A Johnny Storm in a Teacup? A Personal Reaction to the new Fantastic Four

To say that a film based on a realtively unknown comic has become, in the space of two and a half minutes, the most anticipated movie of 2014 is a testament to the power of advertising, but the release of the Guardians of the Galaxy trailer has been greeted with near universal acclaim, and it looks like it should be a fun movie that’s certainly scored a complement of excellent actors, but that joy has been eclipsed by the vitriol that has greeted the announcement of the casting for the Fantastic Four reboot.

Whilst the first movie was not critically acclaimed (it achieved a dismal approval rating of only 27% on review aggregate site Rotten Tomatoes, with most barbs aimed at its lack of creativity) it most definitely was a commercial success with a box office take of $330 million on a budget of $100 million, leading to the inevitable 2007 sequel Rise of the Silver Surfer, which scraped a comparatively successful 37% approval on the Tomatometer, so certainly there is huge room for change and improvement.

There may be valid reasons for being unnerved by the casting; with an average age of around twenty eight, the new cast are all relatively young, perhaps younger than many comic fans see the characters, despite the fact that in the 2005 movie not one of them was over the age of 40. Jessica Alba (the Invisible Woman) and Chris Evans (the Human Torch) were both 22, Ioan Gruffudd (Mister Fantastic) was 29 and Michael Chikliss (the Thing) was the oldest at 39. According to the original comics from the 1960s the ages of the new cast are about right for their origin story and it’s actually a good decade or more older than the characters are depicted in Marvel Ultimate Universe continuity which is what Joss Whedon’s The Avengers and Marc Webb’s The Amazing Spider-Man franchises are based upon.

Set to play Reed Richards is Miles Teller, at twenty seven years old an up and coming actor who won a Sundance Film Festival Special Jury Prize for Dramatic Acting last year for The Spectacular Now. Predictably for a major Hollywood comic book adaptation, the lead role is a white American male, and the casting of Mr Teller has matched that expectation.

Signed on to play Sue Storm, also known as the Invisible Woman, is thirty year old Kate Mara who has been seen in a variety of roles in series such as 24, American Horror Story and, most recently, the critically acclaimed American remake of House of Cards. With a fifteen year career in acting she certainly has sufficient experience, and anyone who can hold their own alongside Kevin Spacey and Robin Wright can probably manage a superhero movie. Equally unsurprising, Ms Mara is a white woman who will be playing a character who has been historically portrayed as a Caucasian female.

The lesser of the controversial decisions is the casting of Jamie Bell as the Thing. While the Fantastic Four are an obscure team that not a lot of people have heard of (in the same way that Doctor Who is a “little” British television show), so perhaps it may require explaining for those who have not encountered them, but the Thing is a character named Ben Grimm who is transformed from a human into a giant orange rock monster. Despite having had a fourteen year career, Bell is still best known to many for playing ballet loving Billy Elliot and, like the people decrying the casting of Ben Affleck as Batman based on his performance as Daredevil in 2003, some cannot separate the actor from the character.

That the comment has been made that he is “too small” to play the Thing is akin to complaining an actor is too petite to play the Hulk. As one is transformed into the other via motion capture and computer generated imagery, the physical stature of the actor is secondary to their ability to perform. Born in the damp north of England, Mr Bell is a distressingly white male playing a traditionally orange character.

The final corner of the quartet will be played by Michael B Jordan, a twenty seven year old actor who is best known for his roles in the television series The Wire and playing another character with superpowers in the movie Chronicle which also launched the career of Josh Trank who will be directing the Fantastic Four movie. Jordan will feature as Johnny Storm, brother of Sue Storm but better known as The Human Torch, and it is in this casting that the ire of fandom has risen.

When he’s not on fire and flying around the place, Johnny Storm has always been depicted as a white guy, but Michael B Jordan is quite unavoidably a black guy, a person of colour, an African-American, and no doubt rightly proud of his heritage, and rather than his ability as an actor or the quality of his previous performances, it is the colour of his skin which has drawn commentary from comic and film fandom.

With few exceptions (300, Ghost World, Scott Pilgrim), modern comic book movies are based on classic comic book characters. Superman first appeared in 1938, and Batman was created a year later while Captain America came along in 1941, then Spider-Man arrived in 1962 followed by the X-Men in 1963. The Fantastic Four made their debut in 1961, and there was a reason that all of these characters were white, and it wasn’t in any way a creative choice or an artistic decision.

In that era, white was the default position of all media, written, graphic, cinematic and televised, except a niche market of strongly defined and generally unflattering roles. The very idea of creating a super hero who was something other than white was inconceivable in those sadly not so dim and distant days. In order to succeed, a comic hero had to appeal to the maximum possible audience, and publishers simply didn’t believe that a black hero could be sufficiently popul
ar. Sadly, at that time, they were probably right.

Thankfully, things have changed over the last few decades, but not enough it would appear. The main criticism that has been voiced points out that Sue and Johnny Storm are siblings, but how can they possibly be siblings if one is black and the other is white? How will this be addressed in the movie? Do the producers really think that an audience is going to accept this? Isn’t it going a little far in the name of political correctness?

No, it’s not. There are simple avenues for explaining this. Either Johnny or Sue is adopted, or perhaps they are step-siblings. The producers could even completely ignore the discrepancy, which might be the best decision; how cool would it be if it was an accepted part of this new continuity that Johnny and Sue Storm were simply brother and sister without explanation? There are families where this is reality and it is unlikely that any children who have been raised together and raised well attach significance to something so inconsequential as skin colour.

The fact that Johnny is white in the comics has nothing to do with his character. He’s funny and cool. He’s flippant and sarcastic. He’s the good looking one. He’s the one that relishes the fact that he’s now a hero when the rest of his family want to change themselves back. Those who have decried the casting of Michael B Jordan should ask themselves just what about this description is intrinsically white? What is it about Johnny Storm that makes him fundamentally a white guy?

There have been many on the internet who see this as an affront to continuity. They see it as a gimmick, and nothing more than a publicity stunt, asking questions of thinly veiled racism: What if Bruce Wayne was black? What if Black Panther or Blade were white? Comments have been seen stating “If Luke Cage was turned into a white man there’d be uproar”, or asking “Why not turn Tony Stark into a black man as well?”

Those who ask these questions obviously know little about these characters, or are actively being ignorant: T’Challa, the Black Panther, is an African prince, so rebooting him as white would remove a fundamental and defining aspect of his character. Of the very few classic superheroes who aren’t white, there is always a reason they’re not. Blade represented the blaxploitation movies of the 1970s, and along with Luke Cage, the fact that he was a black man was a rebellion against the dominant white characters of the day. That these characters are defiantly not white in a largely white environment is a key part of them, and that individuality made them who they were.

Similarly, anyone with a rudimentary knowledge of Luke Cage can see that he simply has to be a black man as his character is drawn from his ethnicity and his heritage. He was born in Harlem which, even today, is 77% African American. He ran with a gang and was (falsely) convicted of heroin possession. Everything turned out okay in the end, though, since he was experimented upon and ended up with bulletproof skin, accelerated healing and a membership with The Avengers.

In contrast, Bruce Wayne comes from old money, a personification of guilt for the abuse of power which drives him to make things right. It’s not about tradition, it’s a part of his character, a whole history is built upon the family name. He’s not just a man who dresses up in a cowl. The day may yet come when The Batman is a black man (and won’t the tabloids have a field day with that headline!) and not only would it be welcome, it could be an interesting interpretation of the character: perhaps his family turned their back on their heritage for the promise of fortune and abused the very people that had stood hip to hip with his ancestors?

Quite why there has been such an uproar is hard to understand. It’s hardly the first time it’s happened. Julie Newmar (white) played Catwoman in the 1960’s Batman television series, and was followed by Eartha Kitt (black) on the same show. Michelle Peiffer (white) played the character in Batman Returns whilst Halle Berry played a version in the eponymously named movie that is probably best forgotten, but not because the actress was black. Michael Clarke Duncan was cast as the Kingpin in Daredevil when, originally, the character was white. More recently Laurence Fishburne portrayed Perry White in Man of Steel who, in every incarnation for the last seventy-five years, has been cast as a white man.

There were calls for the Doctor to be played by Idris Elba (who played Heimdall in the Thor movies – a white character in the comics) when Matt Smith announced he was leaving the role. It is now largely forgotten that the award winning, critically acclaimed and respected (in Germany) actor David Hasselhoff was the first to play Nick Fury, or that he’s a white man in the “normal” continuity comics. The Fury of the Marvel Cinematic Universe is African American, although anyone who tells Samuel L Jackson that he can’t play any role is probably in need of psychological help or possibly physical protection.

If the ongoing tidal wave of comic book movies continues they need to feature characters of different ethnicities, sexualities and beliefs as much as they need different powers. They will be based upon the most popular and famous characters in the DC and Marvel universes, which means that if we go by their accepted histories they will, predominantly, be white heterosexual males. Changing them to reflect the society of the 21st century is not pandering to political correctness. It’s making them more relevant and accessible. Anyone worried about a character changing skin colour or sexuality must ask themselves whether that is really an integral part of the character as they have perceived it or whether they are wearing a mask to hide their own bigotry and calling it “tradition”, like Spidey hides his identity.

The new Fantastic Four film is scheduled for release on June 19th 2015



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