Comics, Film, and Race

There’s a been a bit of a dust-up on the interwebz over the announcement that Michael B. Jordan will be playing Johnny Storm (aka Human Torch) in the Fantastic Four reboot film. There’s a really nice article at IGN responding to the controversy. Here’s just a snippet summary:

The complaints about the Jordan casting seem to boil down to these core arguments:

  1. Johnny Storm has always been portrayed as a white character.
  2. Hollywood shouldn’t try to change a character’s race just for the sake of political correctness or money.
  3. Audiences will be confused if the race of this iconic superhero character is suddenly changed.
  4. Having a black Johnny and a white Sue means the characters aren’t brother and sister anymore.

To which I offer these rebuttals:

  1. Yes, and so were Kingpin, Heimdall, Perry White, and Nick Fury at one point.
  2. Unless you’ve read the script and sat in on the production meetings, it’s a little presumptuous to claim you understand the motivations behind this decision.
  3. Just like that time everyone’s brain melted when WB replaced Billy Dee Williams’ Harvey Dent with Tommy Lee Jones’ Two-Face?
  4. A mixed-race family? That’s unpossible!

8 thoughts on “Comics, Film, and Race

  1. “Audiences will be confused if the race of this iconic superhero character is suddenly changed”

    …aside from the nerd brigade, how many people have ever heard of Johnny Storm, let alone built strong racial associations with the character? I could be underestimating the number of people who have strong views on Johnny Storm, but my impression is that he isn’t exactly Luke Skywalker here. Isn’t he a character who doesn’t have a major pop culture impact?

  2. I think it depends on the era in which folks grew up as to whether the Fantastic Four generally, and Johnny Storm in particular, are iconic. It didn’t used to be only nerds who read Marvel and DC comics, though I suppose I am not really a good counterexample to the generalization that only the nerd brigade has heard of Johnny storm. For a certain generation, the FF was way more important than X-Men.

    Regardless, the primary objections as portrayed in the post are indeed not slam-dunks and the responses are pretty telling. I am pleased as punch to see FP dealing with geek culture. Anita Sarkeesian’s Feminist Frequency project has been hammering away at sexism in video games. Comics (and comic films) need the same kind of close attention in re: race, sex, gender, and heteronormativity.

  3. Johnny Storm has always been portrayed as blond. Remember the outcry when they cast a guy with brown hair in the last film? Me neither.

  4. While I agree with the claim above that point 2 is presumptuous with regard to what the actual motivations of Hollywood might be, I also think there are difficult issues lurking hereabouts. Would it be okay to voice similar objections to a recasting of the Green Lantern or Green Arrow as African American, since such a recasting would somehow ‘undo’ or ‘subvert’ the (albeit flawed, but well-intentioned and extremely influential) 1970s Green Arrow/ Green Lantern stories where these characters addressed issues of race and the role of privilege, power, and whiteness in civil rights debates (using superhero powers as metaphor, obviously)? I am not sure.

    See one of the most famous passages in these comics here:

    Of course, I am not implying that there are similar worries with the recasting of Johnny Storm – interactions and engagement with civil rights and social justice have never been a part of his main characterization. But there do seem to be larger, and more difficult, issues worth thinking about that are suggested by this particular case.

  5. Oops – After clicking, you’ll need to scroll down a bit to see the artwork relevant to my comment.

  6. Roy, I completely agree! I think this would count for the Green Lantern, though, in somewhat the same way as race counts for Captain America as described in the article linked in the original post. The cases are different to be sure–for with Captain America, it’s both central to his origins story that he was meant to be a rallying figure for the American public circa WWII and given the pervasive racism and sexism of the time, re-casting him as another race or as a woman would significantly change a substantive aspect of his character, and then there’s also this similar challenging of Nazism and Red Skull from a position of privilege. For Green Lantern, who I admit I don’t know as well as almost any character in the Marvel universe, it seems like this is less central to his story–but it is a really meaningful and culturally significant part of his story that I would be resistant to change for reasons similar to those that lead me to be open to re-casting, e.g., Johnny Storm or Peter Parker as another race.

  7. I’m still pretty mad that Billy Dee Williams never got a chance to be Two-Face.

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