Michael B. Jordan, 'Fantastic Four', and the Racial Ignorance that Just Won't Die

The long road to acceptance for a black superhero who was originally white.

By Celeste Durve

The new Fantastic Four movie is clobberin’ its way through theaters this weekend, and although you may expect fans across the board to be thrilled for a new portrayal of their favorite comic superhero team, a segment of them were disappointed in the film from the pre-production stage.

The announcement in February 2014 that black actor Michael B. Jordan was cast as Johnny Storm, the Human Torch, led to a whirlwind of negative backlash online. With hints of racism, some Fantastic Four fans said the casting ruined the movie because in the original comic, which first appeared in 1961, Storm is white. Numerous blogs and tweets called it “unrealistic” that he and his sister, Sue Storm, played by white actress Kate Mara, could be siblings. (To be fair, there were those who not only accepted but also welcomed the increase of diversity in comic book movies. There were also thirsty Michael “Bae” Jordan fans excited to see him flexing on the big screen in anything.)

This past May, Jordan responded to the Internet criticism in an essay published on Entertainment Weekly. He acknowledged that to some his casting is strictly a matter of “political correctness or an attempt to meet a racial quota,” but argued that it was actually a natural progression and “a reflection of what a modern family looks like today.” He also mentioned that Stan Lee, co-creator of the Marvel comic, had given the casting his blessing. How ccould anyone argue with that? He's GD Stan Lee!

Lee later told Entertainment Weekly that he felt the outrage wasn’t a matter of racism but of comic book fans’ slavish devotion to source material and their resistance to tampering with it. He also expressed belief that people would eventually embrace the change. “I think they’re gonna get to love this character. So I’m not the least bit worried about it,” Lee said. “I always tried to pepper these groups with as much racial diversity as possible because that’s the way the world is.”

In a July interview with the Los Angeles Times, director Josh Trank, who had worked with Jordan on 2012’s found footage superpowers film Chronicle, said that he anticipated things turning ugly over his changing the race of one of the characters but that challenging and proving people wrong motivated him. "You can't just keep telling a story the same way over and over again," he said. "And I think it only helps the world to be more honest with young kids, to show them the world that they go walk outside and see."

Unfortunately, the question of why Jordan was cast and how his character and Mara’s could possibly be related has persisted. Despite Jordan, Lee, and Trank’s well-reasoned responses, which should have put the issue to rest, interviewers have continued to press it.

On Jimmy Kimmel Live in April, the host asked if Jordan was aware that Mara is white, and how it was possible that a black man and a white woman would be related. “It doesn’t mean biological,” said Jordan, adding, “It’s the world that we live in.” Acknowledging that there are all kinds of multi-cultural and multi-racial family situations should have been enough, but Kimmel acted as if it were some magical secret that is only plausible in comic book movies—kinda like Ben Grimm (Jamie Bell) becoming the rock monster the Thing as a result of teleportation to another dimension, which nobody seems to have a problem accepting. Jordan then said it was “self-explanatory” and that he doesn’t like “drawing attention to the ignorance.” When Kimmel justified his line of questioning by saying that they were questions that people are going to ask, Jordan shrugged and concluded, “It’s a thing called adoption. It happens.”

At an August 2nd press junket, Atlanta radio host Steven J. Rickmann asked the “obvious question”: “You’re white and you’re black,” he said. “How does that happen?” Not only was the question obvious, but it was was also lazy—maybe try to ask the question that’s not obvious and won’t be asked ad nauseum?—and more than a little ignorant and offensive. For the umpteenth time, Jordan trotted out his now well-worn response: “They could be raised as brother and sister. There’s a whole bunch of family dynamics that could be, without the obvious: adoption.”

Despite Jordan and Mara’s attempts to not draw attention to the ignorance, or politely answer these redundant questions, everyone else seems determined to shine a spotlight on it, perhaps because they’re courting controversy, don’t research the many interviews that have been done before theirs, or they live under a rock and genuinely can’t wrap their heads around it. But why was the color of his skin ever important? What does it have to do with the quality of the movie or the ability of the Fantastic Four to save Earth from Dr. Doom (Toby Kebbell)?

Fans had a vision of how the character looked from comics and previous films and now he looks different. So what. Jordan’s casting as the Human Torch didn’t set fire to the source material. If you need to see a blond-haired, blue-eyed Johnny Storm, he’ll always be there in the 1961 comic debut. And aren’t we also adjusting to Miles Teller taking over the Richard Reed role that Ioan Gruffudd played in the 2005 and 2007 films, Mara taking the Sue Storm role previously played by Jessica Alba, and Bell taking over for Michael Chiklis as the Thing? Why, if people are willing to accept that characters can teleport to another world, where they develop superpowers like elasticity and invisibility, is the simple change in skin color of one of the characters such a difficult leap of imagination?

In 1961, there was little to no likelihood of a black man being the main character in a comic book (Lee was key in changing that), so of course he was a white male in the original source material, but now it's 2015 and we fought long and hard for a equality (something we clearly still need to strive for), so why isn’t media embracing this casting choice and its attempt at depicting our changing world? It is completely oblivious and insensitive to Jordan’s personal journey as an actor and as a human to question his role and the worthiness of it.

The world is changing whether we like it or not, and whether they're reflecting the world, playing to more diverse audiences, or both, movies will change as well. Media and viewers need to adjust their insensitivity or they are going to have a hard time watching or talking about movies moving forward. And, really, once you open your mind, you realize that unity in diversity is truly fantastic.