Sunday, February 23, 2014

Fear of a Black Human Torch

This week, it was revealed that the role of the Human Torch in the new Fantastic Four movie will be played by Michael B. Jordan, who appeared in Chronicle.

As you might imagine, this has caused some concern amongst the normally level headed internet. Over at Blastr, Dan Roth has put together a nice article in response to the various objections many people are expressing.

But I fear all his points will be ignored as most of the replies to the article (some of which I've reposted here in italics) are simply the old objections rephrased (to which I will respond, thus letting you see where I stand on the issue.)

For example, let's take this reply:

To criticize people for bringing up race is flat out wrong considering the only reason he was cast was for that reason I've seen Jordan act and you can't say he just nailed the part of storm he was cast to cause controversy in the end it will backfire because out of all marvel comics ff is old school all the way and most of their fans feel that way and please don't bring up nick fury he was never a important enough character to matter what color he was 

Honestly, I never saw Chronicle, so I don't know if Jordan can act or not, but I'm about 90% sure that in a big Summer tent pole movie, acting ability falls right behind shoe size during the casting consideration phase. Nor have I EVER heard a movie goer remark on the acting in a Summer blockbuster. I do like how this guy tries to dismiss the Nick Fury analogy by saying there is some established ranking of importance that should respected. I disagree, but admire the pomposity.

Whoever wrote this article is an idiot...I grew up with the FF and changing the story so radically is an insult to all us lifelong fans. I will not go to this movie and predict it will be a big flop. 

I wouldn't call changing skin color a radical change in a story unless skin color was a plot point or the story was a period piece and the skin color change might conflict with social attitudes at the time. And thinking on it, I can't really recall a single FF story where The Human Torch's skin color was a plot point. (He was recently shown as all blue, but that was more of a gimmick than a plot point.)

Nor do I take this change as an insult. And while that may be just a poor choice of words on the behalf of the commenter, it does suggest that he has a personal investment in comics continuity which is keeping him from being entirely objective about the issue. IE: This is not how I know the Fantastic Four, ergo it's no good.

Sure Sue and Johnny could be step-siblings or one could be adopted but I just get tired of all the changes to character history. Marvel does it, DC has done it time and time again . The worst with the New 52. And they all claim they are trying to make things simpler for the fans when they are really just complicating storylines . As for the movie I don't have a problem with Johnny being black but I think his sister , who isn't adopted or a step-sister should also be black or at least they should both be the same race whatever race that is.

Changes to characters and their histories is sort of a long standing tradition in comics. I think what this person really has a hard time is the perceived devaluation of the history THEY know. The comments about Sue Storm needing to be of the same race sort of strikes me as a nice to have, but it honestly, when has their sibling nature ever really been used to any great effect in the FF stories?

I wont watch this one simply due to the poor casing. They are way too young, it seems the CW may have cast this one for 20th Century FOX. For characters such as Green Lantern, and other roles in the comic universe that are passed on to the next hero, this makes sense. There are many other Black Heroes in comics now, there no longer needs to be a race flip to mix things up. Huge FAIL on FOX's part!

Wasn't the Human Torch a teenager in the 60's? Seems to me he was still in college up until the early 80's.  And yeah, there are other black heroes in comics, but Fox ain't making a movie about them. Fox is making a FF movie and they want it to be a money maker, so this is where their instincts (by way of the director) are leading them.

With all that said, I'm not totally unsympathetic to people who have a problem with this change. This change just rubs you the wrong way because you have a fixed notion of who the Fantastic Four are. That's understandable. I used to avoid all the Daniel Craig James Bond movies because to me, James Bond was either Sean Connery or Roger Moore.

But I thought about it and realized I was being a bit silly about the whole thing. Especially since I fully acknowledged two different actors played the role, but felt like somehow another actor couldn't. So, I went to see SkyFall with my friends and found a lot to enjoy about the movie.

And this brings us to the real question (for me at least) - will this be a money maker? In the past, I've had a pretty good track record of predicting the box office results of such movies, but recently, with Man of Steel and Thor the Dark World, I've been wrong (with both movies doing much better than I originally though.) And while it's hard to gauge a movie's reception completely sight unseen, I think I can hazard a prediction at this point using other movies which followed poorly received films.

Spider-Man 3 --> Amazing Spider-Man: $62 million
Hulk --> Incredible Hulk: $55 million
X-men 3 --> X-men First Class: $55 million

Looking at those numbers and adjusting for how wrong I was about Man of Steel and Thor: Dark World, I'm going to put the new Fantastic Four movie first week box office at around $75 million. With that, if the budget is below the low $200 millions, (which I think is a safe bet) I would say it would be viewed as successful by Fox.

- Jim


Britt Reid said...

As long as he's the wise-ass who picks on Ben, I don't care if the Torch is orange or purple.
My major concern is the age range.
Ben and Reed should be older than Johnny and Sue by at least ten years.
That was (barely) the case with the previous films, now it looks like they all lived in the same dorm at college!
Maybe they should call the film "Fantastic Friends"...

Trey said...

Man, the comments in that thread are pure comedy gold. It's hard to believe there has ever been a group of people who cared so much about such a small point.

@Britt - I think they'll make them closer in age like in the Ultimate continuity. I don't think anything actually requires a bigger age difference. I know it was contradicted by later continuity (in a couple of ways), but Fantastic Four #11 seems to suggest Reid and Sue are roughly the same age. It implies they were perhaps already a couple before he and Reid went off to WWII and Reid says they "grew up next door" to each other.

Unknown said...

I wasn't familiar with the the Ultimate Origin of Fantastic 4. So, I educated myself. This is the origin from Wikipedia.
Millar completely rewrote the origin for the protagonists because he was not satisfied with the original 1961 story, in which the four team members steal a space craft to beat the Soviets to the moon. He said: "Four guys hijacking a space-rocket trying to reach the moon to beat the communists was not going to fly." In their version, Millar and Bendis wrote a story in which Reed Richards is a child prodigy, protected by his burly friend Ben Grimm from bullies, and a genius who had invented a method of teleportation in his youth. He is discovered by government official Willie Lumpkin, and subsequently recruited into a child prodigy think tank/school located in the upper floors of the Baxter building. There he meets Professor Storm, who leads the project, and his children, bioengineer Susan Storm and her younger brother Johnny. Reed also becomes the rival of Victor Van Damme, a fellow student. When Reed becomes 21, he plans to teleport an apple into a parallel universe (the "N-Zone"), but Van Damme claims Reed's calculations are wrong and changes the setup at the last minute. The five students get teleported through the N-Zone, and when they rematerialize, they return heavily mutated. After the Fantastic Four return to the Baxter building, they must soon face their first opponent, Mole Man.
This seems really on point to me via the casting of they route this movie will go. I feel Fox has already told the 616 origin. They are not going to go that route again. The problem is, a lot of Marvel readers simply don't read the Ultimate Universe. I'm not saying everyone doesn't, I'm saying a lot of people don't. I myself have rarely ever picked up an Ultimate book. I think the only one I own is the first appearance of Miles Morales as the new Spider-Man but that was simply the collector side of me, I Confess to never even actually have read it. I don't think I've asked you Jim. Have you read an Ultimate book before?
I guess my point is, when you change the story so drastically, pull for a source material not many people know or even care about that, it's upseting to a lot of die hard fans. I go back to the Superman situation from a few weeks ago. This is not "My Superman". This is not "My Fantastic Four". It's upsetting, and rightfully so, but that would cause Hollywood to make almost the same movie over and over again. They wouldn't make money. I honestly think this is what the die hards say the want, but if ever presented with it, they wouldn't like it.
As I come full circle, If the Ultimate Story line is what's run with, does it even matter? What story element is really going to be affected by them being blood siblings or not. I have to say that I would like to see some form of an explanation. I really wouldn't want something like that to be swept under the rug. Just a line of dialogue would suffice. But, that's just my personal opinion. Would it ruin the movie for me if it's not addressed? absolutely not. Chances are, Fox will handle that. : )
- StevieB

Jim Shelley said...

@Britt - Yes, I agree with you. It's the character's personality which is the important part. Age range is less of a concern to me, but I do think it helps to have some distance between Reed and Sue's ages (as it provides conflict in their priorities) but a 20 something girl from 1960's is markedly different from a 20 something today, so I'm not sure how you would reconcile the discrepancies.

Jim Shelley said...

@Trey - Blastr commenters are always good for a chuckle or a wince.

Jim Shelley said...

@StevieB - to answer your question, I've read a random selection of the Ultimate titles (Ultimates vols 1 and 2, some early Ultimate Spider-man and the first 8 issues of Ultimate FF)

I agree with you, the Ultimate line is a bit of a footnote these days having not only outlived it's original purpose (to give readers a nice continuity free jumping on point) but now has grown into its own back story burdened beast.

I also think you are right that this movie runs the risk of not jiving with people's notions of the FF which might alienate some viewers (much in the same way that a neck snapping Man of Steel bothered people) That's actually a factor that could wreck my box office prediction, but I have no way to quantify it.

Trey said...

The Ultimate line may be a footnote, but an important one. In a lot of ways (a different Nick Fury, some of Tony Stark's characterization, Hawkeye's uniform, the relationship of the Avengers to SHIELD), the Ultimate universe was the template for the cinematic conception for the Marvel universe, both in the Marvel Entertainment films and at other studios.

Many of these elements have fed back into mainstream Marvel (take a look at Hawkeye, now), so in many ways the UMU is a "footnote" precisely because it catalyzed changes within the MU itself.

Luke said...

These reactions and sentiments are unfortunately nothing new. It's just the same fear of change that crops up every time there's a costume change, heavy retcon, or other alteration to a character. In cases like this it just manifests as assertions that race is somehow a defining feature of characters who were created when comics characters were 99% white.

I recall when Jessica Alba was cast as Sue Storm and a gentleman was ranting about how wrong he felt she was for the role, specifically citing her race. When I asked why that was an important factor, he went on a ten-minute rant about how Sue Storm being a WASP is intrinsic to her entire character. Even if we assume that to be the case in comics, I can't say that I've ever seen that to be a part of her character in any adaptations, and in fact it mattered not at all to the 4 hour or so runtime of the two FF movies.

Michael Clarke Duncan in Daredevil is another prominent example. I heard many a complaint, even years after the movie, about how Duncan was great in the role, save being the wrong race for the character. Invariably, these people will cite the 90s Spider-Man animated series as an "iconic" version of the character. Pointing out that the voice actor for that incarnation was Roscoe Lee Browne always has amusing results.

Jim Shelley said...

@Trey - you make an astoundingly good point about the Ultimate line as the template for the Marvel movie-verse. I would add another innovation of the line that was the use of decompression, which I reviled at the time (mostly because it was overused) but as a storytelling tool, has good uses. In many ways, decompression drives many of Images more popular titles and one has to wonder if they would be as popular now had not the Ultimate line introduced American readers to the technique.

Jim Shelley said...

@Luke - you know, I think people have completely forgotten Michal Duncan Clark in Daredevil. I don't think I've seen that brought up in any of the comments, but it's a good example of how a once controversial casting has become accepted. The same with Jessica Alba.

MattComix said...

They could have gone for having both Johnny and Sue being black or even having Reed, Johnny, and Sue as black characters with Ben as the one white guy.

I think where they have Sue as white and Johnny as black is a little odd on the surface of it and could be driving some of the controversy. I'm sure they'll likely keep them as brother and sister with an in-story explanation for it like one of them being adopted or one or both of them are children from a previous marriage.

I think for some there's a disappointment that they wont be seeing the characters on the big screen as they know them on the page. To an extent I understand that because I myself and more interested in a "bring it to life" approach than a "make it real" approach.

But I think one does have to recognize the reality that all the great superhero power sets are taken up entirely by white folks leaving people of color with what? Lightning, skate boards, and martial arts?

JP Cote said...

Bravo for the change! Why didn't they jump right in a make both Storms Black? Even better then, you get the inter-racial romance angle. A whole bunch of stuff no one should care about in the end. Superheroes are still way too white and way too male. Time to update from the 60s and 70s to the 21st century. And it should be A-Listers, not someone from the story in the back or the sidekick. That's one thing DC blew with the New 52, a great opportunity to bring or create diversity.

Like Britt alluded to, it's the attitude and the mental/emotional make up of the characters that matter.

As long as Mole Man is the first baddie and he's not some environmental extremist preparing for global warming, go for it.

JP Cote said...

For a story, in the first movie the villain doesn't matter a lot. You still want a 'good' bad guy there but the focus is supposed to be on intro'ing the characters. What will be more important are the tie-ins. Since Fox owns Spider-Man, X-Men, and Fantastic Four could we see FF drawing those two franchises into the same universe? You'd have to think that Fox is looking at how Marvel is marketing their movies, the money they are pulling and want to copy that success. Spider-Man did try to join the FF, so is there a set up there? There is the Chris Claremont Fantastic Four vs X-Men series from the 80s so is that set up? There is already rumours of that one.

Kid said...

If the colour of a character isn't important, why bother changing it? If they changed an established black character into a white one, there'd be at least an equal fuss for sure. It doesn't necessarily stem from racism. I'm sure that white people would be equally as annoyed if black heroes James Rhodes and Luke Cage were turned white for movies. All people want is fairly faithful representations of the comics and characters they grew up reading (and loving).

vwstieber said...

I say change it all up! Make Ben a lesbian, the Reeds can be Chinese, Sue is a follower of Ayn Rand, the Torch is a Libertarian...just don't give me the same old story I've seen over and over again for the last several decades. Make it fresh, or don't make it! When I want the original FF, I've got Kirby to keep me warm at night.

Luke said...

@MattComix: I would LOVE to see a FF where Ben is the only white man. As it is, his struggles to accept his transformation can be read as a coded loss of whiteness. I did part of an English thesis on it. :)

@Kid: No one is saying race doesn't matter for every character. That Jim Rhodes and Luke Cage are black is VERY much a part of them. Race is not a factor in Johnny Storm however. Why change it if it doesn't matter? Because it does matter that the FF is so... monotone. They are products of a time in which virtually all comics characters (heroes, villains, and incidental) were white, and the few who weren't were often horrible stereotypes. Today we can and should expect something more diverse than billing four white people as the World's Greatest Super-Heroes.

nude0007 said...

Jessica Alba's race was hardly noticeable. If you didn't KNOW her racial makeup, it never affects anything in the movie. While I doubt a black Torch would either, it is just hard to explain a black brother for a lilly white blonde woman. The character is too well established as her biological brother. Ben Grim would have been a good choice to change race, but it would have, of course, gone unnoticed. I would buy a black Reed though, but I am sure all the stickler people (of which I am one to a point) would have big problems with that.
Ultimately, you have to view the movies as alternate universe material. The only thing that really matters is if they make a good, entertaining and engaging movie that is true to the superhero concept.

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