Furor Over Zendaya 'Spider-Man' Casting News - Aren't We Weary of This Yet?
Photo Credit: S & A

Furor Over Zendaya 'Spider-Man' Casting News - Aren't We Weary of This Yet?


It’s something that I think we’ve all come to expect each time a fictional white literary or comic book character is cast with an actor/actress of color in any film or TV adaptation: vehemently vocal repudiation by fans of the original character who are typically white. I’ve become so used to this; it’s become a running joke, kind of like the expectation that black characters in horror movies will surely die, or a black actress cast in a rom-com to play the sassy black best friend of the lead white female character.

You’d think that, by now, those shortsighted, angry fanboys/girls would come to expect that, in a time when #diversity is cause célèbre in Hollywood, as the industry faces maybe it’s most pungent and persistent criticism in calls for inclusivity than ever before, that films and TV series backed by the most dominant and influential player in the space, will need to essentially catch up and reflect the country as it is today, and not what it looked like decades ago when many of these comic books (specifically) were created. For example, in this case, Spider-Man was created in 1962. The Queens (New York City) area where Peter Parker grew up, lived and went to school in the 1960s, is certainly not the same in 2016, over 50 years later. When it comes to diversity, look no further than Queens, which is said to be one of the most diverse places on the entire planet, according to the Guinness Book of World Records. The United States Census Bureau adds that, in Queens, more than half of the population is non-white, a group that’s heavily Latin American, Asian, and African. So the possibility that Peter Parker’s girlfriend might be a woman of color shouldn’t be so difficult an idea to embrace in 2016.

And the fact that the cast of “Spider-Man: Homecoming” is as diverse as it is, is totally in-line with present-day reality, from Mary Jane being bi-racial, to Peter Parker’s school principal being of Asian descent, etc. And I believe the film’s producers are fully aware of all of these facts, and are simply trying to do what many would argue is the right thing. And as long as the creators of the original comic book (Stan Lee and Steve Ditko) have no qualms with this, then neither should anyone else, quite frankly.

Of all the perceived to be “egregious abuses” of intellectual property to concern oneself with, this is just not worth the fight. Alas, I’m sure it will continue.

As was announced last night, Zendaya’s previously-mysterious role in the upcoming Sony Pictures/Marvel Studios Spider-Man reboot, is none-other-than Mary Jane Watson – Peter Parker’s love interest. Zendaya is part of a diverse cast that also includes Bokeem Woodbine, Abraham Attah, Garcelle Beauvais, Hannibal Buress and Donald Glover.

To reiterate what I said yesterday, certainly “diversity” isn’t just black & white, so while it’s obviously great to see a cast that includes actors of African descent (as this is a black film/TV-focused blog), there’s still much to be done. And, ultimately, while a work and character of fiction, it’s still very much a film that tells a story centered around a white, hetero, male lead. And within the context of this post, while I’m certainly comfortable with the idea of casting actors/actresses of color to play white fictional characters even if only as a reflection of the times and/or in consideration of inclusivity, I would also strongly recommend that Hollywood film producers adapting comic or literary works, assess the wealth of material with original characters of color, created by writers/artists of color, that already exists. Does the world really need yet another Spider-Man reboot so soon since the last film just 2 years ago? There’ve been 5 Spider-Man movies in the last 14 years; Sam Raimi directed the first 3, and Marc Webb the last 2. None of them was particularly stellar, in my humble opinion. The character could maybe use an extended vacation while other previously ignored characters are introduced in their own movie franchises – especially characters of color. And then Spider-Man can return at some point in the future, refreshed, rethought and retooled, with fans given the opportunity to actually miss him.

Milestone Comics, for example – created by the late Dwayne McDuffie, as well as Denys Cowan, Michael Davis, and Derek T. Dingle – is home to a library full of non-white superhero characters deserving of their own big-screen adventures.

But if more Spider-Man movies must be made, whether to take advantage of superhero-movie-fever that’s currently sweeping earth, or as a kind of mass mind-trick to quickly erase memories of previous underwhelming films in the franchise, then why not do so with a noble intent to finally reflect the diversity within the audience that will be paying to see the movie when it’s released, especially if doing so takes nothing away from (and maybe even enhances) our appreciation and understanding of the characters, the world they live in, and the stories that are told?

Receiving much social media play this morning is “Guardians of the Galaxy” director James Gunn’s Facebook weigh-in on the controversy ignited by reports that the upcoming “Spider-Man: Homecoming” will feature a Mary Jane Watson who isn’t white, as is the case in the comic book, and has been the case in past Spider-Man movies.

In the lengthy post, Gunn (who is not directing the film by the way, but is certainly influential with a significant following) firmly endorses the casting of actors of color to play originally white fictional characters, as long as they stay true to the essence of the characters. Thus far there are over 1000 comments in response to his missive – some in agreement, and, as you’d expect, others not (although I certainly haven’t read them all). It’s a fierce debate, and I’m not sure if it needs to be at this juncture. But there are many who still feel very strongly about what they believe is a disservice to the source material in casting actors who aren’t exactly like the characters in the original material. Some of it reads more like veiled racism to me. In fact, some are outright racist. But there are those who seemingly can be reasoned with, as Gunn himself actually has directly responded to many of the comments, which fascinates me, because I don’t know if I would be so patient were I in his shoes.

Read his Facebook post on the matter below:

People get upset when something they consider intrinsic to a comic book character changes when adapted for a film. I get this. There are movies I dislike because I think there’s a basic misunderstanding of the story or the character when the comic is transferred to film (I still hate how in the first Batman movie the Joker was revealed as the murderer of Bruce Wayne’s parents, for instance.)

That said, I do not believe a character is the color of his or her skin. When Michael B Jordan was cast as Johnny Storm I didn’t understand the uproar. The primary characteristic of Johnny was not, to me, that he was white, or that he had blonde hair, but that he was a fiery, funny, big-mouthed braggart of a hero. I was happy that he was going to be played by one of the finest and most charming young actors out there.

Yesterday, a rumor broke out that the character of Mary Jane was being played by a young black woman, Zendaya, and all hell broke out on the Internet (again). I tweeted that if people find themselves complaining about Mary Jane’s ethnicity they have lives that are too good. (For those of you who think this means I’m confirming that Zendaya IS playing MJ, realize that although I’ve read the Spidey script, and I’ve met the actress in question, I have no idea what her role is. There’s a good chance someone told me at one time or another, but, if so, I can’t remember. I’m going to find out when I go into Marvel this afternoon, but I feel free to speak until that time because it’s about the concept about a black woman playing Mary Jane, not the actuality or hypothesis of it.)

I got a thousand or so responses to my tweet. Most of them were positive. Some folks disagreed – they thought the character should look like what she looks like in the comics – but were thoughtful. And a handful were flat out racist.

I can’t respond to the racists – I’m not ever going to change their minds. But for the thoughtful majority of you out there:

For me, if a character’s primary attribute – the thing that makes them iconic – is the color of their skin, or their hair color, frankly, that character is shallow and sucks. For me, what makes MJ MJ is her alpha female playfulness, and if the actress captures that, then she’ll work. And, for the record, I think Zendaya even matches what I think of as MJ’s primary physical characteristics – she’s a tall, thin model – much more so than actresses have in the past.

Whatever the case, if we’re going to continue to make movies based on the almost all white heroes and supporting characters from the comics of the last century, we’re going to have to get used to them being more reflective of our diverse present world. Perhaps we can be open to the idea that, although someone may not initially match how we personally conceive a character, we can be – and often are – happily surprised.

If/when it’s confirmed that an African American or Latina actress is cast as Han Solo’s love interest/female lead in the upcoming young Han Solo “Star Wars” spin-off movie, I imagine we’ll be having this chat again.

Jon Watts is directing “Spider-Man: Homecoming” for Sony Pictures and Marvel Studios, which is set for a summer 2017 release.

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