What the New Fantastic Four Cast Says About Fictional Characters

Fantastic Four reboot cast
Cast of 2015’s Fantastic Four reboot sparks controversy.

Recently, FOX released their cast for the new Fantastic Four film, slated for 2015, with mixed reactions. One would assume the choice of Michael B. Jordan to play Johnny Storm aka The Human Torch, making a white character now black, would spark controversy from purists, putting aside racial bigotry. What is arguably more interesting and widespread is contention over the choice of Kate Mara to play Sue Storm aka the Invisible Girl. The actress from the critically acclaimed series “House of Cards” has been chosen to play the sister of Michael B. Jordan, making for biracial siblings which raise as many questions about the company’s plans. It also raised as many questions about what the audience wants from their fictional characters.

On one hand, there are many liberal comic book fans who would have loved to see two black leads in a superhero movie, especially with so much anticipation behind it. The Fantastic Four is one of the most family-friendly, and family-oriented of the Marvel Universe and making both characters black seems like a huge step for equality advocates. At the same time, women who want to see a female superhero of color might look at this casting slightly disappointed that black men are taking the first steps into representing their race in comic book movies. Many are disappointed that black men can replace characters like Nick Fury of The Avengers and The Kingpin of Daredevil, but a black woman could not be found to play Sue Storm.

Another question on people’s minds is what their relationship will be. One theory is that one of the two will be adopted, which angers many who believe in the purity of the original story, in which they are blood related. Changing it, according to them, changes the core dynamic of the team and, while perhaps making the story more dramatic, it will divert from the essential characteristics created by Marvel co-founder Stan Lee. And yet, those who have either been through the adoption process, or support it, take offense to the idea that adoption would make the two any different from normal family members. At the same time, people with a negative view on adoption could see this as making either Sue or Johnny more disenfranchised, which leads to a number of stereotypes, be they socioeconomic, or based on race alone. The second theory, that their parents are of mixed race, leads to similar issues, and several opportunities for misrepresentation.

The key issue is our view of fictional characters, specifically when they belong to a “franchise”. As long as a character is the property of a company, and their story is ongoing, they will need to change to make that company money. However, a fictional character is not simply a role like a talk show host or news anchor that can be filled by anyone. Even loved hosts like Regis Philbin can be replaced with someone half his age, twice his size, and of a different nationality, (in this case, Michael Strahan,) and the show can still go on. But with a fictional character, the opposite is true: there is something essential to every characteristic of the person, because that is the property itself. It can be represented various ways, but it has to hold onto a modicum of its original design or it will cease to attract fans of the character.

Batman's evolution.
How Batman has changed throughout the years.

That being said, a character like Batman can evolve drastically over their franchise history and remain popular. While the origin of Batman is virtually the same, the costumes, the history, even the morality of the Caped Crusader has been rewoven time and again to make him relevant to new audiences. What makes him a good character, then, is the simplicity of his formula: he was a rich boy who watched his parents get killed, and so swears vengeance on crime itself. Batman was written so that the character is centered around a single mission, and it becomes easier to believe then that his strategy would change over time, sometimes to include a cast of cohorts, sometimes driving him to isolate himself, sometimes even causing him to break away from his normal belief of right and wrong. As Martin Luther King Jr. would put it, he is the “content of his character”, and not the color of his skin.

In the same way, the Human Torch has very little to do with whether he is black or white, just as Sue Storm is not tied to one race. And yet, if the characters are going to reflect the content of their character, how they appear and relate to each other is a big part of their characters. Batman and even roles like Regis Philbin’s are whittled down to being an end to themselves: they are what they do. The Storm siblings, however, depend much more heavily on how they interact, and how that influences what they do. Changing their race will indeed influence their characters, not because being black or white makes someone inherently different, but because it changes how you relate to each other. Perhaps their dynamic will look very similar, but not addressing their differences would be a disservice to the choice itself, and make them look white-washed rather than a variation on their classic characters.

The Fantastic Four is based on a family fighting for the good of each other and the world at large. The way the family is defined has changed drastically since the 1960’s, but what hasn’t changed is the need to respect the fictional characters the public has investment in. This casting choice shows just how much people care not only about this franchise, but our fictional characters’ right to maintain their individuality. In our attempt to make our fiction more representational, we can’t paint characters until all the roses are red and all minorities are present. Rather, when a character is genuinely who they are, it won’t matter whether they’re blue, green, or polka dot. Or they’re always on fire.

What do you think? Leave a comment.

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Edited by Spencer, Misagh.

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  1. Elmer George

    Instead of making white guys black why dont these comic guys just make some new superhero’s that are coloured and not generic. I mean blade and spawn are pretty cool why not more like them? I mean jesus, if I was a black or asian comic book fan I would be pretty pissed at the lack of decent coloured superheros that are not crap,generic,sterotyped and bland.
    Special shout out to Terrence Howard as War Machine.

    • Faith Ramsey

      I always get annoyed when people completely miss the point of when race is and isn’t important in a character.

      Important: When it’s pivotal to central concept of the character. Like Black Panther.

      Not important: When it’s just an ancillary trait of the character. Like Johnny Storm.

      Here’s a few examples:

      Bruce Wayne should be white because his origins are traced back through old money in Gotham dating back through the 1800’s in some interpretations. Because of this, it would make it highly improbably for the Waynes to be black in the USA.

      In most incarnations, Dick Grayson’s family origins are not tied to Gotham, just to being circus performers. They could make his family a family of non-white acrobats, and it would not be a betrayal of Dick Grayson’s origins to make him black, latino, asian, etc. (Although I would have hated a Wayans brother as a Robin, because you know, Wayans. Give me a quality actor like Michael B. Jordan, that could be cool.)

      Barry Allen’s origins are tied to a lab accident, not family origins. Therefore, his color wouldn’t matter as much.

      Wonder Woman has origins out of Greek mythology. Therefore, it makes sense that the actress playing her is from that part of the world (Israel and Greece are across from each other over the Mediterranean Sea), instead of say, China.

    • Movie studios get nervous if theres too many black actors in the lead. In fact the original Spawn movie has one of the characters from the comics changed from black to white, because the studio feared with so many blacks in the lead, it would give off the perception that its a “black movie”. As a black person, I’m not really that keen on changing the race of long standing characters, but in a selfish way, its cool because I know guys like Luke Cage, Black Panther and various other minority super-heros will likely never get a live action film. Sadly this is the closet beyond Nick Fury of seeing black Super-hero’s fully realized on screen. Blade and Spawn don’t really fit the classic idea of “super-hero’s”

    • There is certainly NOT a lack of decent superheroes of color. Compared to Caucasian characters yes, it is very disproportionate but the problem is the average movie goer doesn’t know who they are and that’s a gamble movie studios don’t like to make.

    • Spencer

      I think I’m bothered more by making the fantastic four all some barely out of high school hipster douches, then the odd choice to make johnny storm black.

  2. Cameron Reyes

    Michael B Jordan is a great actor, but he doesn’t fit the role.
    Kate Mara is a great actor, but she doesn’t fit the role.
    Jamie Bell and Michael Teller are ok actors, but they don’t fit the roles.

    We all thought the same things about Michael Keaton, Heath Ledger, and Anne Hathaway too. Let’s not forget that Wolverine is only 5’3″ and Hugh Jackman is 6’2″.

    If we can forgive the latter, we can forgive the former.
    But to do that, the movie better be DAMN GOOD!!!!

    • Keaton is still controversial as Batman, Anne Hathaway was an awful choice as Catwoman, Heath Ledger’s performance was hardly the epitome of the Joker (he did a great job, but there are plenty of actors who would have been better choices, and Hugh Jackman has finally grown into the role of Wolverine, but that just makes it that much harder to watch him as a young pretty boy in the role when rewatching the older films.

  3. Pamela Day

    I for one am ecstatic with these casting choices. They’re all fantastic actors that I think will bring something new and special to their respective characters. The idea of the Ultimate Marvel universe was to re-imagine and update these classic stories, and I think these choices are truly in that vain. Not to mention that we are gifted with a rich and diverse Marvel multiverse, to which this rendition has the potential to be a “fantastic” addition.

    • You know I’m going to take this film as one of the Marvel Universes storyline. For example: The Zombie Universe Storyline. I’m trying to hold on before I say something bad about the movie. I liked the Miles Morales story with Spiderman. Comic books have very strange, yet crazy stories put together.

  4. The Ara Spinks

    This movie has the potential to be the best FF ever made. Just think about that for a few seconds. All the FF movies have been terrible, this movie only has to be better than terrible to be the best one ever. Just saying.

  5. I don’t care for the cast, but if they end up doing a great job portraying the characters and give us a great story, I’ll end up being ok with them. Just not sure if the odds are in their favor…

  6. I think that reinterpreting the way we view characters is essential since it can be refreshing to watch something unexpected. Although purists would b e upset by this cast, I think that fictional characters are never the same to everyone, we all have different conceptions of what a character looks like. Very insightful article and I hope that people consider the types of thoughts you brought up.

  7. Michael B. Jordan is a great actor and will kill this role. We’ve seen comic origins be drastically changed in past films to great success, I don’t see why making a racial change will have much of an effect, especially if they keep the character’s inherent personality the same.

  8. Cierra

    I’m completely ok with having a black Human Torch and his sister being white. It doesn’t matter if they were both adopted or not, honestly it shouldn’t matter who plays who. All that matter is how good that person can play that role.

  9. Ultimately the most important part comes down to what shows on screen – which is as much a responsibility for the script writers and the director as it is for the actors – potential decent movies have been ruined by terrible scripts, and bad scripts have been made better by amazing directors. While race and the interplay of adoption/half-siblings is important in terms of team dynamics (which I can’t wait to see played out, so long as done with the right hand to it all), we can’t judge a movie before we’ve seen it. Speculation is as speculation does, we should just wait to see and judge for ourselves. Even then, we’ll all likely have differing opinions on how good a movie it is, that’s the nature of movies!

  10. I’m actually excited for the new Fantastic Four, something I’m still not feeling for the reboot of Spiderman. I think the casting choices, in particular Michael B Jordan, are really interesting and I think it’ll be great. He’s a great actor and why not give him the opportunity? As you said as long as the integrity of the character is played out the race shouldnt matter. But then again in this day and age not everyone can be happy, but hopefully this WILL be like the Mark Ruffalo debate and the Anne Hathaway issue where everyone ends up eating their hateful words afterwards.

    Regardless, very well written article 🙂

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