Why I Take Issue With Johnny Storm Being Black

So y’know that new Fantastic Four movie coming out next week? It caused a bit of uproar when casting was announced since Michael B. Jordan’s playing Johnny Storm, a  character who, in the comics, has been white. This is further complicated by the fact that his sister, Susan Storm, is being played by Kate Mara, who is rather obviously white.

This ‘race lift’ given to Johnny Storm has caused quite the hullabaloo. In an apparent case of trying provide a quick and superficial overcorrection a lack of diversity in super hero films they went and changed Johnny’s race, rather than having a different superhero join up. Making things even more convoluted is that his sister’s white, meaning either one’s adopted, their parents remarried, or are a very rare quirk of mixed-race parents.

Which, y’know, is fine. Representation is a big deal; it’s always great to see different sorts of people on screen. Marvel’s comics have been taking great strides to diversify their heroes, Ms. Marvel’s a Pakistani-American teenager, we’ve Spider-People of all a variety of race and genders, Sam Wilson took over as Captain America; it’s cool for the movies to follow suit (even if Fantastic Four isn’t part of the MCU).

The issue is that it’s just Johnny who got his race changed. And it has to be Johnny; not Reed ‘cuz he’s the main character, not Ben because he spends most of the movie rocky, and especially not Sue because she’s the love interest. Johnny being black — and only Johnny — belies a much more systemic problem in pop-culture in general. And it’s not the tendency for casts to have a token minority (though that is an issue too).

There are a few things central to the Fantastic Four’s mythos: they get their powers from a scientific project, Doctor Doom is their greatest foe, Ben and Jonny are somewhere between rivals and friends, and Reed and Susan are lovers.

And that last one is where things would get hairy if the siblings were both now black.

There’s going to be a romance between Reed and Sue, because of course there will be. But a mixed race couple simply isn’t something that you usually have in a movie; especially if it’s between a white man and a black woman. Fantastic Four wanted to make someone a minority but also keep the romance subplot.

Which really bugs me. Because the whole Johnny-is-black-but-not-his-sister-Sue thing smacks of a fear of having a mixed couple in a major movie. It’s something I find really frustrating. Look, I’m biased; I’m the son of a couple who got married when interracial marriages had less public approval than same-sex marriage did in 2011. It’s one of those things that I want to be more present in pop-culture because it’s something very present in my life. It’s 2015; c’mon, let’s get with the times already. The President of the United States is the product of a mixed-race relationship!

Seeing a movie bend-over-backwards narratively to ensure that the white protagonist’s love interest isn’t black is incredibly frustrating. It’s not director Josh Trank’s fault, or even that of studio Fox: it’s systemic.

At the end of the day, I think I’m disappointed more than anything else. There was a chance here to, even in a small way, shake things up a little bit. ‘cuz I’m cautiously eager to see this movie, and I’m glad that they’ve taken steps to make Susan Storm’s powers more practical/offensive than in the last film. I also really liked Trank’s work on Chronicle. I guess I just wish if they were gonna switch a character’s race, they took the next logical step and did the same thing for his sister.

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