Face It, Tiger: Spider-Man and Racism Just Don’t Mix
The following post contains SPOILERS for Spider-Man: Homecoming.
Here’s a sample of the angry comments I’ve read in the last 24 hours about the rumor that Zendaya will be playing Spider-Man’s long-time love interest, Mary Jane Watson, in Jon Watts’ Spider-Man: Homecoming.
- “Why can’t they just cast a REAL, good-looking redhead?”
- “[She was] hand picked to appease the PC culture that is LITERALLY RIPPING OUR NATION APART!”
- “Retroactively changing the race of an existing character with an established skin tone and/or physiognomy is just dumb. No one enjoys this pitiful practice in pandering.”
It was previously reported that Zendaya was playing a character named Michelle, but that now appears to have been a deliberate misdirection; Zendaya is supposedly playing the new MJ opposite the new Peter Parker, Tom Holland.
Zendaya is a film and television star and a beautiful young woman. She also doesn’t look like the Mary Jane of comics; Zendaya’s father is black and her mother is white, inspiring comments like the ones above (and others that are much worse that I won’t reprint) that insist she’s a bad choice for the role because of the color of her skin.
In this job, you encounter people saying dumb and/or hateful things on an almost daily basis. But when people start saying dumb and/or hateful things about Spider-Man, I take it personally. I’ve loved Spider-Man for more than 30 years and the values Spider-Man represents are antithetical to bigotry, cruelty, and misanthropy. I haven’t seen a single frame of Spider-Man: Homecoming, and it’s entirely possible that when the movie comes out next July, I might not love Zendaya’s performance. But that will have nothing to do with her African-American heritage. Simply dismissing Zendaya’s qualifications to play this role because of her skin color is the literal definition of racism. Like, the one in the actual dictionary. And anyone making that argument while claiming to be a Spider-Man fan does not have a very good understanding of Spider-Man.
This isn’t the first time angry comic-book fans have gotten upset that an African American actor has been cast as a traditionally white character. It’s not even the first time Spider-Man fans have gotten upset about the casting of an actress playing Mary Jane. In 2013, Shailene Woodley was hired to play MJ in The Amazing Spider-Man 2, angering some comic book readers who claimed she was not attractive enough for the role. She’d be all right, one commenter on a fan site claimed, if only “they can do something with that face of hers.” Another angry “fan” suggested they “burn it with fire.” Casting Woodley, a reader on another superhero-focused site wrote, was “a slap in the face to Stan Lee’s vision.”
If we want to get really technical about that vision, I’m not sure any actress could fully embody the Mary Jane Watson of Stan Lee’s comics today. Here are a couple of panels from MJ and Peter’s first date in Amazing Spider-Man #43:
Stan Lee’s Mary Jane talked in rhyme and used so much hep lingo that she would have fit perfectly in a 1960s parody film, like someone Dewey Cox might have bumped into in Walk Hard.
Mary Jane changed, of course, in comics written by Lee and many others. Peter and Mary Jane drifted apart and then came back together; they later got married and even had a daughter together. These days Peter and Mary Jane aren’t even a couple, although they technically never got divorced (it’s a long story). She’s been a model, an actress, and a nightclub owner. MJ recently became a regular cast member in the pages of Invincible Iron Man, working as an executive assistant to Tony Stark.
In other words: She hasn’t been faithful to “Stan Lee’s vision” for decades. This character has grown and evolved with the times. If she really does show up in Spider-Man: Homecoming, this will just be her latest evolution. As I wrote of these embarrassing spider-fans back in 2013, the only ones slapping Stan Lee’s vision in the face are the trolls who leap at any excuse to lash out at the women who get cast in these superhero movies because they’re not white enough or redheaded enough or (allegedly) not pretty enough. Before Peter Parker received his powers from a radioactive spider, he was a 98-pound weakling who got picked on constantly by jocks like Flash Thompson. That’s who these so-called fans sound like; bullies who enjoy tearing people down because it makes them feel big and powerful.
Has Mary Jane always been identified by her bright red hair? Sure. But if the only thing that defines a character is the color of their hair, then maybe they’re not all that interesting of a character. And Mary Jane is an interesting character, in lots of ways that have nothing to do with how she looks. She’s a great foil for Peter Parker because he’s often shy and introverted and she’s gregarious and outgoing. The way she grapples with Peter’s double life is fascinating; she loves him because of who he is and the sacrifices he makes, but she’s understandably terrified by the risks he takes. None of that has to do with her hair or skin color.
If your only qualifications for a “good” Mary Jane are red hair and white skin, guess what? You already have a good Mary Jane. Kirsten Dunst played her, quite well I might add, in three different Spider-Man movies for Sam Raimi. And last I checked, those movies still exist. In fact, you can get the entire trilogy on Blu-ray for less than $15. One of the cool parts of Spider-Man: Homecoming indicated by Zendaya’s casting is the sense that the movie is free to chart its own course. Where is the fun in a film that conforms exactly to a previous comic or film? Who wants a movie that delivers exactly what they expect? That’s a recipe for boredom. Good moviemaking, particularly in remakes or reboots, requires imagination, creativity, and vision — up to and including reimagining old characters in new ways.
The lesson Uncle Ben taught Peter Parker, that great power comes with great responsibility, is almost as famous as the character himself. There’s an unspoken element of that credo, though: Empathy. Consider this version of Spider-Man’s origin from Sam Raimi’s 2002 movie.
Peter Parker lets the burglar escape because he’s mad. The promoter refuses to pay him what he believes he’s owed. So when a man with a gun shows up and robs the promoter, Peter lets him leave; he literally steps out of the guy’s way as he runs for the elevator. When the promoter complains that Peter did nothing, he replies, “I missed the part where that’s my problem,” echoing a line the promoter had said to him minutes before.
The burglar escapes and, looking for a getaway car, steals Uncle Ben’s and kills him in the process. The lesson isn’t just that great power comes with great responsibility, it’s that everyone deserves protection and respect. Peter had every right to be mad at that sleazy promoter. But that doesn’t mean the sleazy promoter deserve to be robbed. Yes, Peter needed that money. But that doesn’t mean the sleazy promoter didn’t need it too. Maybe his wife was sick and didn’t have insurance. Maybe his business was failing. Maybe Bonesaw McGraw was very hard to deal with and would beat up the promoter if he didn’t give him what he wanted.
We don’t know, and that’s the point. Empathy means sharing the feelings of others rather than focusing entirely on your own. Instead of letting a burglar get away because the guy he robbed was kind of a jerk, consider how you’d feel if you were the one being robbed. Instead of just being angry because this new Mary Jane doesn’t jive perfectly with the one you like, consider what she could mean to millions of other people who haven’t had a character in previous Spider-Man stories to relate to.
If Spider-Man is going to continue to thrive in the 21st century, it needs to evolve with the times, in exactly the same way that Mary Jane has evolved in the pages of Amazing Spider-Man. The filmmakers in charge of Spider-Man: Homecoming have their own great power; the power to inspire people all over the world by representing them onscreen in an inclusive, diverse movie. That’s a responsibility as well, and clearly one they don’t take lightly.