Rumors surfaced almost a year ago that Michael B. Jordan, who broke out as a young, conflicted drug dealer in The Wire, and has gone on to star in the innovative superhero movie Chronicle and as Oscar Grant in Fruitvale Station, would be cast as Johnny Storm, the flammable superhero in the planned reboot of The Fantastic Four. Late yesterday, that good news became official. Jordan will play Storm, House Of Cards veteran Kate Mara will play his sister, Sue Storm, Miles Teller will play scientist Reed Richards, and Jamie Bell, who is starring in AMC’s new Revolutionary War series Turn, will play Ben Grimm, who is transformed into the Thing.
The first word that Jordan might play Storm riled the same sort of comics purists who got upset that the Thor movies cast a black man (Idris Elba) as a Norse god. I expect their grumblings to resurface, though I’d issue the usual reminder that there’s something screwy in the functioning of an imagination that can stretch to accommodate the idea of a man bursting into flame and into flight, but not that man having dark skin. And of course, whenever fans of comics–a form that constantly puts the reset button on its characters, slingshotting them between worlds and timelines and bodies–dig in their heels on a character’s race, it’s worth asking what reasons, other than tradition, they have on insisting on someone’s whiteness.
I’d argue that we’re in a moment where there is particular value to imagining Johnny Storm as a young black man. Though the depictions of the character have varied across media and over the years, some things tend to stay the same. Johnny Storm is young. Johnny Storm can be somewhat impulsive. Johnny is, in keeping with his super-power, a bit of a hot-head. All of these are characteristics that have been used to justify treating young black men like Jordan Davis and Trayvon Martin as if they’re threatening, as if killing them is a sensible precaution. And now, a young man with all these tendencies will be set up as a superhero. That boldness will be part of that young man’s capacity to save lives, rather than evidence that he’s constantly about to take them.
I also think it’s worth noting the way Jordan got cast. The Hollywood Reporter notes that “the studio has on option on the actor due to his starring in the found footage sci-fi hit Chronicle.” I’m not sure why starring in a superhero movie independent of a franchise would have lead Fox to put an option–or, the ability to hire Jordan at a preset rate–on him for other projects. But it’s important that they did.
Options may limit actors’ abilities to negotiate higher paychecks from project to project. But when a studio puts an option on actor, it’s a notice that they intend to work with that actor again, and it gives them incentives to work with that actor over other actors, because they have a financial rate locked in. Jordan will be great as Johnny Storm. But it’s also significant that he’s reached a point where studios want to lock in the prospect of working him in the future. We talk a lot around these parts about the best way to reach the goal of a more diverse Hollywood, on-screen and off. One way to do that is to stock studios’ option rosters with women and people of color, so when the time comes to cast a superhero or staff the writers’ room of a new show, the easiest thing for them to do is pick someone like Jordan, because the organizations have already done the work of stretching their own imaginations.