With Sony Pictures and Marvel partnering up to finally combine Spider-man and the Marvel Universe in theaters, there has been much talk about who will portray the iconic character in the new films. There are many fans who see this as a great opportunity for the web-slinging superhero to be played by an actor of color.
This isn’t the first time there have been people yearning for a big screen Spider-man of color. A few years ago there was a significant campaign for actor/rapper Donald Glover to take on the role. It was significant enough for him make a segment about it in one of his stand up shows.
In the segment, Glover describes how people were very much divided on the concept of race-bending Spider-man. Those who were against it, were hotly adamant about their opinions. Whenever the idea is raised to change the race of a traditionally white character, racist backlash is all too common.
This is evident in the case of Miles Morales. If you aren’t aware, Marvel has already introduced a black Spider-man in the comics, back in 2011. Many people were excited to read the story of the half-black half-Latino Miles, but there was also plenty of negative commentary to be found online.
Some fans felt that changing the race of such a prominent character is unnecessary and just panders to political correctness. Some felt that it actually takes away from the original character. The same thing happened more recently when Quvenzhané Wallis starred as the titular character in the 2014 remake of “Annie.” Unfortunately we will probably see this same criticism yet again, if Sony and Marvel use Miles Morales instead of Peter Parker in the new films.
When it comes down to it, the biggest issue that arises of the Marvel/Sony partnership isn’t just the possibility of a black Spider-man. It’s the fact that the “Captain Marvel” and “Black Panther” films have been pushed back; films that will star a female lead and a black man, respectively. So if we have to wait longer for these diverse films, at least give us a Spider-man of color.
This push for a Spider-man of color is happening not too long after the big reveal of another high-profile case of race bending; one that went in the opposite direction. Last month DreamWorks made it public that Scarlet Johansson will be starring in their adaptation of Ghost in the Shell. The original protagonist of Ghost in the Shell is the Japanese cyborg Motoko Kusanagi.
This casting choice has also been met with its fair share of backlash. There’s even a petition with over 27,000 signatures urging DreamWorks to recast Johansson’s role. Yet, the negative reaction to a white Kusanagi, is the not the same as the negative reaction to a black Spidey.
The latter, is a desire for more diverse roles for a marginalized group. However, DreamWorks’s “Ghost in the Shell” is a classic case of Hollywood whitewashing. It happens way too often, even with adaptations of animated series. “Avatar: The Last Airbender” was a series that featured many main characters of color, but two of the protagonists, Sokka and Katara, were portrayed by white actors. The popular anime series “Speed Racer” and “Dragonball” both had American movie remakes–both remakes cast white actors as the leads.
Putting a white actor in a role that was originally designed to be a person of color takes away from the few roles that exist for people of color in the first place. This particularly rings true for Asian actors who are one of the least represented groups on screen in Hollywood films.
Rinko Kinkuchi, the first Japanese actress to have been nominated for an Academy Award in 57 years, would have been a great choice to play the Ghost in the Shell heroine. Kinkuchi impressed millions with her role as Mako Mori in the action sci-fi film Pacific Rim. Kinkuchi is just one of the many Asian actresses who could be suitable for the role, but clearly they were all overlooked in favor of a well-known Caucasian actress.
Yet in the Spider-man situation, if they overlook a white actor in favor of an actor of color things would be different. 89. 5 percent of lead actors in theatrical Films are white; both the last two Spiderman franchises had a majority white cast. There is a small percentage of starring roles that go to people of color. If a white person is turned down for Spider-man they would still have plenty of opportunities in the industry. This is why race-bending characters of color and letting them be played by white actors and actresses closes doors for people of color.
A common argument for putting big name white movie stars in lead roles is that they bring in box office dollars. This isn’t true according to a study from The Journal of Behavioral Studies in Business: “many of the biggest box office flops in Hollywood had stars, and many successful movies starred people who were relative unknowns.” Actor’s names don’t really have as much of an effect on box office ratings as people think. Besides, how are actors of color supposed to become household names if they aren’t getting opportunities in the first place?
Even well-known actors of color aren’t safe from race bending related backlash. People like Rush Limbaugh, who argued that Idris Elba shouldn’t be considered for the role of James Bond because he’s black, don’t seem to understand that fictional characters have no color. Unlike historical figures, which have even been whitewashed, fictional characters have a human created canon. This canon can be altered at will depending on who owns the rights to them.
This is why Peter Parker can even be black in a newly established canon, after all, what about Parker’s character actually needs to be changed to incorporate a new race? Peter Parker is a bright young man interested in science, and gets bullied for his intelligence. His inner confidence shines after acquiring superpowers. Nothing about him is defined by whiteness. It would be just sad if Sony was willing to re-do the same character with same race so soon (for the third time) rather than giving us something new.
It’s unlikely that Sony will opt for the lesser known Miles Morales, and they will most likely still go along with Perter as Spider-man. But if Miles Morale’s story can take place in an alternate Universe where Peter Parker was killed off, (not to mention a universe with human spiders and flying goblin technology…) there’s no reason we can’t have an alternate Universe with a black Peter Parker.
This same logic could technically be used when defending Scarlett Johansson as Kusanagi, but it’s not the same. We have plenty of white characters already, so it’s unnecessary to take away something from the minority to give to the majority. Just because we can freely alter the appearance and characteristics of fictional characters, doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be socially conscious about what we change.
The race bending of Ghost in the Shell is a let-down but the possible race bending of Spider-man can give us hope. So if Marvel can give us a black Spider-man, maybe the wait for an originally black superhero movie, like the Black Panther, won’t be so bad.