Why We Should Keep Talking About Michael B. Jordan

Posted by Youmy Han & filed under Pop Culture.

Michael B. Jordan stars as Johnny Storm aka The Human Torch in this summer's reboot of 
"Fantastic Four".
Michael B. Jordan stars as Johnny Storm aka The Human Torch in this summer's reboot of "Fantastic Four".

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The newest reboot of the Fantastic Four franchise is receiving negative to downright terrible reviews. Since its premiere, critics have been trying to unpack just how awful this movie is despite its extremely talented cast.

And then there’s the ongoing obsession over Michael B. Jordan’s casting as Johnny Storm, aka the Human Torch. For some, it’s a celebration — Hollywood finally has more visible minorities in leading roles, not to mention in a huge blockbuster! For others, it’s quite the contrary.

To put the situation simply, Johnny Storm was initially created as a Caucasian male with blond hair and blue eyes, as seen in the comics and the 2005 and 2007 film adaptations starring Chris Evans, aka Captain America. On the other hand, Michael B. Jordan, one of the most acclaimed young actors in the industry right now, is black. And some people, ranging from Internet trolls to Jimmy Kimmel, can’t seem to wrap their heads around this.

Many comic book fans justify their outrage as devotion towards the original source material. As co-creator of the Fantastic Four comics (and the Marvel universe itself), Stan Lee says he understands the fans’ “protectiveness”, but even his public endorsement of Jordan as the next Human Torch wasn’t enough to calm the qualms.

Yet, Jordan’s Johnny Storm isn’t even the first comic book character to be race-bent as black. In the universally celebrated Avengers movies, Samuel L. Jackson portrays Nick Fury, who was white in the comics. (Consequent to Jackson’s portrayal, the more recent Ultimate Avengers series has Fury as black.) Last summer’s The Amazing Spiderman 2 also cast Oscar-winner Jamie Foxx as its originally Caucasian villain Electro. In Disney’s big animation hit Big Hero 6, the character Wasabi was of Asian descent in the comics; in the movie, he is black. The list goes on.

But most of these castings share several commonalities. First of all, many of them are minor roles. Samuel L. Jackson’s Nick Fury, for example, seems to serve the sole purpose of giving inspirational speeches and rallying our heroes together in moments of crises. Other roles such as Jamie Foxx’s Electro serve as the villains. And then there are the Wasabis, who are characters in much lesser-known works in the first place. This allows more creative altering in the cinematic stage while avoiding a lot less public scrutiny and attention.

Johnny Storm, by definition, is the opposite of all this. He is the celebrated golden-boy: the fiery-spirited, righteous superhero in one of Marvel’s most beloved and well-known series.

No matter how people mask their disapproval – whether it be “Johnny Storm is white in the comics”, or “How can you be black when your sister’s white?” – the root of the public outrage against Jordan’s casting is racial. It is society, despite it being in the 21st century, still not being used to seeing black people in positions of dominance and righteousness. Jordan challenges the status quo, and as history has shown, change is not always welcome.

In this Fantastic Four film, Johnny Storm’s father, Franklin Storm, is also race-bent and portrayed by a black actor. In fact, Kate Mara’s Susan Storm is the white child adopted into the black family. This defies the movie trope of a non-white child adopted by a white family, leaving much room for discussion on the changing power dynamics in society as well as the evolving definition of family and what that looks like today. Yet all this is overshadowed by a needless conversation on why (how) a white superhero is (can’t be) portrayed by a black actor.

In Jordan’s awesome essay for EW titled “Why I’m Torching the Colour Line,” he writes: “maybe in the future we won’t talk about [race] as much. Maybe, if I set an example, Hollywood will start considering more people of color in other prominent roles, and maybe we can reach the people who are stuck in the mindset that ‘it has to be true to the comic book.’ Or maybe we have to reach past them.”

We live in a world that is vastly different from the one in which the original Fantastic Four comics were created. While those comics rightly celebrate the universal themes of justice, friendship, and sacrifice, our adaptations of them should reflect the positive diversity and progress we have learned over the years as well. This also applies to the filming industry. Only earlier this year, people were complaining about how Oscar nominees were overwhelmingly white, despite it being the year of Selma.

That’s why we should keep talking about Michael B. Jordan, both now and long after the disaster that is Fantastic 4 (2015) has been forgotten. Not only is he a young actor to watch out for, Jordan has shown that actors and actresses of this generation will not and should not be stopped from landing prominent leading roles because of the colour of their skin. This is a conversation never too important to have.

After all, for a film that has a gigantic rock creature called “The Thing” to teach people not to judge others by their appearances, the continuous questioning of Jordan’s casting as the Human Torch sure is ironic.

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