The nerd-o-sphere has been making a big deal about Michael B. Jordan being cast as Johnny Storm, the Human Torch of Marvel’s First Family, the Fantastic Four. Fans and purists take issue with the fact that the blonde-haired, blue-eyed hero being portrayed by a black man, and I have to admit that I had a negative reaction upon hearing the news. I immediately had to ask myself why.
Over the years plenty of comic characters have been played by actors whose appearance didn’t match the art we’ve stared at in comics for years. Sometimes it matters and sometimes it doesn’t. I don’t think it made a difference that Catwoman was portrayed by Eartha Kitt in the 60s or that Billy Dee Williams played Harvey Dent in Tim Burton’s Batman. Race was unimportant to the characters. Idris Elba made a great Heimdall. All that was required was gravitas, which he has in abundance. I was more upset about 6’2″ Hugh Jackman being cast as the short and stumpy Wolverine. When Michael Clark Duncan appeared as Wilson “Kingpin” Fisk in the atrocious Daredevil movie I was upset.
What producers have to realize is that comic book characters are more than just interchangeable carriers of super powers. They’re characters with personalities and back stories that provide them with motivations that are essential to who they are. It is important that Magneto is a Jew, as his family’s persecution in the Nazi holocaust informed the way he would deal with prejudice against mutantkind, and makes his story more tragic. It is important that Steve Rogers be a blue-eyed, blonde-haired Aryan ideal, not because it’s necessary for ANY Captain America to be, but because it’s indicative of what the ideal was during the period when the persona was created. And it was important that Wilson Fisk be a white guy, as he represented the archetypical New York mafia don, who are stereotypically portrayed as a teensy bit incredibly racist. While Michael Clark Duncan was a great actor, casting a black man in the part completely changed the character. It’s the same reason you couldn’t have Dustin Hoffman play the Red Skull.
Most of the comic books being adapted to film were created decades ago, long before anyone was thinking about portraying diversity in fiction. This is not a good thing, but it’s true. If they wanted to change the race of a character in the Fantastic Four, how about Mr. Fantastic? Reed Richards, the super stretchy super genius has no part of his character that depends on his race, and changing it would not affect his back story in any way. But, maybe Hollywood is concerned about the way the world would react to a comic books movie that portrayed a black man and a white woman as lovers.
The specific issue in this instance is that Johnny Storm and Sue Storm (the Invisible Woman) are siblings. It’s part of what makes the Fantastic Four Marvel’s “First Family”. Casting a black actor as Johnny, while Sue remains white and blonde, begs the question of their familial relationship. It can be explained away pretty simply, as one of them being adopted, or perhaps they’re half-siblings, or maybe they’ve got “1-in-a-million genes” from bi-racial parents. And that’s fine, but still… unnecessary. I don’t feel like Michael Jordan was chosen for this part because his talent was great or that he suited the role particularly well, but because the producers felt a need to diversify the cast in hopes of drawing a larger audience without thought to the characterization.
There are non-white characters in comics. Really. Hollywood should be using them more. Get me a Black Panther movie, one starring Misty Knight (though taking a chance on a black woman may just be too much for producers), or a John Stewart Green Lantern. And hurry up with the Luke Cage project on Netflix. Get a real actress to play Storm in the next X-Men movie, or include Forge and give him some actual lines, or maybe Sunspot. The X-Men are a particularly diverse group, but the movies only seem to devote time to the white ones. But, instead of casting these roles and giving the characters screentime, Hollywood is making silly changes in an attempt to be more diverse.