Michael B. Jordan's casting in "Fantastic Four" brings out the trolls, again

The "Fruitvale Station" star is getting flak for playing a superhero. But it's a great, progressive decision

Published February 20, 2014 7:45PM (EST)

Michael B. Jordan, the charismatic young actor from "Fruitvale Station," has been cast in the reboot of "Fantastic Four," in the role previously played by Chris Evans. As Evans is now one of the central figures in the Marvel "Avengers" franchise, it's clearly a star-making role -- and one that many fans perceive as white.

It's common for fans of entertainment franchises to take to Twitter upon the announcement of any casting that deviates from an all-white universe -- including, recently, the casting of a young black actress to play a role in "The Hunger Games" that was at the very least coded as black. No matter! White "Hunger Games" readers perceived all the characters as white, and they were really angry they were going to be forced to look at any nonwhite people at the movies. The same thing happened when Idris Elba got a supporting role as a Norse god in "Thor," and when Samuel L. Jackson played a role that had been white in comics in "The Avengers" franchise.

This is the exact reason why casting minority actors in the sort of big franchises that have built-in audiences is at once difficult and important -- fans who have pictured the plot of a novel in their minds, or who have looked at the all-white Fantastic Four on the page, are entitled to be mildly surprised at a casting decision, but self-righteous anger is a bit excessive.

The sort of franchise fans whose tweets get quoted in industry stories after big casting decisions see themselves as incapable, apparently, of empathizing with anyone not of their race; in order for a character to be understandable on-screen, that character must be white.

But fans will, of course, end up going to see the movie -- if you like the "Fantastic Four" characters, you're simply not going to skip it because you disagree with a casting choice -- and will discover what nonwhite movie fans have known for years: There's no impediment to understanding a character's motivations and actions simply because he's of a different race than yours.

And arguing that a movie like "The Avengers" or "Fantastic Four" ought to be cast on the basis of how the characters look in the comics is not really an argument: These comic franchises date back decades, to eras in which ideas of representation hadn't as much currency as they do now. And movies, even with castings like Jordan's, are hardly representative; his character's sister in "Fantastic Four" is to be played by the white actress Kate Mara. There's no solo female superhero, with Wonder Woman snuck into an upcoming Batman vs. Superman film. Aside from Jackson's supporting role, the Avengers themselves are to a one white.

Jordan's casting will stretch the imaginations of "Fantastic Four" fans, with an effect on their future viewership. At present, movies about white people are presented in the media as normal movies while movies about black people, even movies in which race is never mentioned, are inherently "race-themed." Michael B. Jordan's character is going to be a black superhero, not a black person whose behavior is somehow impossible for viewers who've seen a million white superheroes on film to parse. Once he and other characters help erode ingrained prejudice in white viewers, maybe those viewers will take a chance on minority characters they don't already know. Maybe they'll rent "Fruitvale Station"! At the very least, one hopes that eventually castings of nonwhite characters in big-budget movies will become so unremarkable that no one would ever be moved to tweet angrily about them.

By Daniel D'Addario

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Fantastic Four Fruitvale Station Marvel Comics Michael B. Jordan The Avengers