Op-Ed: Thoughts On A Michael B. Jordan As A Black Johnny Storm
Josh Trank’s Got A ‘Fantastic’ Curveball For Ya!
More Casting Shenanigans from the Hollywood Machine
By Lawrence Napoli
All right, so we all know by now that 20th Century Fox is bankrolling a reboot of the Fantastic Flops from ’05 and ’07. Josh Trank, director of Chronicle (2012), will be in command of this reboot starring a bunch of semi-known white actors in the principal roles … and … a black Johnny Storm? Oh yes, Michael B. Jordan (which is I’m sure a stage name that totally and is in no way attempting to siphon off any mojo from ‘His Airness’) has been cast as the Human Torch. Questions?
First, let’s state the obvious. Jordan is Josh Trank’s boy from his break out film Chronicle. Jordan did a great job in that role, but he still happened to be the token black guy in a super-hero-y type of movie so that means [SPOILER ALERT!] he wasn’t the main character and was the first one with powers to be killed. Surprise, surprise. What truly isn’t a surprise, however, is the fact that this kind of Hollywood nepotism or reciprocation or familiarity or whatever you want to label it as is pretty gosh darn common. Just look at anything produced or directed by Chris Nolan and you may notice the carbon copying of entire cast lists. Be that as it may, I have no problem with any director recasting actors with whom he or she developed good, professional relationships with – provided it’s not just about throwing someone a bone and the decision will be mutually beneficial.
Second, nobody knows where exactly this “reboot” is going to go with the story, but examining the sparse details on imdb.com (assuming them to be accurate) allows us to deduce a few things: The Fantastic Four will be Reed Richards/Mr. Fantastic, Sue Storm/Invisible Woman, Ben Grimm/The Thing and Johnny Storm/The Human Torch. Each character would not have been given their pseudonym on the cast page if this reboot was going to be doing something way off formula by changing the origin story from “these people get blasted with cosmic rays in space that turns them into the super-humans we’ve come to know them as.” So it seems that everyone is going to have the same or similar range of status and relationships they share with each other from the comics and the previous films. The issue at bar is that the characters of Sue and Johnny Storm share a biological heritage that is clearly going to be broken based on this most recent casting news. I can only presume that Trank will go for some alternative/adoptive family structure to “plot-device” that little detail away because both introducing themselves as “I’m Sue Storm. I’m Johnny Storm. No relation,” is just plain dumb even for a (non-spoof) comic book adaptation.
I could care less about whatever taboo may result from reorienting the ethnicities of fictional characters. If anything, Hollywood needs as many truckloads of actual, progressive thought patterns to do anything to kick the white/male hero to the curb and deliver stories whose main characters are women, Asians, Africans, Hispanics, homosexuals – basically anyone who isn’t the stereotypical white, hetero, leading man. I like the idea of casting Michael B. Jordan in this role because of the potential it gives to refreshing a whole lot of super hero been there/done that. My problem with this casting reveal is not that Johnny Storm is black, but that his sister, Sue Storm (Kate Mara, pictured left), isn’t.
There was a real opportunity to do something unique with a fairly popular (though certainly not a flagship) license amidst this tidal wave of comic book films we’ll be digesting for the next 10 years. Seeing interracial couples in films and TV today reflect trends in western society that have been happening for a while, and Hollywood is still catching up. Seeing this in a super hero family for a big budget blockbuster would not only have brought the proverbial spice, but also a whole new angle to reflect on the first family of super-heroes not to mention an added level of depth this potential film’s predecessors could never have addressed. If Trank wants Jordan as Johnny, then that’s fine, but it makes no sense to make his (traditionally) biological sister a different race, regardless of whatever complex family dynamic you’ll only address with these two characters by themselves. Finding the screen time to explain whatever this brother-sister relationship will eventually be defined as will diminish the capacity of the most important relationship in this family: between Reed and Sue (and their future child Franklin who is arguably the most powerful, non-abstract, character in the Marvel Universe). An interracial couple would have raised the stakes, delivered something new and sweetened the drama for the entire cast.
In the end, Josh Trank is going to be directing a comic book adaptation that is going to feature plenty of action and special effects and typically, those kinds of films aren’t primarily interested in commenting on anything too heavy. As much as people may be making a big deal about Michael B. Jordan now, I have a feeling that Trank is going to sweep his ethnicity under the rug in the due course of the film’s progression by making these “however related” siblings as matter-as-fact as possible. One or both of them will be adopted or have different fathers and yada, yada, yada, as long as two white people are hooking up as husband and wife of this super hero team then everything’s fine. Diving any deeper into this subplot turns this film into the Fantastic Two. Denying that depth forces the elephant in the room to get completely ignored and, as a director, you’ve made your actor (in this case, Jordan) completely inconsequential to the character. I suppose it’s a good thing to get to the point in society where things like race and everything else that makes us different from each other doesn’t impact behavior in any way, but maintaining the unique sibling nature of Sue and Johnny with the ethnicity swap would have brought a whole new level of complexity to this film that I can only assume was simply (ahem) too hot to handle for this particular production staff.
I’m sure when more information and promotions regarding this film become available, we’ll hear Trank and perhaps every producer at the top talk about “we just picked the best cast with the best chemistry,” as an explanation for it all. Yeah, ok. This isn’t casting for a high school musical where it would be novel to cast an African American male for Peter Pan, an Asian American female for Jean Valjean, a Latino American male for Sky Masterson and so on and so forth. Picking whomever for whatever shouldn’t enter the equation unless the production is going to make those kinds of choices more meaningful to the overall production than “just ‘cause.” Hollywood films can ill afford to be flippant in regards to any decision made for the production unless that choice fully serves the story; anything less needs to be reconsidered if not instantly retracted. Of course, that kind of idealism doesn’t fuel even your average Hollywood blockbuster and the “just ‘cause” rationale is actually something that pops up quite frequently. It’s one of the main reasons we continue to see some awful filmmaking and the audience notices those choices with every awkward moment we bear witness to.
All I care about is seeing a really good movie, and I feel this one could be great if the Storm family was an African American family, but let’s dial it back and keep it real with the Fantastic Four. That franchise isn’t anything close to the grandeur of The Avengers, X-Men, Spider-Man, Batman, Superman or the Justice League. Infinitely less people are going to care if this movie actually gets made, let alone this one little detail. So who gives a damn, right? Well, I would think a filmmaker would want as many people as possible to give a damn by trying to show people a story and give them an experience they haven’t had before. The brother-sister no relation situation seems foolish to push in any film where the story isn’t fully focused on that major plot point. But who am I kidding? It’s just another reboot. Why should anyone expect more from something less?