Wednesday, August 12, 2015

'Fantastic Four' Casting Controversy: Hollywood's Struggle To Cast Across Ethnic Lines

Kate Mara, Jamie Bell, Miles Teller & Michael B. Jordan
The last time ethnically diverse casting choices in Hollywood were a topic of discussion on this blog was just before Christmas back on December 19, 2014 when the cast of director Ridley Scott's 'Exodus: Of Gods and Men' was generating controversy and a lot of chatter on social media.    

The media images of thuggish-looking heavily-armed civilian "Oath Keepers" standing around the streets of Ferguson being ignored by police is just too depressing to contemplate, so I'd like to weigh in on the negative buzz surrounding 20th Century Fox and Marvel Entertainment's latest superhero summer action flick 'Fantastic Four'.

The reviews for this film have been pretty brutal, and that's from critics and fans alike.

'Fantastic Four' scored an anemic 9% on the "Tomatometer" and a 23% audience approval rating on the Website, which said of the critic's consensus of the film, "Dull and downbeat, this Fantastic Four proves a woefully misguided attempt to translate a classic comic series without the humor, joy or colorful thrills that made it great."

As you may have heard, some of those poor reviews have been attributed (in part) to the controversial decision to cast an actor of color for one of the main characters who's always been a white blond-haired guy with blue eyes.

My biggest concern is that the exclusive hierarchy of studio executives, producers, directors, agents and casting directors who wield the kind of clout to get mainstream films made in Hollywood will read way too far into the word-of-mouth social media buzz surrounding the casting of African-American actor Michael B. Jordan (pictured above) in the role of Johnny Storm, The Human Torch.

Jack Kirby-illustrated Fantastic Four cover
As a self-professed film geek who also grew up collecting comic books (and still does) and has written unsold screenplays and graphic novel scripts, I think part of the problem with the audience reaction to this 2015 Fantastic Four film stems from the departure from the look of the traditional characters in the hugely-popular comic book series.

Fantastic Four fans have remained devoted to the comic book since it first came out in the 1960's during the "Golden Age" of Marvel Comics. The signature "look" of the four main characters has remained relatively unchanged over the years.

Aside from some minor alterations to the color and style of the their distinctive uniforms, and periodic changes to Susan Storm's hair styles over the years, this classic comic book cover from the 1960's (pictured left) is basically the image of the characters that has been ingrained into the minds and imaginations of countless thousands of Marvel comics readers.

Through JFK, Vietnam, the Civil Rights struggles of the 60's, the NASA moon landings, Nixon, Watergate - the Fantastic Four pretty much remained a constant.

That "constant" was comforting to fans in the same way the Enterprise crew's Starfleet uniforms on the original 'Star Trek' television series, Detective Columbo's rumpled trench coat on 'Columbo', Archie Bunker's chair on 'All In The Family', or Hawkeye Pierce's worn Army fatigues on 'M.A.S.H' were aesthetically comforting extensions of the characters millions loved - aspects of the characters that defined them.

From my perspective, the differences between the Fantastic Four characters as seen in the image above and the casting of the 2015 film, were simply too jarring for some of the hardcore geek fan base that loves the Fantastic Four; and even the younger generations who flocked to see the 2005 and 2007 films.

As much as I respect the young actors cast to play the Fantastic Four in this third film adaptation of the classic Marvel comic book to hit the big screen, (including Kate Mara as Susan Storm / The Invisible Girl, Kamie Bell as Benjamin Grimm / The Thing and Miles Teller as Reed Richards / Mr. Fantastic) the casting choices are just one of the reasons this film has performed well below expectations.

But it's the casting of an African-American actor to play Susan Storm's brother Johnny that's been one of the more controversial issues being discussed on social media.

Michael B. Jordan as 'Wallace' on HBO's 'The Wire'
Now make no mistake, I'm a huge fan of actor Michael B. Jordan (pictured left).

His work as a performer stood out on HBO's 'The Wire', and considering the level of talent in that cast, and the fact that David Simon's show is regarded by many critics as arguably the greatest television drama ever created, that's no small feat.

Jordan played the character Wallace with a piercing sensitivity and quiet gravitas as the character struggled to find balance between his "day job" in "The Pit" as a low-level drug dealer for the notorious Barksdale crew in the low-rise projects, and raising four young children in squalid housing conditions without the presence of an adult.

Wallace's ill-fated and heart-breaking efforts to try and escape "The Game" and leave the projects of West Baltimore behind later in the series brought grown men (including yours truly) to tears - I know I'm not the only guy who cried when Wallace was killed on 'The Wire', nor am I ashamed to say so.

Jordan's critically acclaimed work in the 2013 film 'Fruitvale Station' about the true story of 22-year-old Oscar Grant's last day before he was shot and killed on a subway platform by police demonstrated that Jordan is one of the most talented young actors working in film today; and clearly a future star.

But that said, while Fox casting him in the 'Fantastic Four' reflects positively on his talent and status as an actor now seen by the industry as a 'bankable' star, I don't think the casting choice served the story itself.

As much as fans of the Fantastic Four comic series and film fans in general also like Jordan as an actor, I think Johnny Storm being reintroduced in the reboot of the franchise as an African-American created a lot of confusion and awkward discomfort.

'Fantastic Four' just wasn't the right project to do that.

The Fantastic Four have been around since the 60's and Sue and Johnny Storm being siblings is just part of that story line; they happen to both be blond and blue-eyed. There's nothing racist about that; that's the way legendary Marvel illustrator Jack Kirby and writer Stan Lee created the characters.

Nichelle Nichols as Lt. Uhura on  the original 'Star Trek' 
Imagine if a new 'Star Trek' film came out and Lieutenant Uhura was cast as a blue-eyed blond; how do you think long-time fans of the show would react?

Uhura's race was an essential component of 'Star Trek's' identity in the same way Sue and Johnny Storm almost looking like twins was an essential component of the Fantastic Four.

When Fox made the decision to change that character element, they essentially tried to fix something that wasn't broken.

From a media marketing standpoint, it was kind of like Coke introducing New Coke.

A major studio like 20th Century Fox has more than enough resources to hire writers to come up with an action vehicle for Michael B. Jordan to act in with a diverse cast; but even if their intention was to try and attract more younger African-Americans into seeing the film, trying to thrust Jordan into the Johnny Storm role was a mistake - and it cost them.

To me this is not about the money. The studio executives from Fox who put $120 million into the production of the latest 'Fantastic Four' plus millions more to market it would obviously disagree with me on that, but box office numbers are how Hollywood gauges success, so let's look at those quickly. 

Fantastic Four was released over the weekend of August 7th on 3,995 theater screens during what was generally a pretty busy three day period for film releases, but it only pulled in $26.2 million.

To put that into perspective that's the lowest box office opening for a major release featuring Marvel characters since 'Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance' premiered to a $22.1 million opening weekend back in 2012.

Compare that to the staggering $191.3 million 'Avengers: Age of Ultron' made for Disney's Marvel release over it's opening weekend back in April; it's since made $1.3 billion worldwide.

Again, what troubles me is that the Johnny Storm casting issue will overshadow the other  reasons that the 'Fantastic Four' movie didn't connect with audiences.

First, in my opinion Miles Teller, cast as Reed Richards, was not an effective casting decision either.

Teller is clearly a talented performer as demonstrated by the critical acclaim he received for his acting performances in the 2013 film 'The Spectacular Now' and in the Oscar-nominated 2014 film 'Whiplash'.

Fox's decision to cast him makes sense, particularly since his role as Peter in the mainstream film adaptation of the widely popular Young Adult trilogy, 2014's 'Divergent'  and  2015's 'Insurgent' makes him an appealing choice to help draw the coveted teen demographic to the movie theaters - but casting him as the young Reed Richards in 'Fantastic Four' just didn't seem to excite fans.

'Fantastic Four' director Josh Trank
Fox also took a pretty big risk in handing off the reins of a $120 million production to newbie director Josh Trank too (pictured left).

Trank impressed the industry and fans with his directorial debut, the 2012 surprise sci-fi hit 'Chronicle'; which Michael B. Jordan was also cast in.

That sci-fi film grossed over $125 million for Fox and it was made on a budget of $12 million.

When it debuted at number one at the box office, at age 27 Trank became one of the youngest directors to open a number one film; which puts him in some impressive directorial company.

Steven Spielberg was 28 when he directed 'Jaws' and James Cameron was 30 when he directed the original 'Terminator'.   

You can see why Fox took a gamble on Trank, but handling a $120 million dollar production is a lot different than directing a $12 million film.

Trank clashed with film executives over changes and re-shoots and later shot himself in the foot when he sent out a widely-read Twitter message that essentially shifted blame for the poor quality of the film onto the interference by film executives; he tried to delete the Tweet but it had already gone viral.

As Kim Masters wrote earlier this morning in a Hollywood Reporter story about what she termed the "Fantastic Four Blame Game": 

"Days before Fantastic Four opened, director Josh Trank sent an email to some members of the cast and crew to say he was proud of the film, which, he wrote, was 'better than 99% of the comic book movies ever made.' 'I don't think so.' responded one cast member." 

That kind of arrogance, as well as the decision to publicly air his grievances with the same film executives who rolled the dice and gave him the chance of a lifetime to helm a super hero movie with a $120 million budget says a lot about Trank.

It also offers some psychological insight into his decision-making ability and how that might have affected the kinds of questionable day-to-day decisions on the set and in post-production that led to the film being what it is.

In the wake of the phenomenal success he had with 'Chronicle', in 2014 Trank was also tapped to direct the new 'Star Wars' stand-alone film for Disney, but left the production after clashing with Lucasfilm executives over the direction and execution of the film.

To be fair to Trank, he's gone on record as saying his being personally overwhelmed with the degree to which he was under the microscope and in the public eye during the filming of 'Fantastic Four' led him to rethink being the director of an installment in the nearly-mythical 'Star Wars' franchise.

So it's obviously not fair to simply blame the problems with 'Fantastic Four' on Michael B. Jordan being cast as Johnny Storm, but the week before the release of the film, when the casting change was already creating buzz, a couple of radio DJ's in Atlanta did just that.

Jordan's Atlanta interview
What should have been a fairly straight-forward radio interview of the featured 'Fantastic Four' cast members devolved into an uncomfortable example of how race can impact perception in America.

As Krystie Lee Yandoli wrote in a July 31st piece for, Jordan and two of his 'Fantastic Four' cast mates, Kate Mara and Kamie Bell, got up and walked out of the interview after one of the DJ's interviewing them continued to obnoxiously press Jordan to explain how his African-American character could possibly be the brother of Kate Mara's character who is white. 

Jordan was patient and professional about it as he tried to explain to the DJ that there were any number of reasons a black person and a white person could be siblings, but the interview turned south and the three actors simply got up and walked out.

But as we know, controversy over casting characters is hardly new for Hollywood and it's interesting how audience and fan reaction to Hollywood casting decisions can vary widely.

Authentically Asian? Actress Emma Stone
Director Cameron Crowe was recently forced to issue an apology for his decision to cast white frequently-blond haired actress Emma Stone (pictured left) as character Alison Ng, who is one quarter Asian, in his recent comedy 'Aloha'.

Vanity Fair's June 3rd article by Josh Duboff was just one of the slew of mainstream and social media articles covering the casting flap after fans and some critics reacted negatively to Sony's decision to not cast an authentically Asian actress for the role.

The racist e-mail exchanges between former Sony Pictures head Amy Pascal and producer Scott Rudin that were leaked last December and the fact that Amy Pascal was the one who greenlit 'Aloha' only adds to the burden Sony faces as it struggles to overcome the pall of bigotry and ethnic insensitivity that hangs over the studio like a cloud.

Consider this, Pascal was also the one who greenlit 'The Interview', a dark comedy about a fictional assassination attempt of North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un.

It was okay for Sony to cast an Asian actor to play a buffoonish Korean dictator who's portrayed as an idiot, but when it came to casting the part-Asian female love interest opposite Bradley Cooper 'Aloha'  no talented Asian actress could be found? Really?

The decision backfired for Sony and Crowe as many viewed it as another example of Hollywood "white-washing" film casts because of producer's apprehension about non-white actors in principal roles in mainstream commercial films.

In all fairness, sometimes Hollywood just can't catch a break.

Snarky bloggers like me give them grief for not putting ethnically diverse casts into mainstream movies, then when Hollywood tries to cast across ethnic lines, audiences rip them apart for it.

Do film executives deserve credit for trying? Absolutely.

Decades of history in the film industry isn't going to change overnight and maybe Fox deserves a measure of credit for taking a shot at casting Michael B. Jordan as the Human Torch in 'Fantastic Four' even though the film didn't click.

But not every project is going to be a hit. It's already made over $62 million and will make more overseas and on VOD or OTT digital video services like Netflix or; and a sequel has already been announced for 2017.

Who plays the Human Torch next time is yet to be seen, but there's no question Michael B. Jordan has a positive future ahead of him as an actor.

Hopefully next time, the executives at Fox will roll up their sleeves and attach him to an innovative project with an original story line; one where the character can be defined simply for who he is and the choices he makes and not for who the audience expects him to be.  

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