Fantastic Four – Blue, White & Black

I don’t think I’m going to like the upcoming Fantastic Four movie. Not only do the trailers look bland, but I also think that “Fant4stic” is a stupid stylisation. Additionally, I’m not a fan of Josh Trank’s directing style and I certainly do not appreciate adaptations that think the source material isn’t good enough.

I mean, it isn’t so much that I have something against reinventing the wheel, but I think that there’s a fundamental flaw in the ego of someone who thinks he’s gonna reinvent the wheel, builds a cube and then acts like it’s as good as, if not better than, a wheel. (I call this “a Nolan.”)

Art by Terry Dodson
Art by Terry Dodson

But all of that aside, my major problem with the new Fantastic Four movie is a racial one. I’m not a fan of the racial choices behind the casting. I just don’t get why they would have to go through all of this trouble of a convoluted backstory of Johnny being an African American but his sister is an adopted Caucasian just for the sake of diversity.

Why not just make them both African American?

The Fantastic Four‘s lily white team is an indicator of the era in which it was created. Fast forward 44 years and anybody can point out that a big problem in entertainment, even with cultural icons like Friends, Frasier and Seinfeld, is the lack of racial diversity.

And it is with this realisation that we have begun to see an increase in racial representation in adaptations of older source material. While not the first, a good example would be the casting of British actor Idris Elba as the Nordic god, Heimdall in Marvel’s Thor, a move that saw much anger from both fans of the comics as well as mythological purists.

And yet, none of these warriors of righteousness seemed to be bothered that for over 40 years in comics, animation, games and movies, Thor has been depicted as an all-American, blue-eyed blonde as opposed to the wild-mannered, red-maned warrior deity that was of actual cultural value to an entire belief system for centuries.

Idris Elba as HeimdallWith calls for boycott and cries for condemnation, these bastions of racial purity remained silent when Jake Gyllenhaal was cast as Dastan, the eponymous Prince of Persia in the better-left-forgotten 2010 film. I’m not sure if anyone really even knows what a Persian actually looks like.

Back to the issues surrounding the upcoming Fantastic Four flick: while many have their underpants up in a bunch over the changing of Johnny Storm’s race from Caucasian to African American, why has no one considered questioning the necessity of including an entirely new backstory of adoption in order to ensure the White-ness of Sue Storm?

Is it a ratio thing? Do African Americans stand at a strict 1:3 population against Caucasians? In which case, why not get the entire racial line-up of the United States? I, for one, would have liked to see a Ben Grimm of Mexican descent. Michael Peña did a great job in Ant-Man, so clearly audience are prepared for a movie where the non-whiteskin steals the show.

Or is it a romantic thing? I mean, we all know that Sue Storm (Kate Mara) and Reed Richards (Miles Teller) will eventually become a couple, if they haven’t already, so perhaps this is the studio’s attempt at protecting us from the horrors of an *gasp* interracial relationship!

Either way, it seems like the real problem isn’t why one of the characters was race-bent, but rather why it was only one of the characters.

After all, fiction, unlike boring biographies and “true war stories” (yeah, right), enjoys a certain privilege: the ability to fairly portray humanity as it is.

In 1961, when the Fantastic Four first appeared on the printed page, created by the legendary Stan “The Man” Lee and Jack “The King” Kirby, a large number of their readers were white males. As such, the team was composed largely of Caucasian males with a token Caucasian female positioned for a number of shallow reasons: for the white male reader to identify a female “goal” for the protagonist; for the white male reader to find at least one character to be attracted to; for the random passing white female who may pick up the comic to browse.

This pattern is evident not only here, but also in DC’s Justice Society of America and, later, Justice League of America, both of which featured Wonder Woman as the only female in their line-up (though the former had her as a secretary to the team). Wonder Woman. As a secretary.


And even Marvel sees this occur again in the debut line-up of X-Men as well as The Avengers, with Jean Grey/Marvel Girl and Janet van Dyne/Wasp, respectively, being the only females in their teams.

But before I get carried away with the lack of proper female representation in comics and their related media (that deserves a whole other article), let’s rant a little bit more about the racial bigotry of comic book purists.

While many begrudge the upcoming Fant4stic (the stupid in the title never decreases) for the racial compromise in cast, let’s look at the flip side of this situation: as long as movies loyally adapt a comic that was published before 1966 the African community will be deprived of seeing an African superhero on the big screen.

Halle BerrySure, we’ve had Halle Berry’s Storm in the X-Men film franchise. But given that she had her entire African origin stripped away before being shoved to the sidelines (along with all the other characters) to decorate the background of any shot that wasn’t a close-up of Hugh Jackman, that should say something about how seriously black culture is being taken by these movies.

And, not to be the annoying nitpicker, but Halle Berry is, in fact, half-Caucasian, which, given Storm’s culturally-driven backstory in the comics, is salt to the already-open wound. Also, this is somehow, either by magic or frikkin’ coincidence, paralleled by X-Men: Apocalypse cast member Alexandra Shipp who has replaced Berry in the franchise. Are they trying to keep the character half-white?

Now, of course, we are to expect to be plagued by the half-wits. Those who would argue “if we can have a black Johnny Storm, why not have a white Black Panther?!” Ignoring the self-explanatory term in that question, let’s have a breakdown instead.

Often portrayed to be in his mid to late 20s, Johnny Storm is a trash-talking, hyper, hot-headed but well-meaning kid who is ultimately defined by his loyalty to friends and family while also dedicated to the cause of being a superhero. There is nothing in this description that implicates a racial alignment to the character. Be he white, black, brown, red, yellow, purple, green, orange, indigo or violet (because they’re significantly different colours in DC’s comics), Johnny’s personality has little to nothing to do with his race.

First Appearance of Black Panther
First Appearance of Black Panther

On the other hand, T’Challa is the latest in a long line of chiefs who have handed down the ceremonial title of the Black Panther, often within lineage, and, with it, accepting the duty of defending the nation of Wakanda while keeping concealed from the outside world. Now, unlike the Human Torch of the Fantastic Four, Black Panther is a character who is less defined by a list of non-racially influenced personality traits but of cultural implications and racial necessity.

Still not getting it? Well, here’s a more contemporary example. Imagine Jennifer Lopez had done Sting’s Desert Rose. A little odd, sure, and maybe not fantastic but it would be what it is: just a song. Now, imagine if Sting had done J.Lo’s Jenny from the Block. Y’know, the one about a celebrity never leaving their roots from The Bronx in New York.

See what I mean? The only thing more confusing would be Prince doing Englishman in New York.

Cultural significance of a character should play a large part in the casting of an actor. If Heimdall simply needs to be imposing and stoic, then Idris Elba just might be the perfect person for the job (though I think it’s a waste of talent for such a small part). If Johnny Storm needs to be impulsive, wise cracking and cool in the face of fire (see what I did there?), then cast an actor who can do that.

Fantastic Four #607Because if we’re going to stay faithful to source material all the time, people-of-colour will be excluded from some franchises. And it’s not like fans would be particularly accepting had Fant4stic‘s writers decided to create a brand new fifth member and rename the movie to Fantastic Five (or Fanta5tic), right?

Like it or not, we’re no longer in the ’60s. Equality’s kind of a thing now and that includes acknowledging the mistakes and misconceptions behind some of these characters’ creation, no matter how beloved, and doing something to correct it.

While I still haven’t seen any indication that this Fantastic Four movie would be any better than the previous two, I can safely say that the race-bending of a character is not going to be the reason why. If anything, I look forward to seeing more multi-racial depictions of superheroes in upcoming movies.

And while I would prefer to simply have ethnically diverse characters portrayed by an ethnically diverse cast, solutions like what Fant4stic has adopted is the next best thing.

On that note, I’d actually liked to have seen Idris Elba take on Superman. He’d have been a very interesting choice for the Man of Steel… the character, not the wreck of a movie.

Fant4stic opens 7th August.