Comic book fans around the world are eagerly awaiting the release of this summer’s Fantastic Four, but it’s easy to see that some are happier than others about the film. When it was announced in late 2013 that African American actor Michael B. Jordan (Fruitvale Station) would be starring as Johnny Storm aka “The Human Torch,” many fans balked at the idea. Storm and his sister Sue (“The Invisible Woman”) had always been portrayed as white in the Fantastic Four comics (and those godawful early 2000s films, where they transformed Hispanic Jessica Alba into a blonde-haired, blue-eyed WASP), so some fans couldn’t accept the idea that a black man would be stepping into those shoes. This week, Jordan himself decided to address the critics directly.
In an op-ed published by Entertainment Weekly, the actor slammed the criticism against him being cast as a character typically portrayed as white.
“Some people may look at my casting as political correctness or an attempt to meet a racial quota, or as part of the year of ‘Black Film,’” wrote Jordan. “Or they could look at it as a creative choice by the director, Josh Trank, who is in an interracial relationship himself—a reflection of what a modern family looks like today. This is a family movie about four friends—two of whom are myself and Kate Mara as my adopted sister—who are brought together by a series of unfortunate events to create unity and a team. That’s the message of the movie…To the trolls on the Internet, I want to say: Get your head out of the computer…this is the world we live in.”
Fictional characters—particularly from pulpy mediums like comic books—get revised and revisited all the time. Captain America, as a character, would just be an antiquated WWII relic had it not been for retconning and reshaping his narrative. And Jordan-as-Johnny Storm isn’t the first time a black actor has played a formerly white comic book hero. But it’s quite interesting to see what sparks a backlash and what doesn’t.
The character of Nick Fury, the mysterious agent of S.H.I.E.L.D. who has a hand in virtually every Marvel movie storyline, was portrayed as a white man for decades in the comic books; but a generation of movie fans know the character as portrayed by African American actor Samuel L. Jackson. There has been no sizeable backlash against Jackson. Could it be because Fury isn’t meant to be a character the public focuses on as a “hero,” more of a shadowy figure playing puppeteer behind the scenes? In Tim Burton’s Batman, the role of Harvey Dent, another “traditionally” white character, was played by Billy Dee Williams. There was no sizeable backlash—but Dent was a minor character in that particular film. When Dent’s alter-ego, the villainous Two-Face, was tapped for a much more prominent feature as the major villain of Batman Forever six years later, however, the character was white once again—played by Tommy Lee Jones.
As for Jordan, he acknowledges that some people are overly tied to the blonde-haired, blue-eyed Johnny Storm that they grew up reading about.
“I can see everybody’s perspective, and I know I can’t ask the audience to forget 50 years of comic books,” he says. “But the world is a little more diverse in 2015 than when the Fantastic Four comic first came out in 1961.”
Jordan is right. In the early 1960s, when many of these beloved Marvel characters were introduced, American popular culture was more or less all-white everything. Marvel didn’t introduce its first major black superhero until 1966 (Black Panther) and its first specifically African American superhero until 1969 (Falcon). But what’s been especially troubling about contemporary superhero films has been the way black characters are still reduced to the margins.
In Avengers: Age of Ultron, most of the black superheroes of the Marvel Cinematic Universe are relegated to the background. We don’t see much of guys like War Machine and Falcon, and even MCU mainstay Nick Fury is just a minor player this time around. When the central action takes place, it’s with only white characters at the forefront. White characters get the development. White characters get the heroics. Black characters get glorified cameos. In 2014’s X-Men: Days of Future Past, several team members are featured of various ethnic and racial backgrounds. But once again, the primary storylines feature Wolverine, Mystique, Magneto and Xavier—all white characters. Even the future sequences in the time-traveling storyline focus mostly on Magneto, Xavier, Kitty Pryde, and Iceman. The non-white, non-American characters are more or less reduced to Sentinel bait—we get to see the black characters of Bishop and Storm, the Latino Sunspot, the Asian Blink and the Native American Warpath all massacred by giant mutant-hunting robots. But we don’t see much else from them.
When one considers how often black characters have been downplayed or revised in favor of white characters, deciding to go in the opposite direction isn’t so much the “politically correct” thing to do—it’s absolutely necessary if we’re going to combat the cultural tendency to prefer white faces over all else. And, yes, there are films like the cult classic Blade in our history and the highly anticipated Black Panther on the horizon. But that doesn’t mean that all-white superhero teams and characters must be set in stone; especially if we recognize that these books being all-white in the first place was the result of white supremacist culture.
Superheroes are a major part of American folklore. And that bit of American folklore has been exported to the entire world. Heroes like Batman and Superman are iconic. The image of the superpowered white man coming to save the day is ingrained in our consciousness—and is, of course, just one facet of how whiteness and white supremacy has been communalized all over the world. We should applaud efforts to alter that landscape. We should jump at the chance to show the world a broader spectrum of heroes. And we should salute Michael B. Jordan for addressing the controversy in a deliberate and thoughtful way.
And we should be ever vigilant in our efforts to ensure that we don’t continue to perpetuate the idea that “hero” can only mean “white.”