Not everyone is totally thrilled with the casting of Michael B. Jordan (Chronicle) as Johnny Storm AKA the Human Torch in Twentieth Century Fox's upcoming Fantastic Four reboot, but Jordan himself doesn't seem too bothered by the backlash. When ambushed by reporters on his way into a club and asked for his thoughts on the matter, Jordan just smiled and responded, "They're still going to go see it anyway." He's definitely got the attitude down already.
Canonically speaking, the Marvel movies all take place in alternate universes and therefore any changes between the page and the screen are explained in the same way as the differences between, for example, Earth-616 and the Ultimates universe. Comic books have a long history of playing with continuity and retconning characters, so if anything this is in keeping with the traditions of the medium. As the first comic book ever published under Marvel's name, Fantastic Four debuted three years before the Civil Rights Act was passed and as such the team members were white more or less by default. Now that more fifty years have passed, the idea of a black Human Torch should theoretically be a lot less controversial.
We've already covered the reason why the decision to cast Jordan as the Human Torch makes sense from a business standpoint, and Captain America: The Winter Soldier star Anthony Mackie has also spoken out in defense of the casting. (For those unfamiliar, in the Cap sequel Mackie plays Sam Wilson AKA Falcon, an agent of S.H.I.E.L.D. who is equipped with a pair of mechanical wings.)
In an interview with ComicBook.com Mackie admits that he was never into comic books as a kid (he preferred baseball), and that while he was "emotional and overjoyed" to be offered a role in the Marvel franchise, he finds the fans' insistence on movies being identical to the source material a little baffling:
"It’s crazy how much they know, and if you deter from that, it’s like ‘Well, that’s not authentic.’ You know it’s not real. It’s made-up, so we can change it. ‘No, no, that’s not right. No, he’s real.’ Alright.”
The distinction between real people and comic book characters is an important one, though you wouldn't think so by the number of comic book fans who insist that Michael B. Jordan playing Johnny Storm is analogous to a white actor playing Martin Luther King. When asked for his opinion on Jordan's casting and the subsequent backlash, Mackie first confirmed that Jordan is definitely locked for the role, and then explained that an adaptation of such a fantastical story should be open to creative freedom on the part of the filmmaker.
“Michael B. Jordan is a very good friend of mine. I’ve known him since he was a teenager, and I’m so happy, for more than anybody else for him to be getting the accolades he’s getting, because he deserves it... I think with these type of movies, everything else aside, you need a good actor. Michael B. Jordan is a good actor, black or white. So what you have to realize is, and go back and forth and just say, ‘Superman can’t fly, Batman ain’t real, the Human Torch don’t really set himself on fire and fly around the room, so he can look like whatever they want him to look like.’ You just have to allow yourself to see him that way. And if you can’t do that, that says something about you.”
Fantastic Four co-creator Stan Lee has previously commented on the issue of characters having a different race in the movie versions. When Donald Glover's fans were lobbying for him to be cast as the next Spider-Man, Lee said in an interview with MTV:
"As far as I'm concerned ... anybody should have a chance to audition for the role... I don't ever want to make it sound like I'm trying in any way to influence the Marvel people as to who to cast in any roles. That isn't my job. It isn't in my purview. It's something I should butt out of and I try to butt out of it -- just like I don't tell them what to do with the movie."
Most people seem to have made their minds up one way or another on the issue, but we'll find out next summer whether or not director Josh Trank's unusual casting decisions - which also include Miles Teller as Reed Richards, Kate Mara as Sue Storm and Jamie Bell as Ben Grimm - have paid off. We're definitely looking forward to seeing the first trailers for this new take on the franchise.
Captain America: The Winter Soldier opens in theaters on April 4th, 2014.
Fantastic Four arrives in theaters on June 19, 2015.