The 'Fantastic Four' Reboot Casting: Progressive Or Not?

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by Zeba Blay
February 20, 2014 6:30 PM
32 Comments
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Image via Yahoo! Movies
It’s surprising to no one that the Fantastic Four casting news has garnered as much criticism as it has praise from comic book fans. The ongoing rumors that Michael B. Jordan has nabbed the role of Johnny Storm are evidently true, and with his casting comes all sorts of questions about how the highly lucrative comic book and comic book movie industry continues to represent black characters.
 

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.


Zeba Blay is a Ghanaian-born film and culture writer based in New York. She runs a personal movie blog, Film Memory, and co-hosts the podcast Two Brown Girls. Follow her on Twitter @zblay.

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32 Comments

  • Jake | April 15, 2014 4:52 PMReply

    What would you have said if they had cast Falcon from the new Captain America movie as white? Or Rhodey from Iron Man?

  • still hoping | April 8, 2014 2:08 PMReply

    I still hope Fox will change their mind...at least on the HT casting.
    If they want to be PC then really push it - since Hollywood always wants to do that...
    ie Mr. Fantastic as a Chinese, HT and Sue Storm should be east Indian, and the Thing should be Samoan. That I'd watch!...not! Stick to the source material please. I'm not being racist, just think there is no reason to stray from what already exists. If you want to, then call it something else. This movie isn't F4.

  • sick of this | April 2, 2014 6:08 AMReply

    your all talkin bulls--t f--k it make em eskimos this movie is going to suck in allways and stop sayin jordan will be grate as a black storm ffs and as for the prick playing mr fantastic (faceslap) he is a terrible actor ... and holyshit a skinny jamie bell(end) for thing yer realy good and as for the director his a hack my turds have more class

  • mean bean | March 23, 2014 3:00 AMReply

    Why not make Sue Storm black! Is a smart white guy falling for a beautiful black women too far a stretch?I don't care what color they art as long as it's consistent. Nuff said

  • Gene | March 16, 2014 10:16 AMReply

    Sir Laurence Olivier was one among many white actors to play Othello the Moor. Was he tokenized? Two different white actors, Sidney Toler and Warner Oland, played Chinese detective Charlie Chan. Michael Ansera played, a Syrian, played the part of an Indian agent in the wild west in the TV series Broken Arrow. And let's not forget David Carradine playing Kwai Chang Caine a Chinese monk. This was the role that Bruce Lee was turned down for. African-American actress Brandy played Cinderella, Black British actress Angel Coulby played the role of Lady Guinevere in the TV series Merlin. So this type of casting has been going on for years. Deal with it. If you have a problem with keep your assets at home.

  • Kdawg | March 12, 2014 1:49 AMReply

    Also, where are the asian make characters? They had a cool mutant in xmen by the name if silver samurai... He was in the wolverine movie... As an old man in a robot suit. WTF! They took his mutant powers away. Even though he was evil he was a compelling character with powerful abilities.

    So is Hollywood saying that asians aren't allowed to be mutants? They can't be the mandarine? Is it more offensive to have a character like the mandarine or more offensive to not let an asian guy play a super powered being regardless of his moral code. This blatant racism against black females and asian males continues and will never stop unless people speak up. As we speak the Teenage mutant ninja turtles is being rebooted. The shredder... Is... White... Ask your self something, when was the last time you saw a powerful asian male character regardless of morals that isn't either Jackie chan or jet li? Now ask when the last time you saw a strong black female character... I guess Hollywood just doesn't think they can sell tickets that way.

  • mean bean | March 23, 2014 3:03 AM

    Ben kingsley is Indian, like Asian Indian...from England granted but Ghandi style Indian.

  • Boykin | March 12, 2014 9:39 AM

    second, you think if Hollywood, since we're making it monolith, couldn't sell strong characters of either gender from the African disaspora and/or the assorted ethnicity of Asia if it really wanted to?

  • Kdawg | March 12, 2014 1:40 AMReply

    I totally agree. It just makes no sense. I rather have Johnny be white cause I rather see the comic movies stay true to the characters, after all that's what the films should really be about. They just need to make new characters that aren't white and make them compelling.

    All that being said they made him black, so okay, I realize that film adaptations don't have to follow the comics exactly cause lets face it, lots of the story lines suck. So if you are going that rout go all the way! Sue storm being white is not only confusing but unecessary. As a s riot writer myself all I see with this move is extra useless scenes where we see or hear them talk about expiation adoption, exposition family, exposition the fact that he's black and she's white. Exposition exposition exposition. It's just a bunch if cluttered unecessary scenes that suck up unecessary time. Why are they talking precious silver screen time away from cinematic awesomeness and replaci it EXPOSITIONS!?!

    Let me put it in a way most of you will understand. If sue storm and Johnny storm are black, they don't have to waste time with scenes where they discuss how the white sue storm is related to the black Johnny storm. It's most likly going to be mentioned several times and even weaves into the story line. It's a BIG waste of time. Time you need to impress us with story. As in the plot and real character development. They have to really win us over with story, especially since the last two were on the level of daredevil and batman and robin.

  • Boykin | March 12, 2014 9:33 AM

    first, don't worry about putting things in a way "most of us" will understand. you're not explaining quantum mechanics to us, calm down.

  • Accidental Visitor | February 22, 2014 2:13 PMReply

    "You sure love to defend those white girls don't you?"

    Translation: I have nothing to counter the facts that you put forward in your rebuttal so I must stoop to silly one-liners that say more about me and my insecurities than it does the person I'm trying to ridicue.

    Nice try. Do better.

  • CC | February 22, 2014 4:22 PM

    Don't-even-try-it. This is not about Sergio's alleged insecurities nor his love of one-liners. Nope, nice try but you will have to do better. Deflections much?

    The issue is your insistence on beating the drum for white chicks and interracial love affairs when you've been accused by S&A's readers (BluTopaz & Akimbo) of not giving a rat's ass about the affairs of vagina when it's attached to a black woman. Hence "You sure love to defend those white girls don't you?"

    Dude was basically calling you out and asking, what's up with that?

  • thatstlphoenix | February 21, 2014 10:15 PMReply

    "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." <<<<<<This! Shout this loud!

  • Accidental Visitor | February 21, 2014 7:12 PMReply

    Full disclosure: I hate the casting of Jordan as Johnny Storm. I’m a bit of a comic purists, particularly when it comes to the most established and iconic characters. I don’t care for this push for color-blind casting no matter the good intent that may be behind it. Frankly I think keeping the characters the original race/color puts a spotlight on how lily-white the comic book industry has been. Instead of turning established white characters into people of color for the big screen, I rather see the comic book industry grow up and get with the times by actually creating more non-white and female characters who can later be moved into movies.


    Nonetheless this is a big opportunity for Jordan. Those of you, especially those who aren't hindered by a bias caused by their childhood love of comics, who like to celebrate blacks in film and TV, should be satisfied about this. I have no desire to see a Fantastic Four reboot but I'm still pleased that Jordan has gotten this chance to display his talents on a bigger stage. That's what we should be celebrating. Instead we get this wet blanket thrown over the casting because a black woman wasn't cast as Sue Storm. WTF?

    I like to take us back to a recent announcement that the classic "Rosemary's Baby" film was being remade and that Zoe Saldana was being picked to play the classic role of Rosemary. There may have been grumbling here and there over that announcement mostly because there are people on this site who don't care for Zoe. But I don't think anyone wrote that her casting should be downplayed or overshadowed because of the fact that the producers did not cast a black man to play her husband. You didn't see dudes like Sergio write some followup piece expressing dismay and demanding answers over why no black guys were given a major role in the upcoming remake at all. This kinda dovetails into my comments the other day regarding the supposed desire for black love stories. If a black female character is being served in any capacity regarding getting a great opportunity in a movie then everything is just fine with the world. But if it is just a black male getting that chance, well, then suddenly we have to question motives of all those involved.

    There's a reason why Jordan was picked to play the Human Torch. The director of this Fantastic Four reboot REALLY wanted him. He respects his talent. He chose Jordan for Chronicle too even though his character was originally conceived as white. He obviously likes working with the guy. The director didn't come into the project to set out changing the face of the Fantastic Four.. There was no agenda to make the FF more diverse. Instead the director was handed the project and came to the realization that he saw Jordan as being the perfect guy for the role of Johnny Storm. So he fought for that. Does that mean he should have made Johnny’s sister, Sue Storm, black as well? Not necessarily. He probably never considered changing the racial dynamics of half of the team. And if selling Jordan to the studios was supposedly tough enough, then just how much tougher would it have been to sell a black Sue Storm to boot.

    Besides that little family-growing tool known as adoption gives the director a realistic way to work around the whole issue. Such siblings do exist in the real world. Just think back to the first Fantastic Four launch under African American director Tim Story years earlier. Johnny and Sue Storm were played by Chris Evans and Jessica Alba respectively. Did those two look alike? Fans were coming up with theories that they were adopted sibling as well or that they each at least had one different parent. And should we forget that Tim Story cast Kerry Washington to play Alicia Masters in those same movies. Masters was the girlfriend of Ben Grimm/The Thing, yet in the comic book and cartoons she was also very white. Where was the outrage over that? Where were the write-ups that it wasn't progressive enough to cast Washington as Masters without casting Ben Grimm as a black guy as well? I don’t recall any of that happening; all I recall were several people thinking it was a progressive step in the right direction when Kerry landed the role. So, um, what has changed? And would there be any second-guessing or disappointment whatsoever if Sue Storm, in this latest film, was picked to be black but her brother Johnny Storm remained white? Based on previous sampling I can safely say the answer to that would be "no."

  • sergio | February 21, 2014 8:53 PM

    For the recond that comment below wasn't by me. But hey if the person whop posted my previous comments feels that it fits for this then so be it

  • . | February 21, 2014 8:38 PM

    Sergio | February 18, 2014 5:35 PM

    You sure love to defend those white girls don't you?

  • MJ | February 21, 2014 8:36 PM

    I get you. Mainly the issue is the history of "tokenism" -- where having a single African-American (or other under-represented demographic) character is essentially trying to make a business move or to quell any potentional frustrations of the audience (which is still itself, a business move). You can correlate that to: "Your heart isn't in the right place."

    People are wondering: Is this a progressive move, or not?

    Years ago, having a single African-American involved would've been progressive. But we have evolved socially since then, due to the progressive nature of such an act. Now, we must evolve, and people are debating whether an African-American Sue Storm would have been truly progressive. It is a good question. I believe it would've been.

    You would've had the opportunity to display the relationship of an African-American brother and sister (dancing with the aging idea of familial rifts within African-American culture).

  • Accidental Visitor | February 21, 2014 7:13 PM

    As for the notion that a black actress was not chosen to play Sue Storm because TPTB were afraid of the interracial relationship angle, I mean, I believe Zoe Saldana has been cast to play the love interest of virtually every current leading white male in Hollywood without the industry blinking an eye. I recall that Halle Berry was picked to be the leading lady in a franchise flick like James Bond and that Thandie Newton was picked to play the love interest of Tom Cruise in a big budget sequel to Mission Impossible. So let's stop acting as if Hollywood films have never gone there with tentpole motion pictures centering around established, franchise characters. There are some TV examples to acknowledge too including the recent decision by WB to cast a black actress to play the love interest of the Flash, even though that female character in the comic books was white.


    And by the way the notion that black actresses and black women are being left out of these conversations about colorblind casting when it comes to comic book superheroes is nonsense. People do toss around the idea of a black woman (Beyonce) playing Wonder Woman and have so for years. There are people online and on message boards who are asking that one of the new female heroes for the next Avengers film be reinterpreted with as a black woman. So that talk is out there. And stop listening to any of the junk about Idris Elba playing an iconic role like Batman or Superman. That type of stuff is mostly peddled and or started by Elba himself..

  • JJ | February 21, 2014 7:11 PMReply

    testing?

  • MJ | February 24, 2014 3:22 PM

    Jesus.... ignore that JJ.

  • MJ | February 24, 2014 3:22 PM

    There is a large gap between "people talking about" and filmmakers actually casting these actors. We/They can talk about it all day, but talking doesn't make the sun come up, you know?

  • Dankwa Brooks | February 21, 2014 4:35 PMReply

    From my understanding the STUDIO dictated the tone of those other two FF films. They didn't want them as "dark" as the other superhero movies. The weak scripts didn't help none.

    As far as MBJ's casting, I think it owes as much to his talent as opposed to being "progressive". I don't think the racial element will be discussed and that it will be explained with a "Jonny I remember the day mom and dad brought you home from the adoption agency..."

  • Daryl | February 21, 2014 2:21 PMReply

    This movie is not progressive. Why not make a comic book movie based on a black character and with a mostly black cast with a big budget, that's progressive. This is more like a token. People need to stop buying into that crap a big budget black comic book movie is not marketable. We need to focus on doing for self and telling our own stories and let hollywood be who they are. It's a lot black hero stories ready to be told, we just got to tell them, that comes with investing and believing in ourselves instead of buying into the hype. You going to tell me we can't do at the least a 30 to 45 million dollar superhero movie on our own. You don't need a 100 to 200 million to make a good superhero or comic book movie , examples sin city budget 40 million and blade budget 45 million. Green Lantern budget 200 million and Batman and Robin budget 145 million. Sin city and Blade were by far the better movies.

  • Daryl | February 21, 2014 4:48 PM

    Carl, you missed the whole point, I said you don't need a 100 to 200 million to tell a good comic book movie I thought I expalined that with the examples I gave you can do one for 30 to 40 million verses the big expensive ones. We got enough rich black people with money to produce a comic book movie for 40 million. You don't think we got enough resources to pull this off? You can cover the production of the 40 million and you can partner with a studio for distribution and marketing if this is the route you want to go, a lot of films are done this way now with an investment group funding the production and the studio doing the distribution and marketing side of things. If you wnat to go another route you can have seperate investors, ones that cover production and the other investors would cover the distribution and martketing side of things. This is an example Carl, you can get 20 investors at 4 million a piece or 30 investors at 2.8 million to cover the production and marketing and distribution costs. That would take care of 40 million for production and 40 million for distribution and marketing. It's enough rich black people that can do this type of investment and it won't hurt them financially, how many time you see these rich black folks blow millions on bs that has no chance to make them no money. It can be done, we just got to go out and do it and not believe the hype. Carl you remember when Spike Lee got other black celebs to get the money finish Malcom X, why can't we do more of this?

    MJ telling our own stories means not being subjected to sterotypes that hollywood always want black folks to tell, basically having a variety of black films on screen. You going to compare let hollywood be who there are to racists jim crow laws in the south, that's crazy. MJ what I'm saying is we keep trying to get favor from people who are not trying to change, we should focus on making our films instead of begging them to tell our stories that they have no interest of doing unless it plays into stereotypes or using that bs that a predominantly black film cast don't have big box office appeal or black films don't sell overseas.

  • Carl | February 21, 2014 3:46 PM

    And where is this 45 million coming from (and thats low for just production)? And where is the marketing budget coming from? And who will do domestic wide distribution? Who will do the international distribution? Where are the budgets for both distribution platforms (not free ya know?)

    Please share with us your plan Daryl to come up with all this money and domestic & global distribution. And remember, it can't be some one or two city limited- distribution bullshit. If you want Hollywood to notice, the performance has to EXCEL expectations. THEN they jump on the band wagon.

    Do you also believe in unicorns?

  • MJ | February 21, 2014 2:53 PM

    "We need to focus on doing for self and telling our own stories"

    "Our own stories." I keep hearing this statement and I have no idea what it means. I am not even sure that the people who make this statement are aware of its inherently limiting properties. I mean, yo if the African-American (and African) diaspora is just that, a diaspora, then the stories too will be varied. "Our own stories" is the human story with the complexity and specific culturistic/sub-culturistic variances that come along with being a human being.

    "Let Hollywood be who they are" -- This is the idea of "separate but equal". I can't dig that.

  • Reggie | February 21, 2014 12:20 PMReply

    Haven't read this comic since I was a kid.

    I do know the character of human torch was killed off in the comic and black super hero Luke Cage, who's coming to NETFLIX in a live action series, joined for a while. And in the first 2 movies, which were awful, the Things love interest was Kerry Washington, whose character is white in the comics.

    The character of human torch is brash, cocky, and a womanizer and got into a lot of childish spats with the Thing and I fear another talented, young black actor will be reduced to comic relief.

  • Aaron | February 21, 2014 7:47 AMReply

    Johnny Storm is now black so he is probably going to be killed in this reboot.

  • Guffaw | February 21, 2014 12:37 PM

    I probably shouldn't have laughed as loud as I just did. *coughs*

  • Shala | February 20, 2014 10:43 PMReply

    I was a FF fan as a kid and was curious to see how they would go with this reboot.

    I'm in the camp that if they are going to have a black Johnny Storm, then why not have a black Sue Storm (Nicole Beharie, please)? I think it's a shame and a missed opportunity. It also annoys me because I feel its an important element for them to be blood relatives. To address the authors questions, I'm sure they will be adopted siblings (Johnny the adopted one) and yes, their racial differences will not got be delved into with depth because that's not what the movie is there for. I'm feeling this was a not move to be progressive, but more to be buzz worthy.

    Anyone else bothered by how terms like "Hollywood racism" gets thrown around? I agree racism is everywhere but having it come to represent not casting a black person in a movie because they don't think it will sell to the audience is not "racism" as much as a business/financial move that happens to be about race. Honestly, the film business is a business.

  • MJ | February 21, 2014 2:58 PM

    Yes, the above. Except that, while it is a business, it is a creative business at its heart. The business aspect is a byproduct of our inherent love and need for creative expression. It is feeding on that deep need we seem to be imbued with by the beauty of this strange, strange universe. Without that, there is no business. But I feel you though. Sue either needed to also be African-American, or of mixed race, or she needed to be adopted into Johnny's family, not the other way around.

    People wonder if life imitates art or if art imitates life. Who knows --- but I do know people tend to pull their perception of the world, or allow their perception to be influenced by, films/art/etc. So being sure the full, wide world is accurately represented is a worthwhile endeavor, as, over time, it will gradually change the perception of the "culture at large".

  • LeonRaymond | February 20, 2014 9:51 PMReply

    The truly sad part of it all is the intense racist comments by oh so many who feel that no way should he play a character envisioned in a comic book as WHITE now played by a black Man and that the film is tainted. We scream racism all the time but lately with the hateful racist comments about the re-imagined film "ABOUT LAST NIGHT" You really see sadly the rock hard concrete Racism towards projects we do or try and move forward. I am tired of it. Angry of it !!!

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