What the New Fantastic Four Cast Says About Fictional Characters
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.
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.
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