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5 Reasons Why Geeks Go Crazy Over Race-Changing Superheroes

Michael B. Jordan, The Human Torch; Source: Schmoes Know
Well, here we go again. You know, sometimes, when I hear that a movie or comic or TV show is changing the race of a known comic book character, I wonder if things will be different, if calmer heads will prevail and we've moved on to the point where such things are no big deal. But we haven't. The same thing happened when Heimdall in Thor was black, the same thing happened when Miles Morales became the multi-racial Ultimate Spiderman, and it's happening again with the announcement that African-American Michael B. Jordan will be playing the Human Torch in the new Fantastic Four movie. You get comments like this on Twitter:
New cast of #FantasticFour reboot sucks! Human Torch is now black for some PC reason. Stick to the source material and stop the nonsense! 
The new cast of Fantastic Four. Not sure if im ok with it. Not to be racist buutt Human Torch isn't black. from what i know at least.
Seriously, you cast a black dude to play the human torch in the reboot. That's so not right!! (Not being racist, no offense)
So I thought this time, it would helpful to take a step back, and deal with the phenomenon as a whole. Let's look at all the reasons why some geeks freak out over race changing, how they make their argument, and why they're wrong.

1. Respect the Source Material - This is usually the first card played, which boils down to, "he/she is supposed to be white. Don't change the comic!" The argument is framed simply as being about being true to the character.
Steve Rogers: What Chris Evans
Doesn't Look Like
Why It's Wrong: Where this argument breaks down is that almost no other feature of comic book characters causes as much outrage as the race. For instance, where was the uproar over Chris Evans' Captain America having brown hair instead of blonde like the comics? Why didn't people foam at the mouth over Tobey Maguire being 27 while playing the teenaged Peter Parker in Spider-Man? Lots of changes are made when making the transition from a drawing to an actual human being. Race is a big change to the source material, but not the only one.

2. Political Correctness - This old buzzword always gets dragged out when discussing race-bending. "It's political correctness gone wild! The PC crowd needs to leave our comics alone! They're only making this change to pander to the liberals!"
Why It's Wrong: To this argument, I say, "So what?" First of all, in order for comics to survive, we need to broaden the audience. If a black Human Torch or Spiderman can bring in more people, that just gives comics a better chance to survive and increase profits. Second, I think it's time to acknowledge the fact that mainly white men created most of our beloved comic characters, and they made mainly white characters. There are very, very few major minority superheroes. If we get the chance to take an existing popular character and make them a minority, I say it's long overdue.

3. This Stuff is Out of Control - You know what they say. Once you go black...there's an undeniable sense of panic whenever a character gets race bent, and someone invariably says something along the lines of "This is getting out of control!" I think there's a genuine fear that the trend will increase and accelerate, and eventually all the white characters will become minorities.
Why It's Wrong: Frankly, if all comic books flipped and became a flood of minority superheroes with white characters in the margins, I would be thrilled. See how you like it. But let's be honest...it won't. We're talking one out of four superheroes in FF, not even half. It would actually make sense to make Sue Storm black as well, since Johnny and Sue were brother and sister in the comics. But whites still make up a majority of comic fans, and the companies know what side their bread is buttered on. For every minority superhero, there are a thousand white superheroes, and that's how it will be for a long time to come. At best, a black Human Torch is a drop in a very large ocean.

4. This Will Ruin the Character - The other argument that's made is that the change will destroy their favorite  character. "Why make a perfectly good white character into a black character? It will ruin him/her! The character is supposed to be white! Its an integral part of the character!"
Why It's Wrong: For the vast majority of comic book characters, their Caucasian status has nothing to do with their character. White is just the default. I can understand concerns that making a superhero black will force other changes, like making the character poor, from a ghetto, talking jive, stealing things, eating watermelon...

Wait, here's a thought. What if we didn't make a black character into a black stereotype? What if we changed nothing but the race and left everything else alone? What if we made Peter Parker black and he was still a middle-class teen with genius intelligence? What if we made Johnny Storm black and he was still a hotshot pilot with a quick temper? Then maybe we can broaden the view of minorities in general.

Besides, sometimes a black character is just better. Can anyone really argue that Samuel L. Jackson as Nick Fury wasn't an improvement over David Hasselhoff?

5. Racism - Of course, for all these arguments, this whole uproar always boils down to racism. After all of the above has been said, eventually the whispers boil down to, "I don't want to see black or minority characters. I want to see white characters."
Why It's Wrong: You know, it's fine if you don't want to see minorities. Seriously. You go on back to your cave, and go read your comics from the 1960's where there was nary a minority in sight, and the ones who did exist were embarrassing stereotypes. The rest of us will remain in the year 2014, where minorities are alive, thriving, and bursting into flame on the big screen. Ciao.

Thanks to MsMariah for the tip!

What do you think of the debate over race and comic books?

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  1. It's just odd that he's supposed to be Kate Maras sister and they look nothing alike. I'm not sure what they're doing with that.

  2. I have no problem as long as they stick to the core ideas behind the characters.
    Racism existed in the comics through stereotypes, now they are more character centered. I would not like to see a Power Man from the 70's, but one more like the animated one on ultimate Spider-Man.

  3. Great example with Samuel Jackson and David Hasselhoff. What's important is that the acting is good, the character is brought to life, and that viewers are riveted to the story.

  4. They could be step siblings or not siblings at all.

  5. David summed it up well.
    A sure way to ruin a character would be to have David Hasselhoff in the role.
    Some characters are iconic because of who they are. Shaft as a white guy just wouldn't work. I think the only time the switch bothered me was in the movie Wild Wild West. I grew up with that show and knew how James West was to be portrayed. So I was disappointed with the movie. Wait, maybe that was because the movie sucked...

  6. Uh, a black president - stonewalled since day one - a blue eyed, blonde Jesus as the god for the masses. I had such high hopes for the present and feel so saddened (depressed really) by our lack of progress. Did the internet make it worse - sadly no - it just gave the bigots more of a voice. I keep telling my self it's a good thing. because it's less hidden and now can truly be quashed - although in my lifetime - probably not. Everyone seems to get that beauty is only skin deep - a hero isn't what's on the outside - but what's on the inside (it's heart) - where we are all the same. Skin the masses - what do you see?

    1. Blue eyes blonde Jesus? What's that, the new headliner card from the Yugioh Christian Expansion? Jesus ain't never been portrayed any way other than brown haired and brown eyes. Idiot. Whether or not that's historically accurate is beside the point, familiarize yourself with the facts before you spout your hateful rhetoric.

  7. Great piece, man.

    I do have a problem with this, but not for any of the reason you mentioned. If a character's not Black, that's completely fine with me. I don't see any good reason to make them Black - it's sure not doing me any favors.

    I have a problem with pandering for the sole reason of getting more butts from a different crowd in the seats. That's ALL this is. They're not trying to be "PC" or expand the character or any other nonsense (i guess this is a "good" reason from the studio's perspective).

    People saying "respect the source material" aren't quite getting it: The source material SUCKS. Fantastic Four are bland privileged characters (except for Ben) with no edge to them that people can't quite understand. Why are they fighting crime? People know why Batman's doing it. Not so much with FF.

    It's a good move from the studio's perspective, but I don't like it because it's telling me they don't have much confidence in their ability to put out a successful movie without making moves like this. Just make a good movie with a good premise and trailer and we will see it.

    Now, Michael B. is cool. I loved him in Friday Night Lights, Parenthood, Chronicle, but this is cracking me up because it's so transparent. Not his fault, he shouldn't turn down high-profile work but it's a shame he's gonna be caught up in this. It's also a shame that he has to play Johnny, the most shallow member of the whole crew.

    Finally, I hate to link drop again, but in case my disdain for the Fantastic Four hasn't come through in this extremely long comment, there's more over here: http://hypertransitory.com/blog/2013/05/07/why-the-fantastic-four-are-terrible-people/

  8. I love the choice. I think Michael B Jordan bleeds cool, which is what the Human Torch needs. My problem with the casting is Kate Mara. She's just so background noise of an actress to me. She's not a bad actress per se, just hasn't ever wowed me.

  9. I'm looking forward to Netflix's Power Man

  10. I wrote a story with a strong black female character in it,
    but her ethnicity wasn't clearly stated right away. When it was, people were
    shocked that she wasn't white. They were shocked that this character didn't fit
    into their perceived ideal of she should be. In essence, it was as you say,
    "they didn't want her to be black." I have to admit that as a fan of
    comics, it doesn’t throw me through a loop sometimes when I see these kinds of
    changes, but not because it upsets me. I get nervous sometimes worrying about
    how they will change the character’s personality and story. If they are simply
    changing the color of their skin, I don't have a problem with that, as long as
    it makes sense to the story. I just don't want old characters weighted down
    with new stereotypes in efforts to belittle minorities. As far as every other
    concern, people need to get over themselves. Hispanics make of the majority of
    the U.S. population, but I haven’t seen any new Hispanic heroes pop up...so we
    still have a long way to go.

  11. Hi, great article! I'm going to post a backlink to your site. I look at it this way. I am comic book fan, but lets be honest, comics are not considered to be classic literature. For example, if they were to change the ethnicity of Elizabeth Bennett in 'Pride and Prejudice' that would not work. However, for comics it works. Admittedly, it would not work for certain famous comic book characters (the big ones, like 'Superman' and 'Batman') but for some of the smaller, lesser known comic book characters, changing the ethnicity should not be a big deal.

    My issue is that no one gets up in arms about someone of German heritage playing a comic book hero that is of Irish heritage, or vice versa. If ethnic identity doesn't matter, why should skin color?

  12. Thanks for the insights and for tipping us off to this!

  13. Congratulations on the story, and I agree. Changing the race doesn't always mean adding stereotypes along with it

  14. I agree, the FF are pretty lame. But Michael is awesome

  15. Yeah Michael is the man. I wish him the best of luck with this movie. I'll likely get around to seeing it once it hits Netflix or PSN, but no theater-going for me on this one.

  16. As far as I'm aware there was no serious gripes with Idris Elba being cast as Heimdall. I saw a few comic book readers who were unsure of the decision but every people I saw who were "outraged" over the casting were people who actually believed they descended from these "Gods", having no knowledge of the actual comics.

    As a non-comic reader, I'm always surprised when I see a comic-book reader who doesn't understand why Samuel L Jackson was cast as Nick Fury - It's because Ultimate Nick Fury was based specifically off Jackson! And Jackson contacted Marvel to secure his casting in any future films. [This was in 2002 after the Hoff had already played the character].

    And my initial complaints with Michael B Jordan as the Human Torch, whilst I like the direction they're going in, was that, specifically after how bad the 2005/07 films were, the Fantastic Four's relationship would have to be unnecessarily rewritten to accommodate for the fact that Johnny and Sue Storm are supposed to be siblings. Fox-Marvel movies had all been terrible and I couldn't see the rewrite done tastefully. Making them adopted just seemed like the lazy and boring option. I haven't seen DOFP but It recieved solid rating so I can only hope that Fox has upped it's game in this genre.

    Having said that I agree that most of it does simply boil down to racism whether they acknowledge it or not. I see no reason for anyone to dislike Kingpin's casting purely for the fact that Michael Clarke Duncan is Black, that IS racism. But I'd still have preferred Sue Storm to be black as well (I personally would have liked to see someone like Meagan Good cast) at least then it's obvious who's arguments stem from being faithful to the comics and who's stem from pure racism.

    I do realise I'm posting Six months after everyone else. I'm pretty sure Storm [Halle Berry] is the only black woman in any Superhero Film aside from Catwoman who was also played by Halle Berry. There aren't enough Female main characters (Scarlet Johansen, Hayley Atwell, Gwenith Paltrow), there aren't enough black main characters (Anthony Mackie, Bj Britt, Djimon Honsou, Idris Elba), which makes a black female lead virtually non-existent.

  17. Why is it always assumed that a black actor/actress is "cooler" than a Caucasian?

  18. Robert MontgomeryJune 3, 2015 at 7:06 PM

    The writer should stick to something they know about.

  19. I agree. The writers of those tweets don't know anything about comic history.

  20. The same people who think it's okay to make a white character black, arethe same people who get angry at whitewashing. Hypocrites. We want diversity, yes! But in the form of new characters! Not in the form of alterated versions of already existant ones! Racism is awful but you will not end it by changing charcters that already exist. Why noy create new character of other races then? Or is there no creativity left in Marvel for that? Wake up. These changes are only being made for the sake of being diverse, so it does nothing to help.
    I hate how anytime you dislike anunnecessary race change in a character you are labelled a racist, even if you are not a racist at all.
    I'm a woman "of colour" and I say characters should remain the race they were created as. And if you think white characters are never molded by culture or traditions like chars of other rces are, you are very wrong. Political Correctness is getting insufferable.

  21. adoption is real..kate mara is his adopted sister.. human torch dad took her in after her parents died..

  22. why is it always assumed that a white actor/actress are the default ethnicity in leading roles?

  23. Hindsight is 20/20

  24. yea I wanted sue storm to be black too..but lets see where they are going with this plotline.. best comment thus far

  25. The problem with a black Human Torch is that he's kind of a black stereotype. He's cool, he's athletic, he's probably a lady's man. He's a young Shaft. A ballsier move, and one I would wholeheartedly support, is to make Reed Richards black. But they'll never do that. They're thrown the black audience a bone by making Heimdall black, but never Thor, Odin, Loki, Sif, whoever.

  26. Maybe comics aren't high art, but people still Invest their time and money in them. And why is the race change always from white to black? Why isn't Johnny Storm, Asian or Indian or Muslim American? And why for that matter keep him written as a man? Aren't there already enough male superheroes, and female superheroes? Shclee should be transgendered. Marvel has always been ridiculous and pandering. Read some of their really 'with it,' black characters from the '70's. Or the overtly racist stories from the forties. They're chameleons. Frankly I don't think kids should read comics anyway. But if they do and get invested in them, don't be surprised if they choose not to spend money on a movie when you change them capriciously or based on a fad. I say make every superhero black. Maybe then this horrible trend of comic book movies would finally end, and we could go back to movies...I don't know, for adults?


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