentage of the people that went to a theater to watch The Avengers actually ever touched an AVENGERS comic book in their lives. Making movies only to satisfy comic book readers would not only be less profitable for the big studios, it would also be far less satisfying for a regular audience. Of course, these two things – pleasuring comic book readers and a mainstream audience – don’t always have to contradict each other, but artistic freedom is extremely important in order for the movie to be good.

Of course, from the perspective of a comic book reader, it’s understandable to desire a movie to be accurate to the comics you love, but it’s just not realistic that any movie would ever be 100% accurate, so we should just try and enjoy them for what they are: a reinterpretation, a separate universe. With realistic expectations, I really hope we can enjoy what most of them are: good movies. Just not that accurate.

The Bottom Line

So, after trying to answer the three initial questions, we can now say whether the complaints about black Johnny Storm are reasonable. All things considered, in my opinion, they’re not. Not only do comic book movies not have to be accurate to the source material, even if they had to, this change of color would not make Fant4stic less accurate. In fact, I really think this movie will be pretty accurate to the ULTIMATE FANTASTIC FOUR book. Diversity in comics and movies is not a bad thing, either, but necessary to keep the genre modernized.

Ultimate FF

I really think we should just wait and see so a far more important question can be answered – whether Fant4stic is a good movie.

But what do you think?

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