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On Race, Casting, and Comic Book Literalism

Michael B Jordan

 

Michael B Jordan

*Please note that this article is an opinion-editorial.

Please forgive me the following sports analogy, but I’m going somewhere with it.

Last weekend, the National Football League had its annual draft of college players who are making the leap to the pro level. Over the years, The Draft has morphed into a huge media event. The NFL has now stretched The Draft to a three-day event broadcast from Radio City Music Hall on two different networks. It’s crazy when you consider it’s just a guy walking to a podium every few minutes and reading a name off a card.

If you watch The Draft (Yes, it’s capitalized now.) you’ll hear a lot of analysis about various teams’ strategies for selecting players. In the modern NFL, the teams that have the most consistent success at drafting new players use a philosophy of taking the best player available. What this means is they, well, they take the best player available when it’s their turn to pick. Another strategy involves drafting for position needed on your team and bypassing players that might be better overall prospects because they don’t fit your needs.

Here’s an example: In the 2010 draft, the New England Patriots used their second round pick to select Rob Gronkowski, a tight end out of Arizona.  Two rounds later, the Pats selected Aaron Hernandez from Florida. This defies logic as both players are tight ends; they play the same position. But, The Draft philosophy in New England is to just take the best player when it’s your turn to pick. In this case the best players available happened to play the same position. The Pats believe you take the best players, and then it’s up to the coaching staff to figure out how to use them. The Pats started using two tight end sets to utilize both Gronk and Hernandez at the same time. Since the 2010 draft, both Gronkowski and Hernandez have been voted to the Pro Bowl, and now other teams are copying the Patriots’ dual tight end attack.

I bring up The Draft because I think it relates to movie casting. If I were a producer overseeing a film’s casting, I would do what the New England Patriots do. I would just pick the best actor available for a role. I think everybody knows that’s not how it works. Actors who are completely wrong for roles are cast in them all the time for a myriad of reasons. For instance, maybe the actor cast is a huge star. Huge stars are a great investment as they help open movies both domestically and overseas. This doesn’t mean a huge star is right for any given role. Sometimes, the star in question isn’t really a star, they just have an overestimated degree of celebrity. The reason doesn’t really matter. Good actors are very frequently passed over for roles in favor of actors who aren’t strong choices.

The Wrap is reporting that actor Michael B. Jordan is in early talks to star as Johnny Storm in Fox’s reboot of The Fantastic Four. I’m a big fan of Friday Night Lights, and Jordan was fantastic as Vince Howard on the final two seasons of that show. He was also on HBO’s legendary show The Wire. He also stars in Fruitvale Station, a huge hit at Sundance this year that’s poised to be a major awards contender. It opens in July. And, geeks may be familiar with him as one of the three leads in last year’s sleeper superhero riff Chronicle. In fact, Chronicle’s Josh Trank will be directing the Fantastic Four reboot. Long story short, he’s a very promising young actor.

There’s just one catch. Michal B. Jordan is black. And, to this point, Johnny Storm has always been white.

This news has been greeted with the usual geek handwringing and gnashing of teeth. Why can’t they just cast a white actor in the role? Can’t they see the character has always been white? Why do they have to change everything?

I think this may be the rare case of the studio actually casting the best actor available and then letting the director figure out how to make it work. It’s also being reported that Girls star Allison Williams is being strongly considered as Sue Storm. Williams is white. If Jordan is cast as the Human Torch, should they cast a black actress as Sue? They are siblings, after all. I don’t think that’s really necessary. A simple tweak to the source material could say that Johnny and Sue are step-siblings. Or that one of them is adopted. It’s a very simple fix. And, since the Fantastic Four has always been a metaphor for family, doesn’t it make more sense if the concept of family is as inclusive as possible?

I understand the appeal of these beloved characters being realized for the movies. Every time I think about seeing Man of Steel my body vibrates like a tuning fork, so I get it. But, sometimes geeks are way too slavishly devoted to very literal interpretations of what they’ve seen on the page.   Fandom is frequently just like religious fundamentalists who insist on the most literal interpretations of their holy texts, sort of a Geek Taliban. Sometimes, geeks just want to see actors cast who bear a resemblance to the characters. We can be very unbending and unable to realize that a comic book and a movie are different mediums and what works in one doesn’t always translate to the other.

This seems to be largely buried in the past, but I distinctly remember the childish meltdown that occurred in fandom when Heath Ledger was cast as the Joker in The Dark Knight. To that point, the role Ledger was most famous for was Ennis Del Mar in Brokeback Mountain. And, an actor that had once played a gay character in a movie playing the Joker didn’t sit well with the fanboys. At all. My guess would be most of them hadn’t bothered (or were afraid) to see Brokeback Mountain. Ledger was truly fantastic in that movie. He received an Oscar nomination for it. Nolan had clearly cast who he thought was the best actor available. It wasn’t until the first footage of Ledger as the Joker surfaced that people seemed to be more at ease with him. As we know now in hindsight, Ledger’s Joker is a stone cold classic and will go down as one of the great screen villains of all time. Nolan was right, fanboys were wrong.

I’m a big fan of Micahel B. Jordan’s. I think he’ll nail Johnny Storm’s mix of cockiness and vulnerability. I think it’s exciting casting, because his talent has caused the filmmakers to literally rethink what the character can be. That’s talent, folks. That’s going with the best actor available, not casting just to fill a need. Should an actor’s race limit the roles they’re allowed to play? Should their sexual orientation? Is Barney Stinson ruined for people because the actor who plays him is gay? Does anybody look at Henry Cavill in the Superman suit and think he’d look even more impressive if he hadn’t been born on a British Isle?

So, bring on Idris Elba as James Bond!

 

 

 

Chris Spicer, Fanbase Press Contributor

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