Some Thoughts on Black Superhero Characters in Movies

Hey, I should try a post where I actually bother to talk about something again. That always used to be fun.

Let’s see… what’s in the news today? Oh. Here’s something. I guess that Hollywood is trying to make another movie based off the Fantastic Four comics. It is rumored that Johnny Storm, the hero known as the Human Torch, is likely to be played by a black man, even though he is a white man in the comics. Some people on the Internet are apparently pretty upset about this.

A caveat: I don’t actually care much about the Fantastic Four. As much as I love the Marvel Universe, that is one corner that has never held my attention. There’s likely plenty there worth reading, but I don’t feel like I’m missing anything enough that I’ve bothered to make an expert. Luckily, for the sake of me having this discussion, this isn’t the first time this sort of thing has happened. I could link to all sorts of articles about other examples, but I think this Cracked article covers all the bases pretty well.

So, step one, here’s the part where I admit that I’m one of those people who doesn’t like changes being made to adaptations of books and comics. Not just as far as race goes, but I don’t like when anything is changed. I don’t like when characters or scenes are cut for brevity, or when the setting is changed for the sake of filming. I don’t like when dialogue is changed, or when endings are changes. To be honest, I kinda just don’t like adaptations of books into movies in general. Where I apparently differ from a lot of apparently vocal people on the Internet, I realize this makes me a crazy person. I know I have an unrealistic standard, so I don’t expect anyone to live up to that. Having grown to accept that about myself, I don’t actually care about any changes made to the material. It’s inevitable, I think, so why should I worry? (For the record, my concern also applies in reverse, to movies being adapted as books or comics.)

And in step two I try to offer a solution that goes beyond simply accepting it: as the Cracked article points out, there are simply not enough roles for black people in movies based on superhero comics. That is definitely true. But what actually does bother me is the few roles that do exist are not yet being used. Samuel L. Jackson playing Nick Fury is probably the most significant of these white-to-black “racelifts” in the Marvel movies so I’ll use him for the discussion here.

In the comics, Nick Fury first appeared in “Sgt. Fury and his Howling Commandos #1” in May of 1963. Here’s the thing: one of those Howling Commandos was Gabe Jones, a black man. Obviously he’s not the title character, but he is an important black character who has exactly as long a history in the medium as Fury, who went along with Fury to also become a top ranking SHIELD agent, and who I personally have always liked more than Fury. Still, the character never got the use that he deserved. A part of me can’t help but think that maybe, if someone as cool as Sam Jackson had played Gabe Jones instead of Fury, maybe people would have actually bothered to care about him for a change. A movie version of Gabe did make it into a minor role in Captain America: The First Avenger, but only in the World War Two section, so he’s unlikely to return in the movies set in the modern era. And since then, the comic version of Gabe Jones was unceremoniously killed off in some crappy 2010 comic. An actual black character with decades of history used as cannon fodder because nobody bothered to care. I suppose it is because Gabe doesn’t have an eyepatch, so obviously we need to use Nick Stupid Fury in the movies instead (pardon my harsh language).

So my complaint is this: If Hollywood wants roles for black characters in their superhero movies (which they damn well should), just casting black people in roles that had been white is an easy way to do it. But taking actual black characters who have existed but have been ignored and giving them the time in the limelight that they so rarely get in comics would, I think, be a more worthy method. It would benefit the oft-underappreciated characters in return.

Hopefully this sort of thing will change. Captain America’s best friend, the Falcon, a black superhero dating back to 1969, is going to be in new Cap movie in a month or so. Falcon has had a better run than a lot of black heroes, but even he has never had the success of even third-tier white heroes. Maybe the movie will change that. And a movie starring the Black Panther, a black superhero dating to 1966 (and one of my top five superheroes period) is constantly being rumored. Even with my irrational distaste for any and all adaptations, I am looking forward to that. And it would be nice if these movies finally give some black characters their due.

Oh and hey, while we’re at it, maybe we should start using some of the women superheroes too. Just a thought.

(For the record, Laurence Fishburne as Perry White in Man of Steel did not bother me in the slightest. But was it my imagination or did Perry White have an earring in that movie? Perry White with an earring? That I find more disconcerting than any possible race change ever could.)

  1. Yeah they give a lot of racelifts nowadays. Hell, even Robocop is Black now. I liked him better as silver. Also with Johnny Storm Black wouldn’t that mean Sue is black? Or are they like half siblings or not related in the movie.

    • I don’t know those details. Maybe they’ll just have Sue invisible for the whole movie and avoid the question altogether. That seems like the most logical way to do it. Definitely the most logical.

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