This story is from Issue 19 of Highsnobiety Magazine. It was originally published on September 25, 2019.
Michael B. Jordan always wanted to be an X-Man. Growing up he watched Marvel’s suite of Saturday morning cartoons, then pretended he was Iceman — whose mutant powers allowed him to cover himself in a layer of protective ice, freeze objects with his hands, and turn water vapor into ice floes that would allow him to smoothly navigate the area around him. Or he’d picture himself as Morph, a character created solely for the TV series with the ability to shapeshift into whoever he wanted to be — a superpower that the 32-year-old actor actually possesses, becoming everyone from police brutality victim Oscar Grant III in his breakout role in Fruitvale Station, beleaguered boxer Adonis Creed, and tragic villain Erik Killmonger in Black Panther.
Killmonger wasn’t Jordan’s first foray into the Marvel Universe. In 2015, he was cast as Johnny Storm in director Josh Trank’s reboot of Fantastic Four. In the comics, Storm is the Human Torch, the blonde-haired, blue-eyed brother of Sue Storm — better known as the Invisible Woman. Trank’s version of the film rewrites Jordan’s Johnny Storm as the adoptive brother of Kate Mara’s Sue Storm. While the film was met with its fair share of criticism, Jordan’s casting was also met with controversy — much of it from Marvel fans who saw his skin color as inaccurate.
“I have a whole lifetime of practicing to imagine to be someone who didn't look like me,” says Jordan, recalling his childhood days playing X-Men on his mom’s couch. “That's the difference of growing up in a world without true representation.” It’s an experience that informed how he handled the initial backlash to his Fantastic Four role: by writing an op-ed for Entertainment Weekly titled “Why I'm Torching the Color Line.”
“I know I can’t ask the audience to forget 50 years of comic books. But the world is a little more diverse in 2015 than when the Fantastic Four comic first came out in 1961,” he writes. “Plus, if Stan Lee writes an email to my director saying, ‘You’re good. I’m okay with this,’ who am I to go against that?”
Jordan sums up the core message of what the superteam is all about: four friends who overcome unfortunate circumstances and end up strengthening their bonds as a family. “Maybe, if I set an example, Hollywood will start considering more people of color in other prominent roles,” he continues. “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.”
Beyond Marvel comics, Jordan remembers going to the mall, picking up a few old-school kung-fu flicks, and watching them with his friends. That led to him discovering anime, where the over-the-top, vivid fight scenes in series like Dragon Ball Z blew his mind as much as the intricate choreography of a Bruce Lee film.
Around the same mid-’90s era that saw Marvel and DC turning their most popular comics into cartoons, San Francisco-based anime distribution company Viz Media began introducing Japanese anime and manga to the American market. Today Viz Media remains the largest publisher of graphic novels and comic books in the United States, with a market share of 23 percent.
Series like Toriyama’s Dragon Ball have become especially popular as “gateway series” for neophyte anime fans. It tells the story of Son Goku, one of the last of a warrior alien race called Saiyans. The titular “dragonballs” are seven spheres that, like Thanos’ “infinity stones,” are sought-after MacGuffins that are the most potent when they’re all combined. The series largely revolves around collecting them to summon an all-powerful dragon that can grant one wish. In between, there’s a lot of drawn-out fights and pre-battle banter on par with professional wrestling’s most memorable mouths. Partly due to the addictive story arcs, and partly due to the exaggerated aesthetic of the art, it’s easier for people to interpret themselves in the overly emotional faces of anime characters than it is in Western comics, where the pseudo-realistic faces and skin tones more clearly convey a character’s race.
“A lot of people who were introduced to Dragon Ball in the States didn’t know it was Japanese. It was mainly because the art style didn’t play to certain stereotypes,” says Alex Lee, senior licensing manager of Viz Media. “So when Toriyama drew it, he didn’t think of Goku as Asian. I think that different cultures project themselves onto the Goku character. If a Japanese person is watching Naruto or Dragon Ball, they will see themselves in it. If an American is watching it, or a European, they still see themselves in it.”
Masashi Kishimoto’s Naruto is a more modern anime series that remains one of Viz Media’s most successful properties. Debuting in 1999 in Weekly Shonen Jump, a popular serialized magazine that has been a launchpad for many series that go on to become hot franchises, the elevator pitch for it is essentially, “Harry Potter, but with ninjas.” The titular character, Naruto Uzumaki, is depicted as a hapless screw-up with no innate talent. Yet his goal is to become the top shinobi of his village. One of the biggest reveals in the series — which turns 20 this year — is that Uzumaki is the secret host of a nine-tailed fox demon that becomes a wellspring of unrivaled power.
Throughout the series (and its sequels, Naruto: Shippuden and Boruto: Naruto Next Generations), Uzumaki learns how to tame his inner beast, and the audience gets a firsthand look at how hard he works to do it. There is no short training montage where he seemingly becomes an overnight powerhouse — it’s a long-winded process characterized by constant pitfalls. Jordan sees similarities between the main protagonist and Adonis Creed, a character with a similarly dark past who is forever punching above his weight class.
“Adonis believing in himself and having this kind of curse — this nine-tailed fox kind of looming, spinning around him that he’s trying to shake to become his own person — once he embraces that and turns it into a positive, it’s extremely powerful,” says Jordan.
Although anime is generally aimed at children, it appeals to adults because it doesn’t underestimate its audience, and its serialized nature is tailor-made for binge watching. Characters like Naruto and Goku are depicted as emotionally rounded, vulnerable humans more so than the invincible Superman. They experience self-doubt, they lose as often as they win, and they cry often. Much of the reason anime and manga is drawn in a style that exaggerates facial features is to emphasize the characters’ emotional states. Whether it’s on the page or the screen, the medium allows for joy and distress to be turned up to eleven.
Jordan developed such a strong connection to Naruto that he admits dropping tears during the series finale of Naruto: Shippuden. The franchise has had such a profound impact on him that when he was given the opportunity to design a capsule collection with Coach (he was named a global ambassador in September 2018), he wanted it to be based entirely around Naruto. Coach creative director Stuart Vevers is no stranger to these types of collaborations — as a die-hard Disney fan, he spearheaded Coach’s Disney collection last year — but admits that the world of anime is entirely new to him.
“Anime is something that was a big piece of my childhood, my adult life, and my creativity.”
“A collaboration is at its best when it involves something personal. And this was really personal to Michael, so I was really intrigued to learn more about it, but also really supportive because it felt authentic to him,” says Vevers. He happened to be going to Japan just after speaking with Jordan about the inspiration, so arranged to meet some of the Naruto team while visiting the country. “It’s incredible the detail that he knows about the genre and specifically Naruto — he can go into so much detail that sometimes I had to say: ‘Okay, you have to slow down...’ because he’s so passionate about it,” continues Vevers.
Jordan also used the collaboration as an opportunity to learn more about the process of making clothes and rose to the challenge. If he was Vevers’ anime sherpa, then Vevers would be Jordan’s guide to fashion design.
“Anime is something that was a big piece of my childhood, my adult life, and my creativity,” says Jordan. “Stuart was super creative. I built a relationship with him over the years and got a chance to know him. I gave him the education on Naruto — what everything means, the characters, and the symbols. Then we started picking out pieces and started to design them.”
The two have developed such a strong rapport that Jordan has even met Vevers’ mother, who still asks after the charming actor. That’s part of Jordan’s enduring sex appeal: He’s handsome, absolutely yoked, and he’s precisely the type of man you could bring home to mom. His passion for anime makes him even more endearing, and it comes through in the collection.
There are plenty of Naruto-derived graphics utilizing images like the spiraled leaf of the Konoha village — Naruto Uzumaki’s hometown — and the Sharingan, a red circle characterized by a black dot surrounded by three apostrophes. It’s the signature of the Uchiha clan, whose members Sasuke and Itachi double as two of Naruto’s greatest rivals. Jordan’s particularly fond of a bomber jacket with detachable sleeves modeled after the one worn by Kakashi Hatake — Naruto’s earliest mentor, a laid-back ninja teacher. There’s also a pair of cargo pants that are a dead ringer for the standard-issue uniform trousers worn by many of the show’s shinobi, and a gray, faux fur-lined hooded jacket inspired by Kiba Inuzuka, a tertiary Naruto character who comes from a clan that specializes in canine-assisted combat.
“I wanted something that people who loved anime would be able to pick up on — small Easter eggs here and there that people really grab on to,” says Jordan. “It’s subtle. It’s not over the top, but you still get it in the lining of certain jackets, or a print on some of the tote bags.”
Jordan has publicly admitted his love for anime before, and this isn’t the first time something he’s worn has been tied to the genre. His Black Panther character, Erik Killmonger, wears a metallic tactical vest that fans thought looked similar to the one worn by Vegeta, one of the main characters in Dragon Ball Z. It resulted in memes showing the two side-by-side.
“I can’t remember if me and Ryan [Coogler, director of Black Panther] talked about it. I’m not sure if that was intentional,” says Jordan. “I thought it was dope — even a happy coincidence. I thought it was fly that people saw that and actually turned it into [memes].”
But in another way, Jordan’s unabashed fandom is creating a safe space for closeted anime heads. The Coach collab is an opportunity to engage with a growing cross-section of fashion fans and Naruto fans. As retailers like Uniqlo, fashion houses like Prada, and brands like Hook-Ups and Primitive Skateboarding slyly reference or officially license anime graphics in their apparel, Viz Media’s Alex Lee thinks there’s never been a better time to be a style-conscious nerd.
“I grew up with DC and Marvel. 15 years ago I didn’t go around telling people I was a comic fan. It wasn’t until Shaq had that Superman tattoo that he made it cool,” admits Lee. “So for Michael B. Jordan, he’s doing that for our generation now. He’s not shy about it. He wears it out front. He did a Coach collab and that completely validated anime for us. It makes people not want to keep it in their room; it makes them want to blurt it out and be proud.”
Jordan’s current anime diet is “working his way through the classics.” He’s watching Gundam Wing, known for its intricate mecha designs that have spurred a whole industry of plastic models. He’s fully hooked on Attack On Titan, a violent show that mixes steampunk elements into a post-apocalyptic medieval world plagued by “titans,” grotesque giants with an appetite for smaller humans. Like many anime purists, he prefers watching it in the original Japanese language with subtitles as opposed to the English-dubbed versions, where the characters’ mouth movements often have to be edited to match the new voice acting — which can also change how certain characters are perceived.
“It’s the only way to really watch it for me. I need to hear the Japanese,” he says. “The English dub is not the same messaging that it was intended to be. It’s just a different translation.”
“Diverse, ‘color-blind casting’ was a thing for a couple years ... ‘Inclusion rider’ is another thing, so hopefully it becomes more of a permanent situation — not just something that’s here for a moment. Everybody’s flawed; this industry is flawed as well. I’m just trying to improve it.”
Besides being a hardcore otaku — a Japanese term for anime fans — Jordan also stars in an anime show.
Last year he made his debut on gen:LOCK, a space opera in the vein of Gundam featuring a plucky international team of elite mecha pilots pitted against a mysterious hostile force. Blending CG elements with animation, the art style and production instantly differentiate it from what most fans would consider a core “anime” — but the inspiration couldn’t be more clear. Additional voices come from talents like Maisie Williams, Dakota Fanning, and David Tennant. It currently airs on Toonami, a nighttime block of Cartoon Network credited with helping more adult-oriented anime series achieve a more mainstream market appeal.
“There's a whole community lying dormant that has a thirst for seeing themselves in anime, and having characters that represent them so they don't have to imagine that hard.”
Jordan’s character, Julian Chase, is a black Brooklynite who often wears a vest that also looks like the ones worn by Vegeta and Killmonger. His skin tone and his family are unmistakably black, a rarity for the medium. When Jordan first started watching anime, he took it at face value before he began to realize the impact representation could have in the genre. 2018’s Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse tackled this issue head-on, proposing that anyone could be behind the mask, not just a white Peter Parker or mixed-race Miles Morales, but little boys and girls of color who — like a young Michael B. Jordan — imagined themselves as the character while jumping on the couch.
“There’s a whole community lying dormant that has a thirst for seeing themselves in anime, and having characters that represent them so they don’t have to imagine that hard,” says Jordan. “I think as anime starts to become more and more popular, you’ll start to see that thirst and desire for these characters that look more like the world that we live in.”
More recently, Jordan was hit with a sense of déjà vu when it was announced that 19-year-old Halle Bailey — a black actor and half of R&B duo Chloe X Halle — would be playing the role of Ariel in Disney’s live-action remake of The Little Mermaid. Numerous fans reacted negatively to the news, only seeing the red-headed protagonist as the white teenager she was depicted as in the original animated film. Jordan points out that there’s a much longer history of black mermaids than white ones, so Bailey’s casting is actually more in line with the Afro-Carribbean roots of the legend.
“If you really want to go back to the history of mermaids, there were African mermaids in African mythology a long time ago,” he says of Bailey’s casting. “Look man — I played Johnny Storm; I know my shit when it comes to all that. It’s something I’m not a stranger to.”
When Frances McDormand accepted her Oscar in 2018 for her role in Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, she closed her speech by saying: “I have two words to leave with you tonight, ladies and gentlemen: inclusion rider.”
It was the first time Jordan had heard of the term, which is a stipulation an actor can put into his or her contract that doesn’t just promote inclusivity in a project’s cast and crew — it requires it. Two days after McDormand’s speech, Jordan put up an Instagram post flanked by Phil Sun, his Asian-American agent at WME, and Alana Mayo, the black female president of Outlier Society, Jordan’s production company. “In support of the women & men who are leading this fight, I will be adopting the Inclusion Rider for all projects produced by my company Outlier Society,” Jordan writes in his caption. “I’ve been privileged to work with powerful women & persons of color throughout my career & it’s Outlier’s mission to continue to create for talented individuals going forward.”
Outlier Society is one of the first companies to formally adopt an inclusion rider, but it’s something Jordan says he had already been doing. Now that he’s able to implement it contractually, he feels it will allow him to create more opportunities to empower marginalized people in the industry.
“Representation is a big deal. Now it’s becoming more of a popular thing,” he says. “Diverse, ‘color-blind casting’ was a thing for a couple years. That was a word thrown around like it was a bottle of water. ‘Inclusion rider’ is another thing, so hopefully it becomes more of a permanent situation — not just something that’s here for a moment. Everybody’s flawed; this industry is flawed as well. I’m just trying to improve it.”
In January 2019 he signed a first-look deal with Warner Bros. that has given him an even bigger platform. He hopes that by working with Warner Bros. and Warner Media on their inclusion policies, other studios will take note. He’s carrying the torch of other pioneering black artists before him, who created their own kind of “inclusion rider” before there was an official term for it.
“There were so many people doing it before I was: the Sidney Poitiers, Robert Townsends, and Tyler Perrys,” he says. “There’s so many other people — forefathers of mine that came before me, and I’m building off of what they’ve been doing — the Spike Lees, and of course John Singleton. Those are people that have been doing this type of ‘inclusion rider’ in their own way.”
Even if collaborating with a fashion brand is fairly new for Jordan, he’s been collaborating with director Ryan Coogler for years. He describes their relationship as no less than brotherhood, and they’ve worked together since 2013’s Fruitvale Station. There’s a parallel in the forefathers Jordan mentions and how he and Coogler have always supported each other’s careers. Hollywood has had its fair share of dynamic director/actor duos — Steven Spielberg and Tom Hanks, Wes Anderson and Owen Wilson, Judd Apatow and Paul Rudd — but Ryan Coogler and Michael B. Jordan are fast-cementing their place in that pantheon.
“If me and him would’ve went to high school together, we would have been best friends coming up. That’s the type of person Ryan is,” says Jordan. “We both needed each other; we still need each other. We want to collaborate across and above; we want to collaborate with all the people around us — like-minded individuals.”
Their chemistry shines in the work they’ve produced together, and Jordan hopes that future creatives of color can crib some things from their playbook. “There’s no more excuses. If you’re in high school, you got an iPhone. You got a friend that likes to write? Team up with him. Sit down in a room for one summer and break out a story. If you’re a director, team up with a friend that loves holding a camera, taking videos. Use that guy as a camera guy. Start building your own little crew and create,” he advises. “You guys learn together; you grow together. By the time you hit college, everybody has had those same growing pains, those same experiences, and now you all leveled up together. It’s a thing I want people to start. Seize the moment. Start taking advantage of and taking control over your own destiny as much as you can.”
Jordan is taking his own advice. The day he calls me from Los Angeles, he’s fresh off a red carpet premiere, except last night wasn’t about an on-camera role, but his burgeoning behind-the-scenes career. He’s an executive producer of David Makes Man, a coming-of-age drama on Oprah’s OWN network about a black 14-year-old child prodigy who attends a magnet school but lives in the hood. Two wrapped projects — Raising Dion on Netflix and his first post-deal Warner Bros. film, Just Mercy — are coming out later this year. He’s not one to bask in the afterglow of successful projects, and is one of the types who quickly moves on to the next thing.
Whatever that “next thing” is, it’s definitely not going to be a live-action adaptation of an anime series. With his full-on fandom getting more known, Jordan admits he’s been approached to produce live-action versions of several of his favorite shows. He’s declined all of them.
“Animation is so vivid. It’s so fantastical. It’s hard to translate that to live action and get that same kind of feeling,” he says. “I think that if it’s done the right way — and you stay authentic to the manga and the anime — I feel like you have a shot, but it’s still a really, really hard thing to do.”
The biggest hurdle he sees between anime and live action is that uncanny valley between anime’s signature aesthetic and the limitations of real life. That sense of escapism and melodramatic expression is so integral to enjoying the medium and developing strong emotional bonds with the characters — one that transcends any perceived ethnicity. He doesn’t see a viable method of capturing that essence yet, although he applauds Robert Rodriguez’s latest attempt with Alita: Battle Angel, based on Yukito Kishiro’s Battle Angel Alita.
He also admits he might be too close to the genre to even begin to think about how to successfully translate it to live action. He posits how one could even begin to make a live-action version of Dragon Ball Z — and how disappointing 2009’s Dragonball Evolution was.
“Are you going to CG it like Ninja Turtles, or are you going to do full makeup like Guillermo del Toro’s Pan’s Labyrinth?” he wonders. “Technology continues to grow and change, so who knows what we’ll be able to do in five years. You might have the right piece of technology to make everything seamless. I’m just going to keep it in my back pocket and wait for the right thing.”
I ask Jordan about what the ideal anime adaptation would be, but his publicist interjects that he’s running out of time. So, naturally, the conversation shifts back to Naruto, which has been pushed back into the collective consciousness of the internet thanks to “Storm Area 51, They Can’t Stop All of Us,” a viral Facebook event with over 2 million confirmed attendees.
In a nutshell: The idea is that on September 20, 2019, attendees will attempt to raid Nevada’s Area 51, avoiding guards’ bullets by performing the “Naruto Run,” a move popularized by the anime that consists of running with your back arched forwards and arms straightened out to your sides like the wings of a sleek jet fighter. In the anime, it allows characters to run much faster.
“Listen man, I was thinking about going and standing way in the back just to see what happens. Like, ‘Lemme know if y’all find anything, but I’m gonna be back here.’ I thought the Area 51 shit was hilarious,” he jokes. “My ‘Naruto Run’ is good, man. My arms are a little long; they kind of catch flight and start picking up speed.”