Now as taboo and super touchy as this topic is, eventually it will need to be addressed. With all the waves made (Green Lantern movie), being made (Captain America comics), and that will be made (Fantastic Four movie) by this topic, I see no reason to continue to tip toe around it. As with my previous articles, this is based on the extent of my knowledge through comics, TV shows, and movies. BEWARE OF SPOILERS and enjoy.
Since the movies are the main concern for many people, I thought we would start with those. Superhero movies exist to bring to the big screen something that we already love and enjoy as printed comics. We expect it to be done to perfection and we expect the actors to represent our characters tastefully. This is the compounding reason why the Green Lantern film tanked so hard. In combination with the fans expectation that the Green Lantern would be John Stewart (African-American Green Lantern) and instead we got Hal Jordan (One of the Caucasian Green Lanterns), Ryan Reynolds’ portrayal of a very prominent DC character was an atrocity. Had he done an amazing job and rocked the movie out of the box office, people would have quickly gotten over not having John Stewart and hopped on the Hal Jordan bandwagon. This is not to say the opposite could not be true as well. Had DC decided to get Anthony Anderson or someone ill fit to capture the style of John Stewart, the movie would have still tanked. The issue in this case was not really one of race, as if DC had decided to turn John Stewart into a Caucasian character, they just didn’t choose one version of Green Lantern.
The comment I made above is why I’m very hesitant about the upcoming Fantastic Four movie and particular the casting of Michael B. Jordan as Johnny Storm. The reason the African-American depiction of the Nick Fury in the Marvel Cinematic Universe was successful is due to two reasons. Firstly, Samuel L. Jackson did a fantastic job as an actor and represented the character of Nick Fury very well. The second reason is that there was already a prominent African-American depiction of Nick Fury in the comics which stopped fans from crying that this was unfounded. To reiterate what I said earlier, superhero movies exist to bring to the big screen something that we already love. If you want to change the race of a character when you cast your actor and avoid the repercussions and angry fanboys, then the actor has to do a phenomenal job or there has to be a POPULAR precedent of the character being the race of that actor.
While Nick Fury is a great illustration of a character with African-American and Caucasian versions, since that is his only identity he differs from the average hero and villain. The important area of race I want to address is the difference between the secret identity and the superhero. Just because every Steve Rogers has been Captain America and every Peter Parker has been Spider-Man, does not mean every Captain America has been Steve Rogers and every Spider-Man has been Peter Parker. Too many people only watch the superhero media and don’t read any comics, they don’t know the numerous possibilities and different realities present within the comics the shows and movies are based on. Very often a character may die but another character will take up the superhero mantle. This is the crux of where race really does and does not matter: race matters in the secret identity of a character but not in the superhero mantle. Any character can take up a superhero’s costume and name, but what makes each one of them different is the personality behind it. This is why race matters in the area of the secret identity because race is an essential part of someone’s personality. That does not mean two people cannot act the same if one is Asian and one is Hispanic (the two versions of Nick Fury were nearly identical in the comics) but rather personality is not just internal. External factors of how others treat them and what they may have had to endure growing up because of their skin or nationality will impact how they mature and play a part in their personality most definitely. Here are some examples with prominent superheroes of how to handle race:
The most popular secret identity behind Spider-Man is Peter Parker, a white and nerdy science student. To cast a non-Caucasian actor as Peter Parker would be risky and probably not turn out as well. However, if a director wishes to cast Spider-Man with an African-American actor, there is a popular version of Spider-Man in the comics known as Miles Morales which would work well. However, great acting is still necessary.
As with Spider-Man, Steve Rogers is the most well-known Captain America. Though recently in the comics, the African-American superhero Falcon (secret identity, Sam Wilson) took up the mantle after Rogers’ death. Thus, this is another avenue for casting for directors. Just having an African American play Steve Rogers would not work especially in this case because Captain America originally was in the 1940s which treated whites and minorities very differently.
Whereas the previous two examples focused on heroes with popular Caucasian identities, the Black Panther is a well-known superhero with a usually African identity: T’Challa. If a non-black actor was cast as T’Challa, this would probably cause a media uproar. However, if the director still thought a particular non-black actor was the best fit, he could make up a story line where some stepson of T’Challa or another superhero took up the Black Panther mantle. While it is not an established storyline from the comics and it probably would not take off in the box office, it still is a better method than casting T’Challa as white.
In summation, race is a part of anyone’s personality and to change a character’s personality, while within the creative license of directors, is to open the possibility of not doing a character justice and facing the repercussions. However, a change in race may not be the deciding factor of how well a movie does, it could be horrible acting or plot moving. We must learn to be more critical and analytical, learn to recognize when race actually matters and when it does not, and learn to appreciate when something works or when it does not despite how accurate or not it is to the comics.