EDITED: Why The Fantastic Four Reboot May Be Approaching Race and Gender All Wrong

by Aaron Einhorn
EDIT: Josh Trank has taken to Twitter to debunk the idea of a female Doctor Doom. Of course, directors have been known to lie in interviews.

Big news out of the superhero film and television casting arena this past week, with much of it focusing on Fox’s Fantastic Four reboot, and the CW’s Flash TV pilot. And it shows us where we, as comic fans, have fallen dreadfully behind on the whole idea of gender and racial equality.

To be frank, comics are dominated by straight, white men doing heroic deeds. This isn’t to say there aren’t women, people of other ethnicities and members of the LGBT community to be found in the pages of our superheroic funnybooks, but for the most part, it’s a whole lot of straight, white dudes.

The superhero costumed charity group I’m a part of has broken down characters into tiers, based on popularity and recognizability of the characters. Our “A” tier consists of Superman, Supergirl Batman, Wonder Woman and Spider-Man (and possibly Robin) – and it’s hard to argue that these characters aren’t the most well-known superheroes to American audiences. Our “B” tier consists of characters who are recognizable typically due to their supporting roles alongside the A-List heroes (so, the more popular Justice League members), have seen a swell of popularity (the characters who have appeared in Marvel’s Cinematic universe), or are a part of a recent and successful television series. Also, “family” members that share a chest emblem with the A-List characters.

So, between the A and B tiers, you basically have Wonder Woman, Supergirl, Batgirl and Black Widow to represent women. And you have (maybe) John Stewart Green Lantern, Nick Fury and Cyborg to represent people of color. You get a few more women and Storm in there if you include the X-Men in the B-Tier.

In other words, there clearly needs to be more done to bring female characters and non-white characters to the forefront. And in general, I am all for that. This also means that I have no problem when a casting director wants to change the gender or racial make-up of a character – most of the time.

You want to make Perry White into Lawrence Fishburn? Go for it. Jimmy Olsen becomes Jenny? Sure, why not? Nick Fury transforms from David Hasselhoff into Samuel L. Jackson? I think most of us consider this an enhancement. And if Heimdall needs to be played by Idris Elba, then the rest of us are grateful for that.

candice_patton_headshotSo, in an example of “doing it right,” I was more than happy to see that the CW has cast Candice Patton in The Flash as Iris West. Fans of the comic know that Iris ultimately ends up marrying Barry Allen (Grant Gustin), so if the pilot goes well, we can expect to see her for some time.

In case you haven’t picked up on it from the photo, Ms. Patton is bi-racial, being born to an African-American mother and a Caucasian father. She also happens to be gorgeous, and has a long enough filmography to be regarded as a serious actress.

I haven’t seen any of her previous work, so I can’t comment on her ability directly. But I can say that she certainly seems qualified, she’s good-looking enough to easily attract an audience on TV, and other than how it potentially affects the racial makeup of Wally West (who becomes Kid Flash, and eventually replaces Barry in the comics), I don’t see how changing her ethnicity from being a white woman into a woman of mixed racial identity affects the core of the character.

(I do have friends who have pointed out that potentially changing Wally’s parentage, when Wally was specifically raised by a conservative white couple could be problematic. But on the other hand, I have many doubts about this show ever lasting long enough for Wally to even appear, so I’m not overly concerned.)

All in all, I’m still looking forward to The Flash. Grant Gustin charmed me as Barry Allen when he appeared on Arrow, and I’m ready to see more. The casting of Candice Patton is a welcome addition, in my opinion.

michael_b_jordan_headshot_1Now, in a case of “getting it wrong,” we need look no further than Fox’s Fantastic Four reboot. Josh Trank (who directed Chronicle, the very well-received and critically regarded not-quite-superhero film) has been tapped to direct the film. So far, the only confirmed casting is Michael B. Jordan (who also appeared in Chronicle), who is attached as Johnny Storm/The Human Torch.

Now, I’ve got no problems with this casting, in and of itself. Because there’s no reason that a 2014 version of Johnny Storm can’t be black, while still retaining every element of his personality that makes him that character. And Michael Jordan is a very talented and skilled actor – I loved him in Chronicle, and quite enjoyed his (all-too-brief) appearance on NBC’s Parenthood.

So, seriously, the idea of making him Johnny Storm? I am entirely behind that. I think it’ll be great, and a welcome opportunity to take a character who has always been white in the comics, change his race, and add some much-needed diversity to the superheroic line-up. And it’s not like all of the existing comics, movies, TV shows and films where the Human Torch is a white kid are suddenly going to be winked out of existence because of this movie.

Bring on Michael Jordan as the Human Torch!

But here are the actresses that, according to The Hollywood Reporter, are currently in the running for Sue Storm.

Emmy Rossum

Emmy Rossum

Kate Mara

Kate Mara

Emmy Rossum and Kate Mara are both fine actresses, and I wouldn’t be adverse to seeing either of them as Sue Storm. But they aren’t black.

If you want to cast Michael Jordan as Johnny, then you should cast a black actress as Sue. If you want to cast Emmy Rossum or Kate Mara as Sue, then you should cast a black actor as Johnny. While it’s possible that you could include a throw-away line about them being adopted siblings into the script, it seems counter-intuitive.

Racially-blind casting is great, but you need to be consistent about it. And just in case I’m unclear on my position, I would be happy to see a black actress cast as Sue, and fairly upset to see Michael Jordan kicked out of his role as Johnny.

(And here is where someone will bring up the fact that, in Thor, Idris Elba and Jaime Alexander don’t look like natural born siblings. But the fact that Sif and Heimdall are brother and sister was never brought up in that movie, and really isn’t essential to the film. I’m not even entirely certain we ever see the two of them directly interact. But the sibling relationship between Johnny and Sue is integral to these characters.)

(Incidentally, if Fox did defy expectations and cast a black actress as Sue, I would be all the happier to see the relationship develop between Reed and Sue, and would, in fact, be eager to see the franchise succeed so that we eventually had a bi-racial Franklin Richards. Because if there was ever a time to make the most powerful mutant born in the Marvel Universe into a bi-racial kid, it’s now.)

Fox is also looking at Miles Teller for Reed Richards, and possibly Christian Cook for Ben Grimm. Aside from the fact that these two actors are both roughly the same ages as the actors being looked at for Johnny and Sue, I don’t have much to say about that particular bit of casting, which strikes me as wrong.

But here’s the quote that gets to me.

Dr. Doom is said to be the villain of the reboot (the character appeared in Fox’s two previous movies and was played by Julian McMahon). The Hollywood Reporter’s Heat Vision is hearing that the studio is likely to go for a big name and isn’t ruling out switching genders for the role.

A female villain is a great idea. An absolutely fantastic idea, in fact. And to be honest, there is absolutely no reason that the relationship between Reed Richards and Victor Von Doom couldn’t be just as well captured if they made Victor into Victoria.

Cosplayer: Constantine In Tokyo  Photographed by: JwaiDesign

Cosplayer: Constantine In Tokyo
Photographed by: JwaiDesign

But… I don’t have any faith that they’ll do that right. Years of experience with Hollywood have taught me that there will be some element of jilted romance between Reed and “Victoria,” and all of the things that we love about Doctor Doom will end up coming off as nothing more than her being “a woman scorned.”

I can’t help but feel like Fox isn’t really interested in making a Fantastic Four movie. They want to make a film about four young-adult superheroes and their nemesis, and they want the marketing power that comes with the name. But they clearly aren’t interested in exploring the thing that makes the FF who they are – namely the family dynamic. And that’s ok – because as Disney/Pixar showed us with The Incredibles, you can create a great movie that is inspired by the FF without making it about them.

But money, oh you cynical beast, money. Fox isn’t going to let go of a multi-million dollar license and let it back into the hands of Marvel, even though integrating the Fantastic Four with Marvel’s existing cinematic universe would be awesome. So, they’ll push on with their film, and when it fails, they’ll say “I guess you can’t make a good movie about the Fantastic Four,” and shelve the property.

Until the license is up for renewal again…

EDITED TO ADD:
Josh Trank has taken to Twitter to debunk The Hollywood Reporter‘s article, writing:

The THR gender speculation is also bullshit. Next.

Of course, it’s worth noting that Directors and Studios have been known to lie to discredit advance news. It’s also worth noting that the original article never said that Doom would be a female, just that the studio was open to the possibility.

Still, I think it’s safe to say that, for the moment, the idea of Doom being a woman, should be taken with a tablespoon-sized dose of salt.

(Credits: Deadline, The Hollywood Reporter, Jwai Design Photography, and Constantine in Tokyo)