As many of you probably already know the cast for the upcoming Fantastic Four reboot was officially announced yesterday. Now as you might expect I have more than a few thoughts on the actors chosen [first in my mind was how the slender, British Jamie Bell was supposed to portray Ben Grimm, tough-as-nails physically imposing fighter pilot raised on the Lower East Side], but what I’m going to be focusing on is the conversation that’s been reignited upon seeing Michael B. Jordan confirmed as Johnny Storm aka The Human Torch.
See, the actor had signed on to portray the character as far back in October of last year. The internet reacted then as it does now, with many diehard fans inflamed at the idea that a superhero created in 1961 would appear in a movie as a person of a different skin colour. To be honest I was extremely ambivalent about the whole matter, torn between wanting to see more minorities in big roles as well as wanting comic book movies to stay true to their source material.
Now, however, I’m fine with Jordan. I acknowledge that he’s a good fit for Johnny Storm [his enthusiasm and fun-loving nature in Chronicle is evidence of this] and has acting chops to boot [I have not read or heard a single negative thing about Fruitvale Station]. No, what I want to discuss is why he’s the only one who’s Black.
But first, a little context.
Most everyone knows about the Fantastic Four, but if you somehow aren’t well-versed on Marvel’s very first superhero team let me fill you in: the Fantastic Four is all about family. Reed Richards is married to Sue Storm, who is Johnny’s older sister. Ben Grimm is Richards’ best friend, and acts as a sort of gruff uncle to the fiery younger man. It’s all about relationships and caring about one another, with their special abilities acting more as tangible [or intangible, in Sue's case] manifestations of their personalities.
Now the primary justification that people are making in regards to Jordan not being the right actor for the job is that he and Kate Mara, who will be playing Sue Storm, could not possible be siblings. I mean, just look at them-
This “conundrum” can very easily be solved by a single word: adoption. I don’t think anyone out there is going to be so brazen as to say that families with adopted children are somehow lesser than others. A bond between siblings remains that regardless of their actual parentage- some of my best friends in high school were adopted and they were, if anything, closer to their parents’ biological children than most people I knew.
My question is why this workaround is necessary.
Look, when it comes to most media being easily understood is important. Ideally you want someone to be able to look at a movie poster and think to themselves, “Ah, this is a comedy, or an action movie, or a rom-com.” In a world where people have increasingly short attention spans getting your point across using shortcuts isn’t lazy, it’s necessary. What you don’t want is someone seeing a poster or trailer for the new Fantastic Four movie and thinking “How are they related, exactly? I mean, are they? Ben Grimm looks like a little skinny dude, so maybe they’re just changing everything now.”
Seeing as Jordan was the very first cast member nailed down [his prior acting relationship with director Josh Trank probably being a huge factor], it would’ve been no problem to simply find a Black female actor to play the role of the Invisible Woman. So why not? Comic book extraordinaire Dwayne McDuffie answered this a number of years ago [big thanks to redditor
BearsBeetsBattlestar for pointing this out, relevant part begins at about 0:39]:
McDuffie describes, in his experience writing Justice League, something he called “The Rule of Three”, which is basically:
“In popular entertainment, if there are three Black people in it, it is a Black product. [. . .] You can have two black guys, although it’s a stretch. If you have three, it’s a Black show.”
Going by that rule both Brooklyn Nine-Nine and New Girl come dangerously close to being Black shows, which is actually something that I gave them huge props for in a Fame Day post. In the case of the FF reboot, however, 50% of their main cast would be Black if both Storms were. Is that really too much?
Ignoring the fact that interracial relationships probably don’t sell well [this would use the White male/non-White female trope, though], McDuffie’s rule more or less holds up when looking at most films. Having a single Black protagonist, such as Django Unchained, means that the movie is for everyone. When looking at modern cinema anything more than that feels like a Tyler Perry movie, a genre [if I can call it that] that is for all points and purposes for Black people only.
This seems like the primary deterrent to not simply making Sue Storm Black [again, Jordan's casting was the very first]. A close second would be that historically Black female actors simply don’t put bodies in seats; the studios look at what works and what doesn’t, and Black women just aren’t as marketable in Hollywood [though I do hope Belle, which comes out this year, does well]. A Black male actor is fine, seeing as they make a lot of money, but basically let’s not push our luck here.
Please don’t get me wrong, I’m actually pretty thrilled that Jordan was the pick for this role, because [in no particular order] a) he’s the right actor for the role and b) we need more people of colour in our summer blockbusters. To be even more clear I want to outright say that his casting was a gutsy move made by everyone involved. But, and there is a but, just because this is a step in the right direction doesn’t mean that Trank and others should have stopped there. In many ways it feels like a half measure, fear of overstepping their bounds stopping them in their tracks.