20 February 2014

Adding to the Fantastic Four Mythos?

The core mythos of the Fantastic Four comics, launched in 1961 by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby, is that a family goes into space, gets turned into monsters by cosmic radiation, and decide to make themselves into a new sort of superheroes. They don’t have secret identities (at first they didn’t even have special costumes, but fans insisted); in fact, they’re celebrities. And they take on the biggest threats to Earth.

Family was key to the mythos: an arrogant scientist, his best friend, his fiancée, and her kid brother. As the crew of a space mission, an extended family made no sense. As a team stuck together and sticking together through one galactic crisis after another, it had deep meaning.

Earlier this year an alleged synopsis of the movie leaked and was then denied:
“The Fantastic Four” will tell the story of two very young friends, Reed Richards and Ben Grimm. After an event transforms the boys, they find themselves empowered with bizarre new abilities. Reed becomes a scientific genius who can stretch, twist and re-shape his body to inhuman proportions. Ben becomes a monstrous, craggy humanoid with orange, rock-like skin and super strength. However, the two end up being owned by the government and used as weapons. But after they mature, two others with powers come into the picture – Sue Storm “The Invisible Girl” and Johnny Storm “The Human Torch.”
In other words, the four principals weren’t a family first and superheroes second. That would be a big change. But instead of talking about that, a significant number of fans got upset only about the concurrent casting news: that the actor expected to play the Human Torch was Michael B. Jordan, a young black man.

That talk continued today as the studio confirmed Jordan’s casting and revealed more information, including Kate Mara as Sue Storm. Jamie Bell, who became a star in Billy Elliot, has been tapped for Ben Grimm, the Thing. I can’t really see that, and it’s impossible to imagine someone better for that role (as Kirby originally designed the Thing) than Michael Chiklis in the last two movies. But Bell can produce Grimm’s working-class, Yancy Street outlook, and we probably won’t see his body anyway—we’ll see a CGI, motion-captured overlay.

But again, a significant slice of people complained about Jordan being black. Some of those folks tried to justify themselves by saying that Johnny and Sue are supposed to be siblings, yet Jordan is black and Mara white. As artist Cameron Stewart responded on Twitter, “Interracial siblings are apparently much much harder to explain and accept than stretchy limbs, invisibility, burning skin and a rock man”. Other complainers simply repeated their gripe that today’s moviemakers were changing a detail of the story they liked when they were twelve simply to be nice to people of color.

I can see one argument that Johnny Storm’s character has to be white as Kirby originally drew him. In the early comics Lee wrote Johnny as a hothead with a big ego and dangerous powers. Only a good-looking blond kid could get away with that behavior in 1961 and become a celebrity. Even now, young black men are subject to dangerous stereotyping. So that argument for casting Johnny as white, male, and handsome rests on a racist society.

But to see Johnny Storm’s character or story requiring him to be black in this age depends on seeing his skin color and ethnic background as inherent to his character—more than being a young and handsome hothead, more than his relations with other team members. Furthermore, most of the criticism has focused on that casting instead of on the much bigger changes to the larger mythos. It’s hard to see it as not just resting on but perpetuating a racist society.

No comments: