Those who consider themselves purists have been notoriously vocal about wanting historically white comic book characters to stay white. A perfect example of that was the backlash a few years back against the introduction of the Afro-Latino Miles Morales as the new Spider-Man, or the even bigger backlash when Community actor Donald Glover campaigned for the role in the Amazing Spider-Man reboot that eventually went to Andrew Garfield.
And even now, while there has indeed been huge support for Jordan’s casting, a quick perusal of the Fantastic Four tag on Twitter does bring up comments like “Let's be HONEST. Making Johnny Storm a black character is a financial and PC move for Fox and Hollywood,” or “This sucks ! The black guy should be the thing,” or, “I don’t remember a black guy in the Fantastic Four?”
Of course, we all know that haters are gonna hate in an effort to defend the overwhelmingly white comic book world. They’ll rant about “staying true to the comic,” and argue that if white characters keep getting cast with black actors, then the same should be done for what few black comic book characters there are. And, of course, we all know that the casting of characters like Johnny Storm isn’t, or shouldn’t, be as arbitrary as this. It’s about balancing an industry that’s skewed far too heavily in one direction.
Comic books proper are one thing, but there has been a dearth of black superheroes onscreen. There’s been Halle Berry as Storm (and, much less successfully, Catwoman). There was Hancock. Marvel Studios to date has only had three, if you count James Rhodes in Iron Man, Heimdell in Thor, and Anthony Mackie’s Falcon soon to be seen in Captain America: The Winter Soldier. So the Michael B. Jordan casting is indeed a very big deal, pointing towards a kind of progress that Hollywood has been resisting for a long time.
But then there’s the question of whether it really is progress. Has he been tokenized? Is the brash Johnny Storm too obvious as opposed to say, the scientific genius and group leader Reed Richards? Perhaps, but at the end of the day, Jordan’s casting is a sort of progress, and an incredibly exciting milestone for a charismatic and promising young actor. But his casting, or rather the casting of the entire Fantastic Four lineup is emblematic of Hollywood’s one step forward, two steps back syndrome.
Because the bigger question, of course, is the Sue Storm question. There’s been discussion that casting House of Cards actress Kate Mara as sister to Johnny Storm might be “confusing” to audiences. There’s a great deal of speculation as to how in fact interracial siblings might be related (it’s telling that some social media theorists think Johnny, not Sue, is the adopted one), and how their different races might inform their dynamic. There’s the possibility that in an effort to be truly “progressive” that question might be ignored altogether in a post-racial gesture of color-blindness. Let’s hope not.
The real question, though, isn’t about how they are related but why we have to debate about how they are related. In other words, what’s more progressive: casting a single black character in a historically all white superhero team, or casting two black characters in an all white superhero team? Why isn’t Sue Storm black? Yes, Hollywood racism being what it is, Fox execs may fear that two black actors in one movie might make their blockbuster less marketable. Perhaps a possible interracial relationship between Reed and a black Sue Storm might be too controversial?
The problem here is that in the ongoing conversation about black actors and superhero movies has always revolved around men. We sign petitions to get black actors to play Spider-Man, campaign for the Black Panther movie to get made, and fantasize about Idris Elba playing Batman. But (unless Halle Berry comes up) the same doesn’t happen when we’re discussing say, a Wonder Woman.
Even in Hollywood’s bid towards progress, it seems black female superheroes, just like black female anything in movies, are still seen as less viable. But why take the leap with Johnny Storm and not go all the way? It’s great that Michael B. Jordan is playing Johnny Storm, but it's distinctly telling that Sue Storm isn’t a black woman. The new Fantastic Four cast may be surprising, yes, but truly progressive? Not at all.