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Fox’s Fantastic Four Reboot: What The FF?

The likely cast of next year’s rebooted Fantastic Four movie from 20th Century Fox and director Josh Trank was revealed to the world last night, causing the comics internet to crack in half this morning. (It cracks in half all the time, of course. I think it may actually come in two parts.)

Miles Teller is our Reed Richards. Kate Mara is our Sue Storm. Michael B. Jordan is our Johnny Storm. Jamie Bell is our Ben Grimm. It’s a weird and controversial cast — but do fans have cause for concern?

The biggest controversy on the face of it is the casting of black actor Michael B. Jordan as Johnny Storm, a character depicted as white in the comics. There are fans who can’t see why this sort of casting is desirable, or how it’s different from the reverse; casting a white actor in a previously black role. So let’s break this down.

Superhero comics are overwhelmingly white because most of the major characters were created in the U.S. before the Civil Rights movement reached its peak. The decision to marginalize black people in our media to the point of invisibility is not a value that we should seek to perpetuate.

If filmmakers and comic book creators do nothing about this, their inaction does perpetuate those 1950s values. If filmmakers and comic book creators look for ways to introduce more black characters — sometimes at the expense of the surfeit of white characters — they will offer some degree of correction to those 1950s values. If filmmakers and comic book creators do the reverse, and eliminate black characters in favor of white characters, they don’t just perpetuate 1950s values; they embrace them anew.

Let’s be clear; by “1950s values,” I mean 1950s racism.

 

 

So adding black roles corrects an established bias. It’s a positive response to racism. Removing black roles exacerbates that bias — it is itself a racist act. Doing nothing supports the established bias. It facilitates a status quo grounded in racism.

Comic book movies seem to do best when they respect the source material and build upon it. They seem to do poorly when they try to distance themselves from the source material. But there are some aspects of comics’ history that we should perhaps choose to be less respectful of. Like the inherent racism.

Right?

So let’s hear no more, “Johnny Storm isn’t black,” or “let’s make black characters white,” because those are ugly sentiments that play in to racist attitudes that we need to move past.

There are other complications that arise from Jordan’s casting, however. First, it’s a little cliché to cast a black man as the team’s swaggering hothead and not as, say, the team’s brilliant scientist leader.

 

 

Second, it rrrrradically alters the relationship between Johnny Storm and his sister Sue, played by white actor Kate Mara. It is of course impossible for a black person and a white person to be siblings.

Wait, no, I’m just getting some new science in from the wire, and apparently it’s not impossible and doesn’t radically alter anything. One or both of the siblings could be adopted. They could be half-siblings. They could be step-siblings. They could be shapeshifters or space aliens or extra-dimensional constructs, because. hey, it’s a superhero movie.

But let’s assume for now that they’re just ordinary family members. Unless you believe that adoptive or blended families are somehow lesser than “traditional” families, none of this should be a stretch.

A question remains, though. Why didn’t the filmmakers cast a black actor as Sue Storm? Did they even consider it? Actors like Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Lupita Nyong’o or Jasika Nicole would have been amazing in the role. Was Fox afraid of having too many black characters? Or of having an interracial relationship between Reed and Sue? It’s perplexing that the filmmakers decided that creating an adoptive or blended Storm family was more obvious than casting two black actors.

 

 

Third (and skip this paragraph if you’re avoiding spoilers for the 2012 film Chronicle), Fantastic Four director Josh Trank already cast Michael B. Jordan in a previous super-powers movie — and killed him off. That doesn’t mean he’ll do it again, of course, but the way that Jordan’s character died in Chronicle was egregiously tone deaf. In a movie about three friends with superpowers, one became a hero, one became a villain, and the third — the black guy, played by Jordan — died in way that cemented the two white guys on their divergent paths. It was an un-ironic exploitation of an exhausted trope, and it makes me wary. Fox did something similar in X-Men: First Class, providing inglorious fates for the movie’s only two non-white heroes. I don’t think Fox and Trank cast a black guy as Johnny Storm so they could kill him off, but I am sceptical about their sensitivities.

All that said, Michael B. Jordan as Johnny Storm is actually the one casting decision in this movie that I’m unequivocally happy about. I think he’s a fine actor with the necessary charisma to make the character work.

I’m neutral about Kate Mara as Sue Storm, except that I wish they’d cast a black actor in the role. Jamie Bell as the Thing is perplexing. He’s a skinny, unimposing English guy with a background in dance. None of that screams “Ben Grimm.” Now, sure, the Thing will most likely be created using motion capture or an ugly foam suit, but if we’re saying that what he looks like is completely unimportant, what does Bell actually bring to the role? Does he embody hangdog word-weariness? Can he offer an immaculate Lower East Side accent?

 

 

Perhaps it’s Bell’s background as a physical performer that makes him the right man for the job. I don’t think of dance as an obvious training ground for the heavy physicality of Ben Grimm, but I’m prepared to be proved wrong.

Miles Teller as team boffin Reed Richards is an unknown quantity to me, as I’ve never seen him in any of his previous roles. (Technically I saw the 2011 remake of Footloose, in which Teller appeared, but I have no memory of those two hours of my life.) He’s certainly well regarded as an actor. At 26 he’s also the youngest member of the cast, yet he’s playing the character traditionally regarded as the senior member of the team.

When Ioan Gruffudd was cast in the same role for the 2005 Fantastic Four movie, he was in his early 30s, and I thought that was too young for the character. The actors playing Sue and Johnny are actually older in this version than Jessica Alba and Chris Evans were when they were cast in the same roles, yet because Teller and Bell are so young, the cast of this movie feels much younger.

There is a reason for this. According to Variety, the reboot is explicitly based on the Ultimate Universe version of the Fantastic Four, and those characters were in fact in their early 20s — younger, even, than these actors.

 

 

Given how much the previous Fantastic Four movie deviated from the source material, fans of the old school FF may be disappointed to learn that we’re still not on course to see the classic versions of the characters brought to the screen. That doesn’t mean that this version won’t work, but one’s confidence in the project may depend on how much faith one puts in Fox as a studio. As caretaker of the X-Men movie franchise, Fox has had uneven results, and even its successes look dated measured against Marvel Studios’ handling of its characters.

Comic fans have a reputation for vocal skepticism. The cast of Fox’s new Fantastic Four does not look like the main version of the characters that most fans hold in their heads, so Fox must have expected a largely negative reflexive response to their offbeat casting decisions. The studio has created a challenge for itself; the onus is now on Fox and Trank to convince the audience that they’ve made the right call. I think they face an uphill struggle.

If I might suggest a minor tweak; Miles Teller looks like he’d make a pretty good Ben Grimm, especially if he’s as good an actor as critics say; Jamie Bell could work very nicely as hotheaded Johnny Storm, and he looks like a plausible sibling to Kate Mara’s Sue; and Michael B. Jordan as Reed Richards, the smartest man in the universe, would really challenge some people’s prejudices.

Fox has a potentially great Fantastic Four cast here. They just may not be in quite the right roles.

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