This is going to be a different kind of an Rx in that I haven’t actually seen the movie in question. For an in-depth critical look at the movie, and to get some insight as to the studio shenanigans that went on behind the scenes, watch Red Letter Media’s review or Comicbookgirl 19’s. I’m not going to look at plot or directing at all, and am instead going to focus on a single aspect, casting, and a single casting choice. Yes, I am referring to the casting of Michael Jordan as Johnny Storm.
Not for the controversy. The fact that some fans got so upset by the race-swapping of the character is really between them and their own conscience. I have no idea if they are racists, and do not think that speculating about that is either productive or enlightening.
But I do think it was an ill-conceived choice. If they were going to race swap a character, it should have been either The Thing or Mr. Fantastic.
The Case Against Johnny Storm
Simple. And it’s all in Johnny Storm’s character description: young, name-calling hothead who doesn’t respect authority. When this character is white, he is a barely tolerable, entitled, insensitive prick. Changing him to a black man… and you’re just playing into some of the most common racial stereotypes for young black men there are. It doesn’t matter that you throw ‘smart’ on top of the pile. Because those stereotypes are so pervasive, putting a black man in there is an ‘easy fit’ by Hollywood standards. You aren’t challenging anyone’s perspectives… and it commits what I consider one of the greatest movie sins, it’s lazy.
The Case for Ben Grimm
I think that the metaphorical treasure-trove of social commentary of casting an African American man as Ben Grimm is obvious.You know. Judged and feared because of how he looks.
The contrast between Ben’s gentle, loyal spirit, and how his outer appearance is perceived could have been as powerful as Luke Cage donning a hoodie.
I think that care would still have to be taken in the writing, particularly when it gets to “clobberin’ time,” but that’s why writing is a craft that takes skill and hard work as well as vision. If you’re unwilling to do the work or research, maybe you should look into a different profession.
The Case for Reed Richards
One of the wonderful aspects of Marvel comics is the fact that they will often refer to real-world people and events. I still remember reading the early Spider-Man comics, and Peter saying that he felt as popular as Khrushchev, or wanting to take a date to see a Woody Allen film, or the fact that the characters live in real-world cities. I mean, has any hard-core comics fan not walked through Times Square and imagined the Fantasticar flying by overhead, or seeing Spider-Man swing between buildings?
This is why I believe Reed Richards would have been the best choice to race-swap. Not just because Richards is the most flexible character in the group dynamic, holding the radically diverse individuals together as a family, but his mind is arguably the most flexible in the Marvel universe–redefining what is possible and the nature of reality. A black man as the most brilliant intellect in the multiverse? How could that ever be a thing? Oh yeah.
Neil deGrasse Tyson.
…who also lives in New York, who is arguably the face of science now the way Carl Sagan was thirty years ago. Not only could he have been approached to do a cameo in the film as mentor to young Reed Richards, but aspects of the man’s life could had been used to fill in Reed’s backstory. It’s truly inspirational irrespective of race, and is enlightening with regard to race. It would have made his character really interesting on a lot of different levels. Rather than simply reinforcing racial stereotypes, it would have challenged them and could have helped to broaden people’s perspective not only of what black men are and are capable of, but of minorities in general.
So this is what I mean when I talk about representation in media. It is not enough to simply put LGBTQ, women or people of color into film. Putting characters out there who only reinforce stereotypes, in my opinion, is worse than no representation at all. What you see, whether you realize it or not, tells you what you should or should not expect from a certain type of person or groups of people. There is a whole slew of emotional and cognitive biases that can reinforce those expectations and beliefs. It is a responsibility of artists and communicators (and yes, casting directors) to be mindful of these things, and the impact their work and their words can have on individuals and society as a whole. ’Nuff said.