Is There a Problem with the Fantastic Four's Racial Casting?

Yes, but it's not the one you might think.

The internet was momentarily distracted a few months ago (you know, for a change) over the casting decisions for the upcoming reboot of Marvel's Fantastic Four film franchise.  The specific item which attracted the most attention was the casting of Michael B Jordan as Johnny Storm, the Human Torch.  Jordan, you see, is an actor who happens to be black, while Johnny Storm has historically been a white character.  Predictably, The Worst People on the Internet lost their little minds.  Like clockwork, the racists cried their petty tears about having to see a black person, and the rage-nerds (who swear they're not racist; they're just saying) rent their clothing and wore ashes over tradition and things taken away.  We're not here to talk about them.

And yet there IS a problem here; it's just not that problem.  First, let's talk about who the Fantastic Four are...

Reed Richards was a college science professor doing research into cosmic rays and other next-next level cosmological studies.  He designed a rocket so he and his team could breach outer space and study the effects of these rays.  The rockets shielding was inadequate, and the team was exposed to the cosmic radiation, causing each of them to manifest strange and unique powers.  Reed became super-elastic, and was dubbed Mister Fantastic.

His pilot, Ben Grimm turned into an orange rocky mass with incredible strength, and was thus called The Thing. Ben is unable to revert to human form, and Reed goes through bouts of guilt where he tries to "cure" his condition.  These attempts have always had little to no success, owing to the needs of an ongoing comic franchise, and it gives The Thing a certain tragic gravitas.

Reed's student, Sue Storm gains the ability to turn invisible through the conscious application of a force field, which she will later learn to expand and use as a shield, weapon and means of transportation.  She gets labelled Invisible Girl, later changed to Invisible Woman after she marries Reed and they have a child together.

Sue's kid brother, Johnny Storm goes along for the ride because, well, it was the 60s and who doesn't want a teenager on their first space flight?  Johnny can control fire, including wrapping himself in flame, shooting it from his hands, and using it to fly.  He becomes The Human Torch.

All of these characters were originally white, being creations of the early 60s, though they did play host to one of Marvel's first high-profile black characters, The Black Panther.  So what's the problem with making one of them black?  Nothing, really, except that the choice of WHICH one reveals all kinds of problems, and they all lead back to crass and callow tokenism of the most antiquated fashion.

Why not Reed?  Reed is the team leader, and as the last 6 years have demonstrated abundantly, there are far too many Americans who are pathologically incapable of accepting a black man in a leadership role.  The furor would have been many times bigger had Reed been black instead of Johnny.  There's change and then there's Change, and some people can't handle either.

Why not Ben?  Ben turns into a creature of orange rock.  Casting him as black would have been a moot point and we might forget to pat the producers on the back for their brave heroism.

Why not Sue?  Ahh, now we're getting somewhere.  Why NOT Sue?  Sue and Johnny are sister and brother.  For them to have made Johnny black and not Sue will require some nudge to their story where Johnny was adopted or (most likely) taken in by the family (aww, that was mighty white of them).  While not a big deal on its own, it draws attention to the fact that they specifically wanted Sue to remain white.  Why?  Because Sue marries Reed.  We don't care that a college professor with graying temples marries his former student, but AW HAIL NAW can they be an interracial couple.

In other words, the producers want to be seen as brave challengers of convention, they just don't want to take the chance of actually being brave challengers of convention.  Troublemakers don't set opening weekend sales records.

So why Johnny?  Johnny is the young one of the group that everyone tolerates but rolls their eyes at.  He's seen as a hothead who's always the first to "flame on" in a situation of conflict, and as such, everyone talks down to him and tells him how he should behave.  He's the show-boater.  Hm.  I'm not saying that's why they chose him because I don't really think that it is (offering them the benefit of the doubt) but I find it... interesting that that's what they found palatable.  They chose Johnny because, as illustrated above, the couldn't chose anyone else.  So the REAL reason they chose him was because they decided from the start that someone had to be black, simply as a political response to the Amazing Spider-Man situation, where they (a different production company, mind you) could (and should) have cast Donald Glover and instead chickened out and cast pasty/annoying Andrew Garfield.

As such, it was neither a bold move, nor a creative one.  It was pure business.  Feign sympathy to the rising call for diversity, while at the same time coddling the intolerance and inflexibility of racists and rage-nerds.  What we're left with is a craven act of hollow value.  I appreciate that it might allow the next generation of black children to feel a little more included, but just a little -- let's not get uppity here.

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