Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Switching Colors - Harmless change or moral outrage?

The casting of Michael B. Jordan as the Human Torch in the upcoming Fantastic Four movie has reignited the debate over whether it's ok to change the race of comic book characters in film adaptations or in print.  There seem to be a few schools of thought here:

  • Don't change the race of any existing character - if they've been white for 50 years, they should stay that way.  Changing the race is a stunt to appease the PC crowd out there and make some money off of the novelty of something different, and has no basis in good storytelling.
  • What's the big deal? - These are fictional characters and it's 2014 for crying out loud.  If these stories were first being drawn up today, there would undoubtedly be more characters of color and fewer white ones. 
  •  Go for it! - Changing races is a chance for new perspectives and new takes on iconic characters.  Knock yourselves out!

Of these three views the outraged crowd seem to be the loudest, at least when it comes to Jordan's casting as the Human Torch.  That's possibly because Jordan's casting is the most gratuitous and least sensible of any change that's been made.  Others that have been made in the last 10 years include:

  • Michael Clarke Duncan as the Kingpin in Daredevil
  • Samuel L. Jackson as Nick Fury in the Marvel Avengers-related films
  • Idris Elba as Heimdal in Thor and Thor: the Dark World
  • Laurence Fishburne as Perry White in Man of Steel
  • Jessica Alba as Sue Storm in Fantastic Four and Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer

Now if memory serves me right, no one cared about Fishburne being cast as Perry White.  I didn't hear anyone complain at the time of the film releases about Alba or Duncan.  There was some disagreement with Jackson's being cast as Fury.  Elba getting the role of Heimdal did bring out a lot of anger among comic book fans, though.  As far as justification for the casting, Jackson's version of Fury was already in the print material in the Marvel Ulimates storyline, so there was already precedent in the source material.  Duncan seemed to be the only name actor who had the size and stature to play Kingpin, even though the comic book character is white.  Jessica Alba......is Jessica Alba.  They can cast her in whatever they want and most guys won't have an issue.

That leaves us with Elba and Jordan.  When it came to Elba, the outrage made sense.  The Asgardians from the Thor series are based on the Gods of Norse mythology.  They were never depicted as being of color.  Now in the movies they were changed to aliens which supposedly freed up the creative team to take liberties but.....Heimdal is the only black person from Asgard we see in the movie.  So yes it was gratuitous, a way to draw attention and capitalize off putting a name actor in a supporting role.  Elba does have a fanbase that isn't perceived as being part of the comic book movie audience but he was only on screen for a few minutes, not enough to satisfy anyone who came to the movie just to see him.  I personally don't have a problem with the casting but I totally get the longtime fans beef here.

As for Jordan?  No thanks.  What's the point here?  It's not adding to the story in any major way, especially since they cast Rooney Mara as Sue Storm, his sister.  The brother-sister relationship between Sue and Johnny Storm is one of the crucial elements of the Fantastic Four mythos and casting a black actor to play Johnny completely changes that, especially since they cast a white actress as Sue.  It's a half assed 'bold move'; they wanted to do something provocative but clearly were too scared to go all the way with it.  Jordan isn't some box office draw that's going to bring a new constituency to the film's audience, either.  This is all risk and no foreseeable return.  If you're going to make the diehards mad early you better make up for it with the final product, and I can't think of one way that Jordan will do that.   As a matter of fact, given the actors cast for Reed Richards and Ben Grimm are some no names that had everyone saying 'huh?', it was crucial to not piss anyone off with the rest of the casting.  This is just a bad move all around.

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