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From Comics to Movies: Unfortunately Race Still Matters

This post was inspired by one written by Matt Elfring 3 years ago as well as a discussion yesterday.


So yesterday, there was a rumor that Michael B Jordan may be cast in the Fantastic Four  and just the rumor itself has many reactions coming out of the movie going community.  As much as we like to say that we progressed as a race let’s not forget this was the reaction of certain ‘conservative’  folks over Idris Elba in Thor.

Even in one of my discussion groups a lot of people had many reactions to the news and this news is STILL just a rumor right now as Jordan was just a name drop.  So what this tells me is, if this is confirmed, we can expect 21st century people to come out with pitchforks, torches and 18th century sensibilities.

So, let’s drop a few choice comments from my discussion group to show some of the thought processes about the change:

I agree with ____, (you) don’t force a character ethnic change when you have so many other strong Black characters out there.

Really?  Not to knock the ones that the Big 2 do have but how long has it been since any one black character had a solo book that has been on the shelf, especially one that’s made it past 12 issues?  Furthermore, how long has it been since a black writer worked on that book? But then here is my question also, how is it since Blade came out, we have yet to see Black Panther, Luke Cage, Black Lightning or a new Spawn movie. The proper answer would probably be less than 5. Sure we got Hancock but really?  A drunk anti-social amnesic, BLACK superhero?  No thanks. He was an original character but not my cup of tea and that’s something I will take up later. Now let’s discuss ‘forcing’ an ethnic change.  Is the matter of making Johnny Storm a black member of a team that big an issue?  well I also asked what about Electro as being played by Jamie Foxx and a response I got was:

Don’t care about Electro as he is a single character that altering him doesn’t impact the tales origin

So how is that any different than doing the same with Johnny Storm? If you really want to nitpick about altering the role, then what about the fact that in the original comic, Johnny was 16 years old yet Chris Evans was in his 20s when he was in the first FF movie so, that means no one had a problem with a teenaged kid going into space?   Ok got it.

Then there were these 2 gems:

They have been a classic family team for over 50 years – you can’t change the ethnicity of a character just for the sake of doing it – it has nothing to do with being black

just feels like affirmative action … or fox saying hey we need a black guy … for the chance of drawing a larger demographic… f**k the comics this our movie!!!

Well let’s start off with correctly defining affirmative action and then once we finish that let’s look at the fact that many of the characters created in the golden / silver age of comics reflected what America was at the time. White and all American. So it’s no secret that Johnny and Sue Storm were the epitome of America’s image. But at the same time, rarely if ever was any mention of their parents made in the comics and also their race really had no bearing on how they got their powers or the overall story, which brings us to this comment:

I bet u would cry oh man would u cry if black panther was cast as a white dude.

and the response from another member

ok here is the thing with black panther. his heritage plays a lot into his character. wakanda has a lot of tribal roots…….so your going to now be forced to explain why is there a white tribal city smack dab in africa…..and not even south africa. with black panther by changing race your not just changing the character, you are rewriting history. if you were blind would you give a flying f**k what color johnny storm was. if you want a white black panther thats fine…..but my point is now you gotta waste movie time explaining why he’s mixed…..with johnny storm being black you wont or even most other characters.

Which brings me to the point of this whole exercise.  If part of your origin story IS your race and heritage, then that is something that you absolutely cannot change from its original media to movie form.  You just killed the character and your whole purpose of telling the story. Oh, sure you can try and even carry out a credible attempt but going above the origin that you have to explain the new origin kills the story that you want to tell. Which then brings me to:

no problem just saying you can’t say there is no way a white person could play Black Panther but yet its okay for a black to play a classicly white character – if your not sticking to the source material – it doesn’t matter what is in the books anyway

I think we all agree that it matters to some extent what’s in the book and how it translates to screen but there is a fine line between sticking to the source material vs taking flying leaps of logic and having to explain to the entire audience your flying leap (see Catwoman on that one, which by the way starred a black Halle Berry as Catwoman which has always been a ‘classically white’ character…did anyone have an issue with Eartha Kitt back in the 60s?)  for it to make sense. Which is also the EXACT same reason you don’t exactly have a black Captain America (look at how long it took before Isaiah Bradley came along).  Captain America at his inception was the epitome of America in the 40s for World War II.  Tall, Blonde haired, blue eyes and hated Nazis from NEW YORK fighting for  the “American way”.  It would take a flying leap to make him over into a Black lead character nowadays regardless of how diverse we are and again even with the fact that it HAS been done, poor Isaiah at present has no solo book while Steve Rogers is in at least 3 including his own.

If you have a mixed brother/sister or family combo it draws attention to any movie its sad but true – some group would make an issue if it. Johnny Storm is clearly white!

Rather than go back and revisit the earlier points, let’s look at some other characters in superhero movies, who were changed overtly or subtly that had little to no affect on the story:

Billy Dee Williams – Harvey Dent

Michael Clarke Duncan – Kingpin

the aforementioned Halle Berry – Catwoman

Arnold Schwarzenegger – Mr Freeze

Tom Hardy – Bane

Ryan Reynolds – Nick Cruz

Angelina Jolie – Fox

Samuel Jackson – Nick Fury

Idris Elba – Heimdall

Bonus Question: Does anyone remember who played BOLIVAR TRASK in X-Men: Last Stand?

Heck let’s go on a stretch and see that the human Jarvis was eliminated and turned in a virtual AI for Iron Man; talk about taking away from source material!!  Ask yourselves, did turning from human to AI really need to be explained away??  And since we are on Iron Man, what about Ben Kingsley being cast as the Mandarin when clearly he is not Chinese?  To which I got:

You are spot on Aitch, except that Ben Kingsley is Asian, just not Chinese. He’s part Indian. God, I really hope Sure & Reed are an interracial couple and the butt-hurt flows even stronger with people. The Fantastic Four has always been about family. Not once had their ethnicity played any factor in their stories. Why can’t Marvel have a universe that reflects our own? Why do 99.99% of Superheroes have to be Caucasian? I welcome the change.

And going back to a point of  ‘f**k the comics this our movie!!!’ Ummm no. They are not.  They are movies that are for everyone which is why a lot of the comic movies we see makes so many sweeping changes to entertain the masses.  But the bottom line and let’s be honest, it’s about the dollar.  Who is going to pay to go see these movies?  It’s not just the comic geeks, it’s the parents whose kids have seen the ads for the movies and have begged for the toys since they hit the shop, and some of these parents have not a clue as to who these characters are, it’s the significant other of the one they are going with on date night, it’s that one non comic book fan with a group who want to go see the big hit.  It’s EVERYONE’S MOVIE. If everyone is coming to see your event at some point you have to make some changes in the material to make it suitable for everyone to see it and sometimes you have to make some sacrifices to the source to make that money which to a degree why we probably won’t get a R rated Wolverine.

This also brings us to a greater problem in not just comics and movies but in story telling altogether and why even some of my own friends have problems with changing the color of characters just to go along with the times.  There is still a huge lack of lead characters of different races and sexes in the comics and sales stats clearly show that. For instance if you look at the sales of comics in the past 3 months,  neither batgirl nor Wonder Woman show up in the to 10 or top 20 (last month Batgirl comes in at 30 Wonder Woman pops up and number 60.) Also consider that the only comic with a black lead is Batwing  doesn’t pop up on the sales list until 168 and that’s also in consideration that Static Shock and Mister Terrific were cancelled last year.  It’s really hard (but not impossible) to get a good wrap on the demographic of who is reading but in the Big 2 when you consider that less than 10% of those employed are people of color, it’s easy to get an idea of why there have been so few Black characters to get a solo book.  This is why we still need the Dwayne McDuffies and Reggie Hudlins as well as indie  companies like Milestone and Image to succeed because without it, minorities may never get a voice in comics.  Let’s be real, it’s has to be hard to get a comic to become a movie if it’s not selling or has a good person doing PR  to pitch the character. Not only do we need new characters, we need credible ones.  Which is why for better or worse I liked what Marvel did with Ultimate Spider-man. it wasn’t the big ballsy move that is needed to push comics firmly into the 21st century but at least kids coming up have characters to relate to but unless the industry is willing to take a stand against the perpetual laziness in comic movies such as reboots, recasts and so on and start taking serious risks with new intellectual properties we will forever be stuck as to talking about why Johnny Depp is playing a role reserved for a Native American,  why Whites were cast in Prince of Persia as well as The Last Airbender, and what will it take to finally bring the Black Panther to the screen and will it be done with the same reverence as Iron Man or will it be as heavy handed as Daredevil and the Punisher.

Many of us are going to go see Iron man 3 and we are going to be wowed by it or loathe it but I bet the main reason won’t be that it’s because Ben Kingsley sucked at the role, it will be other reasons having to do with ‘the source material’ more than anything and tpo many that’s what matters.  Telling a compelling story and at that’s the bottom line with what will happen with the new Fantastic Four with Michael B. Jordan being cast.  You don’t need your hand held to be told either their parents were inter-racial  or he was adopted or whatever and even if you did, that can be dealt with in all of 5 minutes. More will be concerned if their origin was told correctly.  If anything other than the Fantastic Four going into space and bombarded with cosmic rays is used to explain how they got their powers, Michael B. Jordan will be the last thing on their minds which brings me to the final post:

at the end of the there is gonna 4 type people. #1 theres people that see this as a step forward and better representation of modern times … #2 people like my self that things to stay as close to the source material as possible.. #3. people that dont want the change cause they truly are racists. and #4 people that dont give a shit either way

For myself you can count me as number one.  If the movie is credible and well told without completely destroying the origin, I am all for it because there is a fine line between revisionist history and tweaking a character. But again  we are not going to get the movie we read in the comics because comics have changed so much over the years and the movies do what they can to balance entertaining comic fans and the rest of the masses. But here is a suggestion:  If you really hate the idea of a black person playing a predominantly white part or a female playing a predominantly male role, stay home.  Save your money because most people who complain about some changes go and see it anyway but if enough of you stay way them it send a sign to Hollywood that you are right that the changes made were too extreme and so far…that hasn’t happened yet.  Those who protested Thor because Heimdall was played by a black actor didn’t make enough noise to deter Marvel from making  a 2nd Thor movie.  Heck if you are really pressed start a kickstarter and make your own movie!  Also if you are one of those who go and a few people in your group don’t understand your gripes, why not take them to a comic store and put them onto the comics you know and let them make the decision for themselves. Other than that, I plan on going to see Iron Man for what it’s worth and simply hope that it’s better than the 2nd one and enjoy…and please don’t forget tomorrow is FCBD

About Armand (1270 Articles)
Armand is a husband, father, and life long comics fan. A devoted fan of Batman and the Valiant Universe he loves writing for PCU, when he's not running his mouth on the PCU podcast. You can follow him on Twitter @armandmhill

13 Comments on From Comics to Movies: Unfortunately Race Still Matters

  1. I agree with you that changing the race of the character will not affect the story but only if the story is good.
    Race influences the character, you are born into it, ascribed, it is the one thing about yourself you cannot change. It is an important factor in the characters development.
    When I saw Micheal Clark Duncan as the Kingpin I thought to myself that it must have been harder for him to rise up in the criminal world because of his race, so I saw that particular Kingpin as more ruthless. Imagine a black man taking on the European root mafia in Marvel NYC 70’s? How hard was if for Samuel L. Jackson Nick Fury to rise up the ranks at SHIELD?
    How would black Johnny Storm be? Is Sue Storm going to be black as well? Will they remove the brother/sister relationship? If they do that would be terrible for their characters unless they do the whole adopted brother thing, then that would make it more interesting.

    We need a Black Panther, Luke Cage, and another Blade movie stat.


  2. You my good sir have just became one of my favorite blogs.


  3. Cody Hazell // May 3, 2013 at 12:03 pm //

    \The only problem I have with this is the fact that Nick Fury is black in the Ultimate comics therefore there shouldnt be any uproar about Sam Jackson playing him. But you sir have earned my respect.


  4. Excellent post. Thanks for delivering that message. I’ll be delivering one of my own soon.


  5. So you’d be ok with say, Bradley Cooper playing Bigger Thomas, or Morgan Freeman playing Atticus Finch, or say, George Takei playing Jim in Huck Finn????


  6. Gerald Mimms // May 4, 2013 at 8:43 am //

    The Samuel Jackson as nick fury can’t be used because he is black in the ultimate marvel universe and that’s the one they drew from.


  7. Reblogged this on The Next Issue Outpost and commented:

    Now that the Fantastic Four cast has been announced and some are up in arms (again) about Michael B. Jordan, now would be a good time to post this again.


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