Michael B. Jordan’s Human Torch, Furiosa’s Feminism, and the New Identity Politics of Super-Mainstream Cinema

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Arguments over identity politics are familiar on the Internet and in classrooms, but now they’ve made inroads from message boards to the previews and actions sequences of major blockbuster films. Today, different ideological groups are duking it out over individual characters in super-mainstream pop culture, either using them as avatars of their points of view or rejecting them as avatars of an insidious progressive agenda. Whether it’s MRAs freaking out about the feminism of “Mad Max” or racists reading a black Human Torch as a symbol of the ultimate affront of the Obama era, inclusive strains in new films have outraged social conservatives. Yet simultaneously, progressives are pushing hard for directors and studios to continue making their big-budget films even more accurately reflective of their devoted fandoms, in all their diverse glory.

This weekend, actor Michael B. Jordan, revealed as Johnny Storm/The Human Torch in the forthcoming Fantastic Four film, took the Internet to see what people were saying about his casting. While Friday Night Lights and Wire fans were absolutely thrilled, racists were not. Much like they did with Rue from The Hunger Games, hundreds of people couldn’t get beyond his race and were making rather unpleasant comments about it. Instead of ignoring this behavior, Jordan penned an open letter declaring his intention to take on the system:

Sometimes you have to be the person who stands up and says, “I’ll be the one to shoulder all this hate. I’ll take the brunt for the next couple of generations.” I put that responsibility on myself. People are always going to see each other in terms of race, but maybe in the future we won’t talk about it as much. Maybe, if I set an example, Hollywood will start considering more people of color in other prominent roles, and maybe we can reach the people who are stuck in the mindset that “it has to be true to the comic book.” Or maybe we have to reach past them.

Jordan also chided trolls to get off their computers, in a delightful coda.

Even as this racist tempest raged, feminists and MRAs continued to argue it out over Mad Max: Fury Road. Ironically, many on both sides were saying the same thing: the film was feminist to its core, and Furiosa was the embodiment of the movement. MRAs vowed a boycott, while feminists created celebratory memes and declared the film an unqualified victory.

Then some critics jumped in to say the film was hardly a paragon of perfect feminist politics, simply replacing men with women in a violent action film, and others shot back with responses to that charge. The debate over the film was as robust and passionate as it might be over a foundational feminist text — the difference being that millions of pop culture fans were taking part.

All this came on the heels of the furious battles over the portrayal of Black Widow in the new Avengers. Was she too dependent on men in her storyline? Were people overreacting to her role? Critics zeroed in on the scene where she describes herself as a “monster” because of her forcible sterilization during her training as an assassin. For many watching, it wasn’t enough to simply have female characters kick ass — they wanted to get rid of sexist tropes, too. “Can’t we be past this already?” writes Ariana Vives at Bitch Media. “It’s bad enough Marvel still has no concrete plans for a solo Black Widow movie, now Whedon has fallen back on the creepiest of tropes: before a woman can be a hero, she must be bodily violated.”

Of course, the slut-shaming rampage that the stars of the film went on, leaked Sony emails revealing gender cluelessness, and the disappearance of Joss Whedon from Twitter (although not because he was hounded off by feminists) show that it’s still a discussion worth having. No artist or director should be beholden to a singular moral vision, even an unfailingly forward-thinking one. Storytelling and character development and all the elements that make entertainment meaningful are paramount. Yet the vision many fans are advocating for — which often requires axing boring tropes in favor of fresh storylines — make those stories better.

It’s clear that studios are slowly, often unwillingly, inching towards a more progressive vision. Just look at the “new Avengers” who are due to show up again in the next Captain America film. They seem like poster children for a more inclusive and accurate vision of a group of heroes. Similarly, the new Fantastic Four are looking significantly more interesting and appealing than the last crew, mostly thanks to Jordan’s arrival (Miles Teller doesn’t hurt, either).

This debate has the contours of an old message board argument from the early days of Internet flamewars — yet what’s amazing about this round of fighting is that big-budget films seem to very slowly be responding to progressive critiques.