Flame Off: The Case Against Black Johnny Storm
by J. Lamb (Snoopy Jenkins)
This is a success story. Twentieth Century Fox respected Michael B. Jordan’s body of work enough to cast him as Johnny Storm in the upcoming Fantastic Four reboot. Jordan’s a talented young actor, and his casting here should encourage cautious optimism toward yet another superhero franchise rehash. But like all superhero movie casting news, this latest official tidbit on Johnny Storm reenergized the usual conversation on cross-racial casting in superhero movies that has now metastasized into the expected pre-production publicity that whets core comic fan appetites for the next IMAX comic property treatment, through controversy.
Comic fans kvetch and moan about every actor movie studios tap to portray their misspent youth’s caped crusaders and sociopathic nemeses, from Heath Ledger as the Joker to Ben Affleck as Batman, from Anne Hathaway as Selina Kyle to Gal Gadot as Wonder Woman, from Jessica Alba as Sue Storm to Idris Elba as Heimdall. Actors are considered too genial, too talentless, too young, too skinny, too Latina, and too African by core superhero comic fans to portray iconic comic properties defined by their decades-long presence in the American imagination, and by their irrepressible Whiteness. Add Twitter’s omnipresent overshare, and watch cross-racial casting opponents roar politically incorrect snark while progressive apologists cry Racism! at every abbreviated epithet.
The question is not, “should Michael B. Jordan (amazing African American actor) play Johnny Storm (historically White comic book character and science experiment victim) in the Fantastic Four reboot?” There’s only one logical answer to that question (Who cares? He’s an actor, it’s a role, glad to see he’s still working!) and it does nothing for the issues people glean from this faux entertainment controversy. The question is “how does casting a Black actor as a historically White comic book character advance racial diversity in comic character portrayals, both in print and on IMAX screens?” As always in a country defined by racial identification and resource scarcity, who benefits?
Without question, the knee-jerk progressive response to bigoted Twitter posts that decry Michael B. Jordan’s cross-racial casting as Johnny Storm involves cold-eyed dismissals of angry comic fans as sneering racists. Noah Berlatsky, writing in The Atlantic, deconstructs the desire from some comic fans for superhero movie casting that allows them to continue to identify with the characters they enjoy.
“Certain different people—Jews, or Irish, or folks with a hide made of orange rock—can be points of identification. Others, especially African-Americans or anyone with dark skin, can’t. The issue here isn’t staying true to the original. The issue is racism.” – Noah Berlatsky, The Incoherent Backlashes to Black Actors Playing ‘White’ Superheroes, February 20, 2014
Independent comic author David Walker, in his second post on this subject, characterized all possible opposition to a Black Johnny Storm on-screen as racist, or pretty close to it, anyway.
“The very real—and very ugly—truth of the matter is that if you’re upset that Human Torch is being played by a Black guy, you are in fact operating within a paradigm of racial ideology that is, in every way, shape, and form, tied to racism.” – David Walker, Why An African American Human Torch is Important (a.k.a. Comic Fans are Racist and Kinda Unimportant), February 20, 2014
These responses assume the backlash to Michael B. Jordan’s upcoming portrayal of Johnny Storm must reflect deep-seated racism alone, without any other meaningful factors at play. I disagree – cross-racial casting opponents in superhero films argue for a cultural conservatism that the comic industry itself encourages in its audience through its stories. Narrative continuity, used by the comic industry to engender nostalgia from comic readers throughout the industry’s existence, requires the ability for superhero fans to depart from comic source material for weeks, even years , and return to essentially the same character they remember, with the same motivations and fears and psychology and power set, in present day comics. Further, since the financial success of Marvel Studios’ Phase One, culminating in the box office smash Marvel’s The Avengers (Gross receipts: $1,518,594,910), interlocking narratives across film franchises have emerged as the standard in superhero blockbuster filmmaking. This standard requires unchanging characterizations from superhero properties. The General Nick Fury you meet in Iron Man is the same General Nick Fury you meet in Captain America: The Winter Soldier, played by the same actor, the incomparable Samuel L. Jackson.
Comics do not modernize. Comics add a new costume after seven decades, they borrow public celebrities’ no-nonsense persona for parallel universe comic characters (I’m sorry, Mr. Jackson!) but comics do not modernize. Given this, and the fact that all the major superhero comic properties were developed when the comic industry sold unabashedly straight White adolescent male properties to straight White adolescent male readers, it is not clear that comic fans today operate from simple racism whenever they clamor for film adaptations of the superhero comics they support to reflect the comic art as printed. The comic industry cultivated nostalgia in their readership since the Great Depression, and modern big-budget superhero films now capitalize from this artificial wistfulness by generating on-screen superhero continuity.
Comics require nostalgia to maintain relevance. Angry denunciations of Millennial prejudice attack the victims of a childish industry, rather than the mainstream publication houses who promote simple storytelling through simplistic stereotypes and pedestrian plotlines. Granted, some of the annoyed social media antagonists hate the idea of a Black Johnny Storm because they despise bold, heroic Black bodies. Some are jarred from their innocent regression into childhood by this casting choice, because high-concentration melanin is too political and photo-realistic for the hazy flashes of childhood’s primary colors. Some comic fans return to the Silver Age’s stilted verbiage and pixelated dot-matrices to escape post-racial America’s high definition horror, where teenage boys are shot and killed in parked cars for playing loud, rebellious rap music, where America’s porcelain sweethearts grind and twerk their tiny posteriors on aloof young men in gaudy sexual displays, all practice and no passion, where free market wisdom has no answer for climate change, where secret national security directives delete all reasonable privacy standards, and where hope and change compose a hackneyed cliché no one really believes in anymore. Superhero comics are escapist dreams, where infantile misogyny and unconsidered tokenism allow White male power fantasies to reign supreme, untouched by a diversifying America’s new marketing realities.
It’s shortsighted to blame comic readers alone for the anti-Black Johnny Storm backlash. It’s wasteful, as the entire industry deserves reform. Unfortunately, the progressive response to Michael B. Jordan’s casting in the Fantastic Four reboot takes the Fifth on why we should support racial diversity in previously White superhero properties. Comic creator Justin Aclin penned an early retort to cross-racial casting antagonists who find historical Whiteness in mainstream superheroes worthy of preservation.
“The only argument against Human Torch being black is that he wasn’t conceived as black. But guess what…NO superheroes were conceived as black when Human Torch was created. That is not a valid reason that he should be Aryan for the rest of eternity in every possible medium.” – Justin Aclin, I’m Sick of White Dudes, May 2, 2013
Let me be clear: the progressive impulse to support more visual minorities in popular culture – especially the drive to recast historically White superhero properties as people of color – expresses ill-considered racial tribalism, nothing more. With respect to David Walker’s lament that the finite number of popularly known superhero properties controlled by DC Comics and Marvel Comics do not include characters with both market share and melanin, I disagree with the progressive perspective that Golden and Silver Age superheroes at conception were racially undefined or only default White. Superman’s irrepressibly cheerful goodness was always a direct result of his salt-of-the-earth Midwestern upbringing; the rural Golden Rule moralism Clark Kent absorbs from his parents centers his disconcerting physical abilities within a placid, mainstream figure, the original happy warrior. Superman literally represents the pinnacle of postwar American values; by the Eisenhower era he’s an Establishment paragon who’s social justice origins are as hazily recalled as collegiate marijuana use. Without his Whiteness, without Superman’s visual flattery of Anglo-Saxon genetics, the mainstream popularity he enjoys – then and now – is not possible.
This is the danger of cross-racial casting the progressive Left ignores in its cultural complaints. Just because we may not prefer the race politics of mainstream American superhero properties does not mean those race politics do not exist. The scientific protagonists who compose the Fantastic Four illustrate this as well as anyone. Reed Richards, Sue Storm, and even young Johnny Storm (inconsistently) are portrayed as intellectual giants, where Mr. Fantastic’s genius outshines all humanity. In contrast, Ben Grimm, later the blue-eyed Thing, is a blue-collar hardhat, the lovable counterpoint to a Swiss Family Robinson where every member exhibits advanced cognitive abilities, including the children. Without horn-rimmed glasses and graying temples and blond hair and pale faces the academic Fantastic Four could not credibly exude intellectual heft to the comics’ straight, White, adolescent male audience. Whiteness, as always, is the price of the ticket.
And some people pay more to ride. Whether a tragic exploratory space mission encounter with cosmic radiation or a failed scientific excursion to the Negative Zone, Ben Grimm sacrifices his White humanity to Reed Richards’ storied genius; his transformation from a genial, beer drinking, working class, Lower East Side regular Joe into a superhuman orange rock formation offers one of the more psychologically damning origin stories in mainstream comics. Ben Grimm should be a super villain. His privileged, cultured, amazingly smart friends invite him to participate in one of their outlandish scientific adventures, everyone is fundamentally altered through some horrid act of God, and the beautiful people walk away with their chiseled alabaster intact while Grimm crawls from the wreckage as the product of an inhuman marriage between a man and a brownstone quarry. From then on, Ben Grimm is the poster child for social ostracism. More than most of Marvel’s mutants, Ben Grimm wears his genetic differences on his skin, and none of the rest of the Fantastic Four have any conception of what life is like for society’s rejects.
Michael B. Jordan’s race alters that dynamic. Now, given modern New York City, we will encounter a Johnny Storm who has likely experience with social ostracism, inappropriate police scrutiny, the soft bigotry of low expectations, and many other possible interactions with American racism. We will encounter a Johnny Storm who’s attention-seeking outlandishness will be partly explained as a reaction to a country that views his demographic through municipal crime statistics, not university matriculation rates. Jordan’s casting retcons Johnny Storm’s desire for flashing paparazzi bulbs and ecstatic female fanatics as yet another minority male who defines his self-worth through White approval, a pyromaniac Kanye West in flame-retardant Kevlar. Now, when Ben Grimm’s sadness over his lost White humanity approaches depression’s fever pitch, he’ll have a teammate who knows what it’s like when little children stare at your skin, confused by its color, puzzled by its dark departure from what they know to be human.
It can be argued that the new screenwriting possibilities this casting allows should be supported, it can be argued that a modern Fantastic Four should involve contemporary racial dynamics. What cannot be argued logically is that this casting avoids a fundamental change to Johnny Storm’s characterization, and/or Fantastic Four mythology. Aclin’s argument, parroted by Berlatsky, suggests that upon conception, creators of Golden and Silver Age superheroes expressed no racial identification in their comic art. I find that ludicrous, but telling. Aclin and Berlatsky – and especially Walker – want new superhero stories from and about metahumans of color. If this is a laudable goal, exactly how does cross-racial casting serve that purpose? We yet again find ourselves stretching spandex over melanin without asking whether Black superheroes would walk outside in skintight leotards to fight burly antagonists in crowded metropolitan areas.
People of color in the real world do not benefit when an African American actress is invited to a sound stage at 30 Rockefeller Center to recite lines on camera written by middle-aged White comedians for middle-aged White audiences. People of color in the real world do not benefit from watching a token Black superhero exploit his amazing abilities to ensure the safety of the planet’s foremost financial district, a land filled with hedge fund managers who treat legal prohibitions against insider trading like Charmin toilet paper and Wall Street gamblers who packaged subprime mortgage debt like bubble wrap to inflate one-percenter wealth and wreck national economic fortunes. In Walker’s estimation, the nostalgia comics require like India ink should be co-opted to serve minority visibility. This progressive impulse requests the visual gift of the African Diaspora, without any of its social justice politics or cultural distinctiveness. Walker, Berlatsky, and Aclin request the comic art equivalent of Macklemore & Ryan Lewis’ Grammy win for Best Rap Album.
All of these men should know better. Their progressive clamor for More Racial Minorities in Pop Culture Now! offers cynicism to frustrated minority comic fans. Walker understands the challenges that face independent minority comic creators more than most; I believe him when he describes the nigh-insurmountable obstacles Black and Latino and Asian American superheroes face without mainstream publishing support. But if my choice as a consumer of color is between illegitimate token Blackness in ill-fitting spandex so that the comic industry can sleep well, secure in the knowledge that it’s marketing to all possible American identities without reconsidering its ‘White might makes right’ formula, and a long midnight where quality minority independent comics are not adapted for summer blockbusters, so that Hancock, Blankman and The Meteor Man present Netflix subscribers the only live-action Negro superhero movies, then I guess surly Will Smith will entertain my Friday night.
There are many ways to craft a racial minority superhero, but if we consider racial authenticity as a foremost concern, today’s Hollywood is simply not prepared for that intellectual labor. The real diversity conundrum isn’t how to include the minority metahuman in the existing comic framework; that’s an art project, a casting decision solved by calling Michael B. Jordan’s agent. The real question is how to write that superhero in a way that moves the medium forward, past the Reaganomics antiheroes of Alan Moore and Frank Miller and past the hyper-emotive Silver Age redux of Geoff Johns and Brian Michael Bendis. Respectable, authentic diversity in superhero comics should redefine the nature of the meta-protagonist to his powers and his audience, with exhaustive attention to cultural detail. I’m not convinced that a Black superhero would wear tights. I strongly doubt that a Black superhero would solve conflicts with his fists. The Black superhero knows that his community watches him religiously, and that any false move will have public repercussions he cannot expect or control.
If anything, the Black superhero template plays out on our nation’s cable news channels at all hours. President Barack Obama, with all his clipped vocal inflections and measured language and natural equivocation and faulty dealmaking and perfect family and limitless patience is the closest public figure to a Black superhero America has yet experienced, an international celebrity unthinkable before his ascent. Watching President Obama today, one feels expectation crush into his bones like a gravity well. No matter the political stimuli, Republicans oppose him. The concept of the Obama Presidency struck American conservatives like a Bernard Hopkins’ kidney punch, and in return, President Obama absorbs the vitriol of our coarse public debates more than any President to date (and progressives never tired of calling his predecessor a National Socialist). The agony and the ecstasy of Grant Park has given way for many Americans to the sobering fact that American authority, her global military supremacy and international economic primacy, is controlled and represented by a Black man. Disliked, hated, or worse, the Establishment is Black.
I need the Black superhero in print and/or on-screen to reflect that paradigm shift. Superheroes in the popular imagination are Establishment figures; if the Black superhero I’m presented can’t interrogate what it means when the Establishment is Black, of what utility is her story? Independent minority comics may answer these questions at some point, but I’m positively certain that Michael B. Jordan’s role as Johnny Storm will not. While his performance will probably outshine his fellow actors and increase the public profile of a promising young talent, the narrative constraints of modern superhero filmmaking and the shackles of comic source material do not allow for the on-screen Blackness-as-authority examination that the Black superhero requires to maintain authenticity. Cross-racial casting cannot ask these questions. Cross-racial casting does not use the master’s tools to dismantle the master’s house; it’s Rick James stamping muddy black boots on the master’s pristine white sofa.
Nostalgic B-movies laden with expensive special effects and Parsons School costumes are not the latest Gettysburg in our country’s unending cultural Civil War. Seeing summer blockbusters that display handsome brown faces only has merit when we pair those burnt sienna visuals with authentic minority storytelling. If we really want authentic Black superheroes on screen, someone write a comic-book thriller for a Black cast that Tyler Perry and Oprah Winfrey can film for fifty million dollars. Seriously. Released on a quiet weekend with unforeseen Black patronage that film would do more to advance the Black superhero in American entertainment than any two thousand nine hundred twenty-five word essay. But let’s be plain: we don’t get to film Diary of a Mad Black Superhero as long as Branch Rickey casting directors draw support from a progressive Left more concerned with racial tribalism than quality movies.