I have yet to see this Friday’s Fantastic Four reboot. Nor have I been particularly thrilled by any of the trailers that have graced our theaters, our social media, or our waking dreams with the kind of fanfare usually reserved for Galactus’ arrival.
But I genuinely hope it’s good.
The cast is impressive, and the superhero genre is in desperate need for more storytelling diversity than it has been treated to over the last three months. While Josh Trank’s attempt to turn Marvel’s First Family into a serious science fiction thriller is unexpectedly bold, it’s also not unwelcomed ambition either.
However, even if Fantastic Four does not live up to its lofty, David Cronenberg scaled aspirations—which I really want it to—at the end of the day, it has already been a very good thing for the superhero genre and pop culture at large. Indeed, that aforementioned casting has truly been fantastic, especially in regards to Michael B. Jordan.
As one of the best young performers to come out of the indie circuit in recent years, Jordan already has proven his bonafides as one to watch due to his star-making turn in 2013’s Fruitvale Station. The Academy might have quizzically overlooked that performance, but few others did. The earnest mix of confidence and unapologetically troubled choices in Jordan’s interpretation of Oscar Grant III still leaves the raw sense of injustice etched in the memory. When contrasted with Jordan’s sole “genre” performance to date (where he stole scenes with cocksure charisma in Trank’s Chronicle), it becomes clear he just needs the right kind of vehicle.
Fortunately, there is no shortage of leading parts these days for young, enigmatic performers to use to reach broader audiences, many of which are limited only by the imagination (and digital effects budget) required to realize their caped flights of fancy. Well, that plus the willingness to wear tights.
…So, why is it that so few in the pre-release hype can talk about nothing other than the fact that he’s black? And I’m not just referring to internet comment sections.
During promotion for Fantastic Four last week—18 months since it was confirmed that, yes, Michael B. Jordan would play Johnny Storm while Kate Mara would play his adopted sister Sue Storm—both actors were riddled with a series of rather uncomfortable questions by Atlanta’s “Rock 100.5 Morning Show.” With the synopsis long settled about the characters remaining siblings since February of last year, the radio show’s interviewer Steven ‘Southside Steve’ Rickman repeatedly pressed the point of his complete bafflement at a black man and a white woman being considered siblings, stating, “But you’re white and you’re black. How does that happen?”
The radio show has since taken down the video, which also featured Rickman criticizing Kate Mara for being too attractive to have cut her hair short. But fellow “Rock 100.5 Morning Show” co-host, Jason Bailey, took to Buzfeed on Friday to defend their questions by saying, “The other Fantastic Four [movies] explain the relationship, so I figured with this new hipster version they’d have some different backstory.”
One could almost infer from that statement that persons of mixed backgrounds cannot have familial relationships lest it be viewed as “hipster.” Is it really possible for anyone to consider blended families as something as pretentiously chic and disposable as bright beanies and oversized glasses?
Still, the fact that we even need to have this conversation alone makes this particular Fantastic Four movie with this particular cast a grace note for American pop culture. Because it isn’t only the incredulity of Atlanta radio hosts at play.
When Jordan was on Jimmy Kimmel Live earlier this year, the well-meaning funnyman also asked with equally cheeky confusion, “I don’t know if you know this, but Kate Mara is a white person. How did they figure that out?” Jordan attempted to walk away from this by saying, “I’m pretty sure there’s white people out here with different ethnicities, brothers and sisters.” But Kimmel insisted there has to be something more to such a high-concept: “Is this a point that you can’t reveal, one of the big secrets?” But as Jordan had to further elaborate, “It’s kind of self-explanatory. It’s one of the things I don’t like drawing attention to the ignorance of sometimes.”
And while Jordan handled that line of questioning then (and many times since) with exceeding graciousness and delicate patience for the apparent “mysteries” of adoption, the fact that he must constantly repeat himself is exactly why we should talk about it. In 21st century American society, there is absolutely no reason that one should bat an eye about a multi-cultured family, fictional or otherwise, much less non-traditional casting. If you have to ask why this was “changed” (even though it seems Jordan is embodying the comic character to the letter), then you’ve already provided the real answer as to how it’s a good thing.
“Colorblind casting” is not a particularly new concept—one can tell because the term is so racially antiquated. But whether it is viewed as “colorblind casting” or “non-traditional casting,” it has been an element of the less mainstream-appealing theater world for the better part of a century. And much like the casting of a strong actor like Michael B. Jordan as Johnny Storm (a character whose most important attributes are one-liners and his ability to magically light on fire), there was a time not long ago when this too was met with a raised eyebrow.
One of the first times a black actor was cast in a traditionally “white” role in popular theater was, ironically enough, when Paul Robeson took the West End stage as the titular character of William Shakespeare’s Othello in 1930. Despite the character being written as a Moor in the Bard’s original play, the idea of a non-white actor doing Shakespeare for high society was considered revolutionary—as was Robeson. Even though he starred in the longest running production of a Shakespeare play ever mounted on Broadway (it was again Othello during the World War II years), his left-leaning political activism led to him being branded a Communist sympathizer in the eyes of the U.S. government, which resulted in his blacklisting at home and abroad when he was denied a passport to travel overseas during the 1950s.
But the real genesis of “colorblind casting” arguably originated with American Theater director and producer Joseph Papp. The Tony Award winner, who also created the Public Theater and Shakespeare in the Park, famously wrote in 1948, “In the best tradition of theater and democracy, there [should be] no discrimination against fellow human beings.” For Papp, skin color was a “completely irrelevant issue.”
Yet, the actual pursuit of this ideal was not so simple, as even by the height of the Civil Rights Movement in the ‘60s and ‘70s, whether on Broadway or at the Old Vic, thespians of African heritage were still largely playing either Othello or relatively minor parts—or rather, not the major parts obviously written with white actors in mind.
But by the ‘80s, the change of thinking had become so ubiquitous that “colorblind casting” seeped increasingly away from both forward-thinking modern work and Shakespeare, and more into mainstream musicals and other theatrical avenues. Thus when Kenneth Branagh became the self-appointed filmmaker of Shakespearian adaptations in the late 20th century, he was starting to hit film audiences with this wildly novel concept of simply casting the best choice for a role. After all, he famously cast Denzel Washington as Don Pedro, an Italian nobleman in Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing. That same 1993 film also featured Keanu Reeves as Washington’s half-brother Don John—siblings who galavant around Renaissance Tuscany, and it matters not at all to any other character that they are brothers, because this is unquestionably Don Pedro and that no-good bastard John (with Washington being far more perfect than Reeves in his part, no less).
Branagh continued this in most of his other Shakespearian films, such as when he cast David Oyelowo and Adrian Lester opposite Bryce Dallas Howard in As You Like It (2006), and into his comic book films too. Yes, when he directed his own superhero movie in 2011, Thor, he also cast Idris Elba in the criminally underused part of Heimdall.
Met with some bristle by fanboys even then, as well as those in the press who (again) raised an eyebrow at Norse gods being cast with actors not featuring lilywhite skin, Elba was unsurprisingly great as the unwavering watcher on the walls of Asgard. In fact, it’s a shame the part is so small, because much like theatrical productions of 40 years ago, it is still a challenge for apparently some audience members to comprehend an actor of any minority playing a lead character that is not explicitly written to be of that specified heritage.
Just as once upon a time Paul Robeson was permitted (with much hand-wringing) to play Othello, but never Hamlet or Macbeth, so too now are the comic book movies opening up new avenues for casts as diverse as the 21st century American marketplace that they covet. Yet until this point, they have primarily been cast with as much trepidation as the theater community that Joe Papp had to previously dismiss.
The most popular comic book characters were all created during eras in American culture either severely divided by deep segregation and prejudices (the Golden Age of the ’30s and ’40s) or times rife with tension about these very issues (the Silver Age of the ’50s and ’60s). As a result, the time periods’ superheroes are predominantly Anglo-Saxon in appearance and name (even if their creators hailed from far different backgrounds, such as the sons of Jewish immigrants, like Jacob “Jack Kirby” Kurtzberg or Superman creators Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster). The comics themselves of course had their own racial barriers broken, such as when Stan Lee and Jack Kirby created the Black Panther in 1966, Lee and Gene Colan then created the Sam “The Falcon” Wilson in 1969, and Len Wein and Dave Cockrum introduced the first black member (and a woman no less!) of the X-Men with Storm.
All of whom have or will be played by strong casting choices now and in the future. Nonetheless, the worlds imagined in these comic book universes do not represent our culture in 2015. They didn’t even represent the American culture of 1965—they were merely all that white comic book publishers deemed possible given the political realities of their times. But those are no longer our times, and increasingly, there are few to no superheroes who can be defined by the color of their skin.
As a result, filmmakers and studios should push to diversify casts, even if it is met with resentment for simply the supporting characters: like Elba as Heimdall; or Vondie Curtis-Hall as Ben Urich; or Billy Dee Williams as Harvey Dent; or Laurence Fishburne as Perry White; or Bingbing Fan as Blink; or Samuel L. Jackson as Nick Fury. It’s finally time for the star superhero with his or her codename above the poster to also be an aspirational symbol for a broader audience.
In reality, there is no reason why Johnny Storm has to be yellow-haired and blue-eyed in the 21st century. Nothing about his character is conscripted by race other than he was depicted as white in another medium. But Johnny Storm is not white. He’s a fictional character. He is as welcome to interpretation and reinvention as Don Pedro, or Hamlet, or Miss Moneypenny, or James Bond for that matter.
Comic book fans often call their beloved brands modern day mythology. But even those Greco-Roman roots, which are so frequently alluded to with scholarly pretension, changed and adapted for the cultural realities of every passing generation. It is how Greek Zeus became the Roman Jupiter. If it’s good enough for the classical world of antiquity, it should be good enough for that of Lee and Kirby, the former of whom has signed off on the “hipster” idea of Johnny and Sue Storm being adopted siblings. If one is to deny this practicality of the 21st century, then one is essentially saying a white actor can personify any imaginable human aspiration under the sun (including flaming-on into a breathing Torch), whereas a performer with a minority background can only be perceived by his skin color first and foremost.
If Fantastic Four is the first mass-marketed product to so straightforwardly deal with this fact of life in one of pop culture’s darlings, then it’s about damn time. To paraphrase Joe Papp, the rest of the hand-wringing is irrelevant; it’s just noise that will fade as the years pass. Soon, it will no longer be “some different backstory.” It will just be good casting.