Skin Deep: Black Johnny Storm, White T'Challa and other Nerdery

As I write this, the 2015 theatrical reboot of the Fantastic Four film adaptations is failing miserably at the box office. Naturally, in an environment where superhero films are the most reliable earners in cinema, this prompts "analyses" and "think pieces" attempting to divine the reason why. And this affords a peculiar set of moron an opportunity to trumpet his—it's always a he—stupidity in retort. That would be the "audiences rejected the 'PC' change of Johnny Storm's race!" argument.

»Sigh« Let's review.

The Fantastic Four is a mediocre comic book centered around a makeshift "family" of superheroes who receive their abilities during a botched space trip, or science experiment, or whatever the current retcon is calling it. They are corny, they have a bland rogue's gallery, and they don't even have the crime-fighting/life balance issues other superheroes have to deal with because their identities are public, which rather obviously makes no sense. In essence, the Fantastic Four are a beta release of a superhero team; they were the first draft that Stan Lee, Jack Kirby and Marvel used to figure out what does and doesn't work.

Because, you see, the Fantastic Four were the first superhero team at Marvel. Apparently some people think that matters, because FF keep getting television shows and attempts at movie adaptations, and they keep sucking.

No, seriously:

  • their 1978 animated series has a 5.9 score on IMDB;
  • their 1994-1996 animated series does marginally better, scoring 6.4;
  • and their 2006 animated series, aspirationally subtitled "World's Greatest Heroes," scores a whopping 6.9 on IMDB.
  • I really don't need to tell you how bad the movies have been, given that's why we're here.

In comparison, the 1966 Iron Man TV series comes in at 6.9; the somewhat confused, two-season 1998 Silver Surfer animated series scores 7.1; the 2010 Avengers: Earth's Mightiest Heroes scores a scorching 8.5; as does the 1992-1997 X-Men series. Feel free to look up other series roughly contemporary to the above, albeit restricted to Marvel so that we are comparing shows ostensibly from the same stables. (I could only find aggregated review numbers for these shows on IMDB. Rotten Tomatoes and MetaCritic didn't even care about them.)

This is all an aside. That the Fantastic Four are objectively not that interesting, and that nobody has figured out how to tell good stories featuring them but not the Inhumans is the reason why they shouldn't make movies about them, but we get arguments about sophomore director Josh Trank's allegedly "bizarre" behavior and friction with the studios or bloviation about release windows.

And this is where some angry, white, male nerd insists that changing the race of the character Johnny Storm from "blue-eyed, blonde-haired white male" to African American was the opening salvo in the downfall of Western Civilization. Or something.

Which, you know, they're totally entitled to do. I give as few fucks about that as I did when they railed against casting Donald Glover and Spider-man (which wasn't going to happen anyway). But then, thinking that they're making some Important Point™, they say, "What about having Leonardo DiCaprio play the Black Panther, huh?"

This is not a hypothetical. I've come across it on multiple websites, from Variety to Den of Geek (where the asshole had the tastelessness to also suggest DiCaprio do so in blackface).

I'll just quote myself:

… your retort about casting DiCaprio as the Black Panther is neither as witty nor as profound as you think.

There is nothing about the character of Johnny Storm that mandates race/ethnicity. Not even being Sue Storm's brother, given the possibilities of adoption and blended families (step-siblings). His "blue eyes and blond hair" are purely cosmetic.

In contrast, the Black Panther isn't merely cosmetically black—like Ultimate Nick Fury, or Falcon, or even Storm. His political role as the king of Wakanda, and lineage as part of the royal family, impose some ethnic restrictions. You can't recast the Black Panther as a white male without radically altering his origins—say, at the very least making him a Boer descendant from South Africa, but then how does he get access to Vibranium, etc?

(Also, the blackface comment was just gratuitously rude. It's not like Michael B. Jordan is wearing "whiteface" to play Storm. Stop it.)

It seems that some people genuinely do not understand the points of contention on issues of social justice, or even just media representation. So, on this one issue, a primer:

  1. The ethnicity, race, complexion and other cultural markings of a fictional character are fundamentally irrelevant.

  2. As a direct consequence, some characters may have their ethnicity and/or origins gratuitously altered. It still doesn't really matter.

  3. For many fictional characters, gender doesn't matter either.

  4. For comic books in particular, reinvention is the norm. What-If books, parallel universes, alternate storylines, multiple earths… all of these exist as devices to allow reframing core character traits and conflicts around different contexts as writers and publishers see fit.

  5. Furthermore, from time to time, the entire shebang is overhauled. Comic fans call this retroactive continuity, or retcons. Nearly everything you think you remember about the superheroes of your youth isn't true anymore. (Literally: DC overhauled all of their books not under the Vertigo and Dark Horse imprints in 2011. Oh, and the current Thor is a woman.)

  6. It is not "political correctness" to change the gender or ethnicity of an established character. Mostly, it's marketing, in the sense of altering your product to better fit your market. Publishers—and movie studios—know much more about the purchasing power of previously underrepresented parts of their audience, and they are adjusting the product to be more identifiable.

  7. This does not constitute an attack on … well, anything. Not your gender, not your race, not your appearance, not your ethnicity, not your socioeconomic status. It's just pop cultural products being reformulated to better appeal to a broader market.

Glad we could iron that out. Peace and blessings.