Rumors of Michael B. Jordan casting as Human Torch ignite comic book race debate

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Michael B. Jordan arrives at the 17th annual Hollywood Film Awards at The Beverly Hilton Hotel on October 21, 2013 in Beverly Hills, California. (Photo by Jason Kempin/Getty Images)

Michael B. Jordan arrives at the 17th annual Hollywood Film Awards at The Beverly Hilton Hotel on October 21, 2013 in Beverly Hills, California. (Photo by Jason Kempin/Getty Images)

First the good news (at least if you’re a fan of comics and/or their movie offshoots): The long-awaited reboot of Fantastic Four has made its first casting decision.

If scattered reports are to be believed, rising star Michael B. Jordan –- not to be confused with the basketball legend whose name he shares — is set to inhabit the role of Johnny Storm, better known as the Human Torch.

Now the bad news: The decision is arguably the most controversial since…Ben Affleck managed to snag the plum role of Batman (that’ll have to be a subject for another article).  This being the Internet age, the predictable backlash – much of it racial in nature – has hit message boards and social networks criticizing the move. Ignorance, after all, rarely misses an opportunity to make its presence known.

Bigots are akin to a screaming child in the grocery store, and really should be treated as such. They’re best ignored until their tantrums exhaust themselves. With that said, does it matter that one the most recognizable characters in the comic pantheon is re-imagined as black instead of white?

No…and yes. For the record, the debate over Mr. Jordan playing a white character devalues his undeniable on-screen charm and strong acting chops. His breakout role came earlier this year in Fruitvale Station, but for my money he was far more compelling in the 2012 sleeper hit Chronicle. He’s a talented actor who should be judged on the merits of his acting.

Comic book purists can be a notoriously demanding lobby, and can be ruthless when roused to anger. The best way to shake the hornet’s nest is to make a movie that doesn’t adhere strictly to its source material.

Case in point: a fanboy firestorm erupted about 10 years ago when Halle Berry starred in the execrable (and forgettable) ‘reboot’ of Catwoman. That had nothing to do with race, however, especially since Eartha Kitt became an icon of 1960s camp on the Batman television series. In a movie riddled with flaws (not least of which was Berry’s self-confessed lousy portrayal), the storyline was completely divorced from the original Gotham City universe from whence Catwoman sprang.

In a similar vein, Mr. Jordan’s playing the Human Torch does present serious continuity gaps that even supporters of the casting move acknowledge are problematic. In the Fantastic Four comic, Susan Storm, aka the Invisible Woman and the Human Torch’s biological sibling, is white. Does Mr. Jordan’s presence hint at the possibility that she too will be black? Will Johnny Storm be a half-sibling, or perhaps adopted?

If anything, Catwoman and the Human Torch mini-controversies illustrate the perils of trying to re-define time-honored characters according to modern-day standards.

Depending on how the narrative is executed, a little ethnic sleight-of-hand can be done smoothly. Take Watson and Holmes, a slick, noirish comic reinterpretation of the immortal Sherlock Holmes popularized by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. In the current version, Holmes and Watson are both black crime fighters based in Harlem instead of pre-Victorian London. In a bit of multicultural irony, the narrative is being written by Karl Bollers, a talented scribe who shot to prominence writing Emma Frost– a wealthy, super-powered debutante who is one of the most complex (and popular) characters in the X-Men series.

Comics in general, and Marvel in particular, have a well-established history of sacrificing continuity on the altar of socio-political shock value. Writers have taken infamous creative liberties in the past: Marvel memorably transformed the rough-hewn (and very white) Nick Fury into a black man – who found his way into the movie rendition of The Avengers. The first two FF movies cast Jessica Alba (a Latina) as Sue Storm, albeit with blond hair and blue contacts. More recently, an alternate timeline version of the hyper-macho Wolverine was written as a gay man who once had a relationship with Hercules.

Even more than the slightly less controversial casting of Idris Elba in Thor, Michael B. Jordan’s casting as the Human Torch seems to fit this trope. In this case, Hollywood may be trying to compensate for Cuba Gooding’s lost opportunity: the Oscar-winning actor once coveted the role of Daredevil, only to be ignored largely because the character in question was Caucasian. Irony being the brutal mistress it is, the role eventually went to Affleck, who single-handedly killed any hope of a franchise with a flat performance that was pilloried by critics.

At a superficial level, landing a photogenic, talented black actor to play a white character speaks volumes about racial progress. On the flip side, there’s something to be said for remaining true to the plot. After all, would black comic readers be as supportive of the multi-talented Ryan Gosling being cast as the Black Panther? Or for that matter, the Harlem-born Luke Cage being played by Tom Hardy (who played Bane in The Dark Knight Rises)? Although hypothetical, these casting decisions would generate a predictable uproar – and with good reason.

Mr. Jordan’s involvement undoubtedly brings buzz to a franchise that was left for dead after the first two movies. And obviously, the proof will be in the cinematic pudding since at this point, nobody has seen a script.

Yet if true, the decision to recast Johnny Storm as black seems perplexing, especially since Comicdom has a wide and impressive stable of black male superheroes (T’Challa, Bishop, Black Lightning, Green Lantern among them) languishing in development. Hopefully, his portrayal won’t get lost in a needless screaming match over his (or the character’s) color.