Nerd Racism – A Defense

It would appear that someone had had the audacity of considering an African American actor for the role of the Human Torch in an upcoming Fantastic Four movie. Naturally some people have lost their collective shit. I posit that while this looks like blatant racism, some of the rage is from a different, and while equally irrational, less offensive source.

I mean some of it definitely is racism. But hear me out.

I have to say that when somebody puts characters that I know and love on screen and they aren’t exactly as I’d imagined them, I get a bit miffed. I don’t think the reaction is unreasonable. I think it’s pretty natural. In a way it’s cognitive dissonance. It’s a case of having to reconcile apparently opposing ideas and that is often unsettling. I don’t like the feeling and I will quite happily blame filmmakers for making me feel it.

More than that, though, I think it’s a misplaced sense of ownership. Some people take comic characters to be part of their heritage. As an analogy, perhaps you have a precious toy from your childhood, a teddy bear, maybe. If I replaced it with another one, you would be upset. It wouldn’t matter if the new bear was equally good or even better than your original bear, it wouldn’t be your bear. I think a lot of the feeling comes from that. It’s not MY Spiderman, it’s not MY Batman it’s WRONG! It’s worth noting that many of the people upset about race changes in movies are equally enraged by any departure from canon. These are sacred texts. Just check out all of the angst over Superman not wearing red briefs in Man of Steel.

To illustrate some of this, I relate my own nerd rage to you. I was, personally, pissed about Andrew Garfield getting cast as Peter Parker and the shameful depiction of Gambit by by Taylor Kitsch made me stop watching Wolverine. However I wasn’t fussed about Samuel L. Jackson getting cast as Nick fury. Why not? Because Nick Fury wasn’t a formative part of my adolescence. I didn’t own and Nick Fury comics. I didn’t relate to him or read about him and I didn’t have that sense of exactly who Fury had to be. Fury could be anyone, but Gambit and Spidey? Whooo boy did they kick me right in the hornet’s nest with those.

However, what one does with the reaction may be very unreasonable. I think is someone said to me that they demanded absolute adherence to the character design and mythology of a comic in order to like a film because they considered the material to be precious to them, I could support that. If they start posting all over the internet that the directors can’t tell their ass from a hole in the ground because some character wasn’t cast exactly as they wanted, I’d be less understanding.

I wonder if it would help if they put a little disclaimer on the movies that they were only “Inspired by a Fictional Story”

Heimdal and Nick fury images are property of Marvel Pictures, Catwoman property of Warner Brothers.


Ryan is a professional nerd, teaching engineering in the frozen north. Somewhat less professionally, he is a costumer, author, blacksmith, juggler, gamer, serial enthusiast, and supporter of the Oxford comma. He can be found on twitter and instagram @studentofwhim. If you like what I do here, feel free to leave a tip in my tipjar.

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  1. I’m not hurrying to watch the new Star Trek movie partly because of my impression that it’s not how Star Trek should be, and I haven’t even seen the TOS-series (yes, that’s on purpose) although I’ve seen the TOS-movies. I agree that most of the outrage isn’t racism, but it does expose that the world of comic books is pretty darn white.

  2. My initial reaction to things like this is “yep, this is racism pure and simple.”

    But then I cast my mind back to when I heard they were making a film of Constantine. I wasn’t a reader of a lot of comics, but Hellblazer is one of the few I read. I had a visceral reaction not to the casting of dreadful Keanu Reeves, but to the casting of a brunette American. Being blond and English was part of the identity of the character, as far as I was concerned. (Turns out, hair color was the least of the problems with the movie).

    So, my reaction, as a non-Fantastic Four fan, is “Who cares what his skin color is?” I guess I can sympathize a bit with with people who are upset with their particular favorite characters being changed from what they expect.

  3. Ryan,

    Oh, wait, I just posted a link to an article you already read. Never mind. Sorry about that.

  4. Criticaldragon1177, no worries. It was that article that inspired my introspection. Some of the comments they posted were pretty horrid, but some didn’t seem quite as vile as they were made out to be. Some of the arguments from lore, I had some sympathy with and I had to have a think about why.

  5. Well done for broaching a tough topic Ryan.

    I wonder, do you think the same kind of thought process is true of the Fake Geek hate… that is to say, would you write a similar article called Geek Elitism – A defence.

    Personally I hold many parts of geek culture as unmodifiable Canon. Boba Fett’s backstory change for example wounded me greatly (an exaggeration, but you get the point). So, while I could care less about the colour of the human torch’s skin, or whether or not the new Battlestar Galactica character of Starbuck is a female now, the idea that the Jocks/Popular circle at school can now throw on some broken glasses and an android teeshirt (insert any other geek stereotype here) and ride the new wave of popularity (one that I feel I did all the fighting for) really rubs me up the wrong way.

    That was a bit of a rant, apologies, but I’d love to read something written by someone with a better grasp of the language than I tackle that issue.

  6. Nick Fury is a bit of a bad example actually. People who were fans of Nick Fury in the comics had already had several years to get used to him being a black character before any of the movies came out. His appearance was changed in the Ultimate Universe in 2002 (to actually look like Samuel L Jackson) which was 6 years before he first appeared in Iron Man. If there had been no instances of Nick Fury being a black character I think there might have been some uproar over the casting but probably not as much considering that it is Samuel L Jackson.

  7. Actually, my problem with someone black with the human torch is.. Isn’t he the brother of the invisible girl? How the heck do you miss that detail, when deciding, for no apparent reason other than you don’t think the movie is “racially diverse enough”? It makes about as much sense as the “whitening” or the money John Carter, when the book says everyone on mars is reddish colored. Just…. why!? I mean, its not like making a new movie about Lincoln, and wondering if they should pick someone Asian to play him, or something, but, what is the reasoning behind deciding that the, one can assume, biological brother, by the same parents, brother, or another character, should change skin color, without at least changing hers too, if nothing else (not that doing so would be any less absurd).

    But, yeah, you don’t need to be racist to go, “WTF?”, over this. But, apparently you do have to be a complete bloody idiot, to think that racism is the best argument against it.

  8. Gah.. Really wish some of these forums had “edit”… Serves me right for typing fast though. :p

  9. Kagehi, your argument is actually one of the ones that inspired me to write. For the most part, it isn’t important that Johnny and Sue are siblings. Depending on the plot, it is pretty irrelevant. The only reason that it matters is that it is true in the comics. If you don’t know or care about that little detail, there will be no impact on your movie-going experience.

  10. I think it is racism, it’s just that many people can only think of racism as the deliberate and acknowledged-as-irrational personal hatred of another person for race alone, like it’s a quality that makes no logical sense and belongs only to supervillains. But decent people can say and do racist things, and nerds need to know that if they’re ever going to grow up all the way.

  11. Whoa there Jack. You had me listening up until you said that nerds need to grow up. That’s kicking a hornet’s nest around here.

  12. This is pretty much sums up a major issue with Metroid: Other M. Players had built up an image of Samus in their heads, and then that image got torn to shreds by the game. She was practically the opposite of what players had come to think of her as being.

  13. Thinking about this, I decided to think on the fandom which I am probably most concerned with: Wheel of Time.

    There are certainly lore based reasons for many of the character descriptions. It is important that Rand be exceptionally tall, and be fair with blue eyes, and live in a land of people who are racially similar, but brown haired and dark eyed. From this, we have set expectations for the majority of the other peoples, and plotwise it is important to be consistent. I think I would certainly have problems with most of the characters being of a race different than what is in the book, in large part because ancestry and heritage is so important for many of the characters.

    I was also upset with Edge of Tomorrows for recasting the protagonist as american, but not that the Bitch was now British. Whitewashing a fantastic Japanese novel so Tom Cruise could draw audiences upset me (and upset me even more because Co$), but changing Rita from American to British is not a huge deal.

    I don’t read comics that often though, so I have a fuzzier image of characters in my head. In Watchmen, I think I would have been upset if they had changed characters much, similarly with the characters in V for Vendetta.

    I think part of it certainly has to do with how solid an image one is given by the source material, so any change from comics will necessarily be more complained about than a change from books. Though sometimes you can have the opposite problem, where a character is cast as described in the book, but for some reason a large number of readers had the wrong image of her (the Rue problem).

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