The Incoherent Backlashes to Black Actors Playing 'White' Superheroes

Comics have a history of altering characters' races and ethnicities, but outcry over Michael B. Jordan's next role illustrates that, in American racism, only certain differences matter. 

Michael B. Jordan has been cast as Johnny Storm in the new Fantastic Four movie. For many prospective viewers, that announcement will raise the question that any announcement of a Michael B. Jordan movie raises: Will he be shirtless, and for how much screen time? Other superhero fans, though, are distracted by less wholesome concerns. Johnny Storm, they have noticed, is white. Michael B. Jordan is black. How, they wonder, can this be?

The outcry over interracial casting here appears to be much more muted than the stir over Idris Elba's role as Heimdall in the Thor franchise, which provoked boycott threats. Still, I've seen people on Twitter talking about how the casting will "ruin" the franchise. I'm not going to link because I'm leery of shaming people that way on a mainstream site, but if you look around you can find them without too much trouble. (Niki Cruz has rounded up some of the response, with names redacted, here.) This echoes earlier controversies in which a campaign to get Donald Glover cast as Spider-Man met with racially fraught backlash, while the casting of Amandla Stenberg as Rue in The Hunger Games provoked angry social media whining.

People say they object to black casting because it's untrue to the original source material, and a betrayal of the characters—a claim that seems particularly dicey in the case of The Hunger Games, where Rue is black in the original novel. But even in the case of the Fantastic Four, where Jack Kirby and Stan Lee did in fact make the team white, the plea to be faithful to the founding seems to raise a lot of questions.

After all, it's not like there's been one, true, unwavering Fantastic Four over the decades. The Thing was originally drawn by Jack Kirby as a lumpy mess; it took a while for him to settle down into the more-streamlined orange form fans know and love. Sue Storm at first could only turn invisible; it was some time before she developed the invisible force fields that made her useful in a fight. For that matter, She-Hulk replaced the Thing on the team for a while. And then there was a popular series where the Fantastic Four turned into zombies. Comics are serial soap-opera fantasies; people change costumes, grow blue fur, die, grow a third eye, come back to life, are replaced by a clone and turn to the dark side. Nothing stays the same. Why, then, is this particular, relatively minor alteration in canon seen as a betrayal?

You could argue that racial difference is more noticeable, or different in kind, than plot-driven death or blue fur or zombiefication. But then, how account for the fact that in the comics characters like Iron Man, Spider-Man, and Green Lantern have, at various times, been black? More, certain changes in racial background or casting seem to provoke little comment. No one, as far as I'm aware, has complained about Scarlett Johansson's casting as the Black Widow on ethnic grounds. Yet Johansson’s background is Jewish. The original Black Widow, Natalia Romanova, has what appears to be an ethnic Russian name; there was no indication that she was originally supposed to be Jewish. Given the anti-Semitism in Cold War Russia, a Jewish ethnic identity would in context be a significant alteration to the character. Why, then, do people care about Storm, but nobody cared about Romanov?

The answer is obvious enough. American racism holds that only certain racial differences matter. Jews, Italians, Eastern Europeans, Irish—all those people are white and can play one another with nary an eyebrow raised. Nobody is worried about whether Sue Storm has exactly the mix of Irish, German, and French-Canadian ancestry as Kate Mara, who has been cast to play her. For that matter, no one would say a thing if the actors cast to play Sue and Johnny, sister and brother, came from different ethnic backgrounds and didn't look much alike. It's only when one is black and one is white that you need to start worrying about family logistics. (And yes, you can find folks doing that on Twitter as well—because getting turned into living fire by cosmic rays is an everyday thing, but adoption is weird.)

"Fans often seem to believe that if a character is changed from white to black, they will no longer be able to identify with that superhero" Aaron Kashtan, a postdoctoral fellow at Georgia Tech who teaches a course on transmedia storytelling, wrote in an email to me. Kashtan adds that this is an example of "unconscious or overt racism"—a point underlined by the fact that the barriers to identification are so clearly arbitrary. Certain different people—Jews, or Irish, or folks with a hide made of orange rock—can be points of identification. Others, especially African-Americans or anyone with dark skin, can't.  The issue here isn't staying true to the original.  The issue is racism.

Kashtan points out as well that staying true to the original is in itself not easily separable from racism. "Superhero comics were developed in the cultural context of '60s America," he says,  "where it was just normal for all the characters to be white. When Stan Lee included a black character, Gabe Jones, in Sgt. Fury and the Howling Commandos, he actually had to tell the color separators that this character was supposed to be black, because the default assumption was that every character would be white." Kashtan adds that, "This default assumption of whiteness is no longer acceptable."

That's a good thing.  Hopefully, Fantastic Four will be a hit in part because of Michael B. Jordan (shirtless or not); Hollywood will continue to put African-American superheroes on screen, and eventually folks won't feel any more need to grumble than they did when that non-Kryptonian Henry Cavill was cast as Superman.