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A Charlie Bielinski Pop-Ed: Is the 'Fantastic Four' Casting All About Controversy?

Within the comic-book-based film genre it has not been unusual to see films get reimagined within a few years after their initial release. Batman Begins was released just eight years after the only film, Batman and Robin, that I have ever walked out on in a movie theater. The two big-screen attempts at a solo Hulk film were only five years apart, and even though it could be argued that the second was a sequel, I believe it was different enough to qualify as an unrelated film. The two new Superman films are only separated by seven years, which is about the age of the ridiculous love child of Superman and Lois in Superman Returns. In addition to those films there is, of course, Spider-Man who went on a seven-year hiatus after a silly walk in New York City set to James Brown and returned triumphantly played by Andrew Garfield.

Now, in 2015, we will see a third incarnation of the Fantastic Four, which is predictably bringing lots of buzz — mostly negative — with every rumor and confirmation. Fanboys have already declared the remake to be horrible before any real work on the film has ever been started. Let me add here that when some say “worst Fantastic Four ever” that is truly making a statement. If you don’t know what I am referring to, look up Fantastic Four on YouTube. While this early judgement may not be fair, it is the reality of a world where the Internet, Facebook and Twitter allow fans to follow all aspects of a film production from casting to the red carpet premiere and then voice their uniformed opinions.

The first attempt at the Fantastic Four was made in 1994 and is the perfect example of a studio making a film just so that it wouldn’t lose the movie rights. This movie, where The Thing actually appears in some scenes to be smaller than the Human Torch, was only available at conventions on bootlegged videotapes before YouTube allowed anyone who wanted to see it the option. The second attempt at creating a franchise lasted two films and was mediocre, but not a complete failure, with both films hitting about 50 percent with the audience on Rotten Tomatoes.

The obvious aspect that would appear to generate the most hate this time around would be the casting of Michael B. Jordan as Johnny Storm, the Human Torch. If you are uninformed about this, you may be asking why this would be controversial. Well, you see Michael B. Jordan is black. He also happens to be a fantastic actor who I have followed for quite a long time having originally watched him on All My Children (now that I have made that statement, let’s ignore it, please). I am 100 percent in favor of this casting and think Jordan will be a great Johnny Storm. He was excellent on Friday Night Lights and was also pretty solid in Chronicle. I hear that his performance in Fruitvale Station was also very good, but I haven’t seen that film yet. Unfortunately if instead they had cast Kevin Hart, who is funny but I think would make a terrible Johnny Storm, I would be finding myself defending against being called a racist because I said I didn’t want Hart in the movie. It may not be right or fair but it is the current nature of most discussions that include race. I can comfortably say I don’t think 12 Years a Slave deserves to win Best Picture (a subject that I wrote about previously) but I also have to prepare for some backlash upon making the statement. The few negative reviews I read about 12 Years a Slave all feature comment sections in which those reviewers are accused of being racists based solely on their opinion of the film . Regarding this current Fantastic Four and the casting, I think it is OK for someone to say Johnny Storm isn’t black and Jordan is all wrong for the role. I also think it’s stupid to make such a comment — just plain stupid but not racist.

Perhaps I am being naive but I don’t believe that the majority of this negativity that is being directed towards Jordan is racist at all. Johnny Storm and his sister, Sue, have always been depicted as white, whether it be on film or on the page (yes, I know Jessica Alba is half Mexican). There is an established canon regarding the characters and any deviation from that canon is going to bring criticism. All adaptations of source material are subject to this type of scrutiny regardless of literary genre or merit. Having Nick Carraway narrate The Great Gatsby while being treated for alcoholism in a sanatorium is a great departure from the F. Scott Fitzgerald text and it ruined the film for me. However, Tom Cruise as the title character in Jack Reacher worked for me, and I enjoyed the adaptation of the source material despite the fact that the fictional Reacher is nearly a foot taller and one hundred pounds heavier than Cruise.

Whether or not black actors can play previously white fictional characters or even if white actors can play previously black fictional characters is, to me at least, similar to Cruise as Reacher. Idris Elba would rock as James Bond. Sure, Bond has never been Black but Elba has the acting chops and the charisma to pull it off. However, if this ever happens, everyone has to be prepared for the "Bond isn’t black" comments and criticisms.

At this point it is unclear how the filmmakers will deal with the fact that the siblings are racially different. It’s certainly possible to be biracial and have completely different skin tones and plenty of cases exist where this has occurred. It’s also possible that that one or both of the two will be adopted in the film. Will this change have any impact on their relationship? Many people will say yes, but as an adoptee I can tell you emphatically that my sister is — quite simply — my sister. I personally don’t see the need to explain their relationship, many others do and that probably means that there will be some sort of explanation in the movie whether it is one line or a full scene lasting multiple minutes.

The biggest question for me at this point is the motivation of those making the film behind the decision to cast Johnny and Sue in this manner. Sure, Kate Mara has proven that she is a capable actress but is she any better for the role than Jurnee Smollett, who has actually acted with Jordan previously in Friday Night Lights. I am not a casting agent, but I have to believe that there is a black actress between the ages of 25 and 31 who could be a great Sue Storm. In choosing a black actor and a white actress it draws additional attention to the film and emphasizes race, and it causes me to question whether it was intentional.

Look up Michael B. Jordan and Johnny Storm and you get titles like 'Incoherent Backlash," "Foolish Outrage" and "Racist Criticism." If you believe that “there is no such thing as bad publicity” then the creative team behind Fantastic Four has done their job. One of these fine examples of journalism even states that the racists who question the Jordan casting are the same fanboys who read comics with a black Spider-Man, Green Lantern and Iron Man and their knee jerk reactions are evidence of their inherent racism. This is a horrible example because while all three costumes have been donned by black characters, those characters were not Peter Parker, Hal Jordan or Tony Stark. Actually, I don’t even understand the point the author was trying to make with this as he then goes into asking questions about why Scarlett Johansson, who is Jewish, was never criticized for playing Black Widow, a character who has never been identified as a Jew, but the same fans are all over a black Johnny Storm. Of course, his logical conclusion ... racism. Confused? I’m not. The creative team wanted this controversy and the media is playing right along.
A Charlie Bielinski Pop-Ed: Is the 'Fantastic Four' Casting All About Controversy? Reviewed by Charlie Bielinski on 2/25/2014 Rating: 5

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