As comic book fans, we love seeing our favorite superheroes make the jump to the big screen. However, not all fans are happy with the iterations of their favorite superheroes in feature films. Many times, this outrage isn’t because a character’s origin story is tweaked a little bit. No, what seems to get comic book fans all up in arms is when the characters don’t look exactly like their comic book counterparts. Whether you think it’s completely ridiculous or justified, the quickest way to get some fans outraged is to swap races of characters.
Every time an actor of a different race is cast in a role, there is a group of comic book fans who talk about how the filmmakers don’t know what they’re doing, and how the movie is going to automatically stink because their favorite character doesn’t look identical to the comic book. Now, oftentimes, this change is welcomed by many, as a sign that times have changed and not all characters need to be a certain race. However, there are also instances when the outrage comes when filmmakers fundamentally change a character to fit a specific actor. Let’s look at the 15 most controversial times a superhero’s race was changed in a film.
SPOILER WARNING: Multiple spoilers for superhero movies, including recent films like Spider-Man: Homecoming.
15 HUMAN TORCH
Michael B. Jordan is one of the best actors working today. His roles in Fruitvale Station and Creed have made him a star. You would think that comic book fans would be happy to have this caliber of actor take on one of Marvel’s most iconic characters. Well, that’s definitely not what happened when Fox announced that Jordan would be playing Johnny Storm, aka the Human Torch, in the 2015 Fantastic Four reboot.
In fact, you would think that Fox had kicked every fan’s puppy with how outraged they were at this announcement. The most common point of contention seemed to be about how a white Sue Storm could be related to a black Johnny Storm. The race discussions seemed never-ending. However, all this chatter was forgotten when the film was released and universally hated by critics and fans alike. Ironically, Jordan’s performance was seen as one of the only bright spots.
The discussion/outrage surrounding Zazie Beetz playing the mutant Domino in Deadpool 2 is still happening across internet message boards to this day. However, what makes this interesting is that the controversy didn’t seem to reach a fever pitch until a couple of pictures of the actress in costume were released.
When the casting announcement was made, Beetz portraying Domino wasn’t a huge controversy. It wasn’t until people saw her hair style and the color of the birthmark over her eye that led to the endless tweets and comments about how Fox doesn’t understand the character. How can she possibly be an assassin with an afro?! Why is her eye white instead of black, like in the comics?! Even though there were reasonable (and quite frankly, wonderful) explanations to these questions, fans are still outraged. Who knew that there was this much fan love for a Marvel character that people haven’t cared about since the ‘90s?
13 THE ANCIENT ONE
While most of the outrage on this list stems from fans wanting completely faithful translations of their superheroes, the controversy surrounding The Ancient One seen in Marvel Studios’ Doctor Strange was a much more philosophical debate. Was Tilda Swinton’s casting whitewashing? Or perhaps, as the studio says, was it an example of them wanting to change the character to fit the actor they wanted?
Like it or not, The Ancient One, as portrayed in the comics, was problematic. He was the stereotypical example of a wise Asian character used to teach mystical arts to a white guy. In the film, they changed the race to represent a Celtic iteration of the character. This caused outrage from fans who feel like Marvel Studios would be able to update The Ancient One, and allow it to be a strong role for an Asian actor. While Swinton’s performance was seen as fine, there are many that wish Marvel would have approached the character differently.
Aquaman has always been the butt of jokes for people who aren’t familiar with the character. Many just see this blonde-haired white guy in orange and green who talks to fish. To counteract this criticism, Warner Bros. cast Jason Momoa as Arthur Curry, aka Aquaman. Momoa is a huge, bearded man with tattoos that they thought would instantly make people respect the character as a badass. However, for some fans, he wasn’t white and blonde like in the comics, therefore he is a bad choice.
It’s clear Warner Bros. added tribal elements to Aquaman’s armor and tattoos that would harken back to Momoa’s Native Hawaiian heritage. Unfortunately, fans were taken aback by his new, rugged, tribal look that it instantly turned them off. The term “Aquabro” was created to reflect Aquaman’s new look. However, in the recent footage we’ve seen of the upcoming Justice League, it looks like Momoa will probably change minds and steal the show.
11 MARY JANE
Leading up to the release of Spider-Man: Homecoming, fans were speculating if Zendaya’s character Michelle would actually turn out to be Mary Jane. Even as the filmmakers were swearing that wasn’t the case, in the film, she is revealed to be "MJ." Instantly, some fans hated the surprise. How can Mary Jane be someone who isn’t white with red hair?!
Marvel Studios side-stepped this controversy by stating that MJ isn’t Mary Jane. They just borrowed the nickname for this new character. This is potentially the studio trying to appease both longtime fans, who hate change, and new fans that like the idea of choosing the best woman for the role, who also happens to be a person of color. While MJ doesn’t have a huge role in Homecoming, expect this outrage to grow when Zendaya’s role gets larger in sequels.
Nearly everyone can agree that Justin Chatwin’s portrayal of Goku is a problem. Even taking race out of the equation, Chatwin just wasn’t the best actor for the job, and Dragonball Evolution turned out to be a horrible adaptation. Now, even if we can all agree that Chatwin wasn’t right for the role, just based on acting ability, most can also agree that hiring a white guy to portray Goku just added a whole different layer of controversy.
In American adaptations of Japanese anime and manga, there seems to be the problem of hiring white people to portray the characters that are huge parts of Japanese pop culture. So, when Justin Chatwin was cast as Goku, fans rightfully lost their minds. The studio wrongly assumed that hiring a non-white actor would make the film less marketable, and the entire film suffered. Now, Dragonball Evolution serves as an example of how not to cast a film.
9 BARON MORDO
Marvel’s Doctor Strange had racial controversy on two different sides. While there were people saying that producers were whitewashing The Ancient One, you also had fans who were outraged that you hired a POC to portray Baron Mordo. Chiwetel Ejiofor is an award-winning actor, but when he was announced as playing Mordo, fans immediately didn’t like how Doctor Strange’s most well-known villain wasn’t going to be the evil white guy from the comics.
Much like the outrage surrounding Michael B. Jordan, most of the controversy about Mordo’s race was completely forgotten once the film was released. Ejiofor played a new version of the character that wasn’t the cheesy moustache-twirling villain that Baron Mordo has been in the comics. Many saw him as one of the best characters in the film, who would make a wonderful antagonist in future sequels.
8 THE KINGPIN
The way Wilson Fisk is drawn in comics, he towers over every character in a way that seems inhuman. So, when the filmmakers behind 2003’s Daredevil were looking for an actor to play Kingpin, there was really only one choice. Michael Clarke Duncan had made a name for himself as one of the biggest men in movies. Of all the major actors in Hollywood, he was probably the only guy out there that could pull off the physicality needed for the role of Kingpin.
One problem – he’s not white. At least, that’s what some fans were outraged about. Sure, he had the size, but in the comics, Kingpin is a massive white guy. Fans were worried that Duncan would somehow fundamentally change the character, and it wouldn’t actually be the Fisk we know and love. Of course, that was all for naught as Duncan did well in an otherwise much maligned movie. What people should have worried about was Colin Farrell…
Outside of one notable exception (more on that later…), the Thor films have cast actors that very much resemble their comic book counterparts. Chris Hemsworth seems born to play the title role, as does Tom Hiddleston playing Loki. When Marvel Studios announced that Tessa Thompson had signed on to play Valkyrie in Thor: Ragnarok, fans were upset because unlike Hemsworth and Hiddleston, she didn’t have the “right” look. So, how could a non-white actor play a Norse character, who has blonde hair and white skin?! OUTRAGE!
While we have yet to find out exactly how Thompson will do in the role, all signs point to her knocking it out of the park. Of course, if you look at the comic book version of Valkyrie and Thompson side-by-side, you might think they were completely different characters. However, when you see clips and photos of Thompson in costume, she looks exactly like a fierce warrior who would ride a Pegasus. There’s no doubt she’s Valkyrie.
6 THE POWER RANGERS
When Saban set out to make the new Power Rangers film, they wanted to update the classic TV show for modern times. The filmmakers went out and hired young actors and actresses that could be the modern-day Rangers. As with most superhero properties, when you change characters, fans get very upset. And when they cast an African-American guy to play Billy, an Asian guy to play Zack, a Latina to play Trini, and a woman with Indian heritage to play Kimberly, fans lost their minds!
Of course, it probably would look worse if they stuck with a black guy to play the Black Ranger and an Asian woman to play the Yellow Ranger, but fans were still upset at the change. While the film ended up coming out to mixed reviews from critics and fans, pretty much everyone can agree that the actors chosen to play the Rangers were the highlights.
Now, nitpickers might point out that the character that Halle Berry plays in Catwoman is not Selina Kyle. How can it be race-swapping if the character is different? Well, you may win on a technicality, but honestly, when you say the name Catwoman, everyone pictures Selina Kyle from the comics, and the myriad of white women that have played the part in live-action. So, when Halle Berry was cast as Catwoman, fans were confused and upset... apparently forgetting the legendary Eartha Kitt's turn as the character in the classic '60s Batman show.
For years, fans have wanted a proper Catwoman film featuring Selina Kyle. The film we got was far from a proper Catwoman film, but Berry’s casting had nothing to do with that. As it turned out, while fans were initially upset by a POC playing Catwoman, the real issues were with the talent behind the camera.
Remember when everyone was excited for The Amazing Spider-Man 2? Sure, the first one wasn’t great, but the next one was going to be so much better, right? Oh, the good ol’ days, such ignorant bliss! The first sign that fans were starting to seriously turn on the franchise came when Sony announced that Jamie Foxx, fresh off his critically-acclaimed role in Django Unchained, was going to portray Max Dillon, aka Electro, in the film. While race has never been a part of the character’s origin, people still were hoping for a more “faithful” version of the character.
Of course, everyone knows what fans mean when they say “faithful.” They were upset that Foxx, a black man, would play a traditionally white character. Then outraged fans felt vindicated when the film was released and Foxx’s role was universally panned, arguably through no fault of his own. Their initial hate, however bad the movie was, fell far short of being validated.
3 TERRY FITZGERALD
It’s unlikely that very many CBR readers have seen, or even remember, 1997’s Spawn film. Twenty years later, the movie is viewed as one of the worst comic book adaptations to ever be filmed. Lost in all the hate was the outrage that happened when casting was announced for the film. Back in the internet’s infancy, fans were still confused as to why they would cast actor D.B. Sweeney in the role of Terry Fitzgerald.
You see, Spawn is a comic that has always had a very diverse cast. In fact, most of the main characters early on were black. So, fans were rightfully upset when they took a major black character and changed him to a white character. Was the studio concerned that there weren’t enough white people in the cast? Was D.B. Sweeney that much of a big name actor? We may never know, but it certainly was a weird choice.
How can a black man play an Asgardian god? That was the big question when Marvel Studios announced actor Idris Elba would play Heimdall in the 2011 Thor film. In comics, and in Norse Mythology, Heimdall has always been seen as a white character. Honestly, ALL the Norse gods are portrayed as white. So, fans were shocked and upset that Elba was playing the character. They said Marvel was changing the roots of the character.
Of course, six years later, it seems silly to be upset. Elba’s star has risen so much that he’s one of the biggest names in the MCU. Fans have warmed up to the idea of him playing Heimdall, so much so that Heimdall is one of the fan favorites from the series. See? No need to be so outraged!
The Mandarin, as with The Ancient One, has been a problematic character in the comics. The Mandarin has always been shown to be a stereotypical Asian villain, reminiscent of the racist archetypes of the mid-20th century. It was always going to be tricky re-imagining him for a modern-day audience. Marvel Studios thought they cracked the case when they had this big elaborate twist that would occur in Iron Man 3. However, they didn’t tell anyone about the twist when they announced that a British man, with Indian heritage, would play the role.
Needless to say, fans were mad. They just saw Ben Kingsley dressed in vaguely Asian garb talking about terrorism. It looked like a case of whitewashing at its most egregious. Then, when the film came out, fans were upset over the twist, and not so much the casting. So, maybe the lesson is to do something way more upsetting in the film to make people forget about the casting?
Can you remember other cases when a character's race was the focal point of outrage in superhero cinema? Let us know in the comments!