A lot of Spider-Man movies have been released in the past fifteen years. Andrew Garfield’s incarnation of the web-slinger launched just four years after Tobey Maguire hung up the cobwebbed cowl. Instead of finishing The Amazing Spider-Man series, the iconic character has instead swung into the Marvel Cinematic Universe, with yet another reboot now due for 2017. While it’s easy to see why some fans would be reluctant to get excited about another retelling of the same story so soon, a lot of the criticism already levelled at Spiderman: Homecoming has nothing to do with the potential lack of originality.
Generally, fans have embraced Tom Holland’s Peter Parker. Sadly, there are many people who haven’t been so generous towards his new possible love interest, played by African-American actor Zendaya.
The saddest part is that none of the criticism has much to do with Zendaya’s acting skills or ability to portray the character well. Instead, it all seems to be about one thing: her ethnicity.
Of course, there have been plenty of smart, sensible and even hilarious responses to this sort of hateful language, calling out the racism where people see it.
If Mary Jane isn’t white with red hair the whole story of a dude who gets bit by a magic spider then wears a leotard falls apart
— Todd (@Todd_J) August 19, 2016
But that doesn’t make it any better that a lot of people still subscribe to this backwards, exclusionary attitude.
That’s not to say that there isn’t an argument for casting actors that look as similar to the comic book characters as possible. Comic books are, after all, as much as visual medium as movies are. Characters are often designed to look a certain way for a reason. Writers and artists put a lot of effort into creating a character with specific qualities, designing their physical attributes as intricately as they design their personalities and their histories.
When your favourite comic book characters come to life on the big screen, you want them to be the way you’ve always imagined they will be. It certainly made it easy to fall in love with Robert Downey Jr’s Iron Man because he already looked so much like the Tony Stark in the comics.
But it wasn’t just his looks that won him the role. It was the way he made the character his own without completely changing who Tony Stark was. It was his terrific acting skills, including being able to create excellent chemistry with other actors and improvising in a way that made his performance truly unique. It was his commitment to knowing the character he was playing and doing it in a way that would be relatable to both seasoned comic book nerds and people seeing Iron Man for the first ever time.
If he hadn’t had those skills, he wouldn’t have got the part, no matter what he looked like. A character’s personality is what makes them who they are far more than their physical appearance. Ultimately, having a character portrayed well is the priority when choosing an actor, because the most important thing about a character is very rarely the way they look.
For the most part, fans understand this. In fact, there have been many instances when a comic book character has been completely changed in their transition to the big screen and people haven’t seemed all that bothered.
Looking back over the times when people have kicked up a particularly powerful stink, it is painfully obvious that there is a common theme each time.
There were a ton of people who weren’t happy with Samuel L Jackson being cast as Nick Fury. It was largely the same people who had a problem with Idris Elba playing Heimdall in Thor as well as both Candice Patton and more recently Kiersey Clemmons as Iris West in the Flash television series and movie respectively.
The one thing that all these actors have in common is their ethnicity.
If you need more evidence that this is to do with race, consider the way these same people reacted to John Boyega’s role in Star Wars: The Force Awakens, even though he was playing an entirely original character.
The fact that these actors don’t look enough like their comic book counterparts is simply not a good reason to close off roles to talented people of all ethnicities, people who could take beloved characters into incredible new directions.
Let’s face it, neither comic books nor movies offer an accurate reflection of the diversity of contemporary western society. The straight white male remains the most common protagonist in most media.
Of course, this is at least partially down to the fact that many iconic comic book characters were created before western culture was as diverse as it is today, with many first written in the 1930s. In those days, women, LGBT people, and non-white people were simply not catered to.
Since then, representation has definitely improved, but not at the same rate that society has diversified.
In recreating classic comic book stories, we are given an opportunity to modernise them to fit in better with today’s culture, rather than the one that existed decades ago. Over the years, superheroes have been given more advanced weaponry, updated back stories and even more progressive attitudes.
Why shouldn’t they also have a more ethnically diverse society to live in and protect?
That can’t mean just giving them some different coloured faces in the background. It has to mean allowing primary characters to be representative of all cultures.
Creating that diversity within existing stories requires a lot of careful consideration. Writers and artists can’t dump a new colour on an existing character and expect it to automatically represent a whole group of people. When that has happened in the past, it has come across as a clumsy attempt to reach more of the market without really trying to understand why ethnicity is so important. It doesn’t create an accurate representation of what it’s like to live as a black person, or an Asian person, or a gay person or any other minority group. It’s lazy and it puts off people from all corners of society.
Characters of any ethnicity need to be fully formed human beings with every aspect of their personality and their life story taken into account. Palette swapping an existing character doesn’t do anything to create a more diverse world – and this is where the actors themselves come in.
By opening up characters to actors of every ethnicity, it gives them an opportunity to create a character of their own using the existing story world and putting their own experiences of being a person of colour into their performance. It allows them to rewrite that character in their own way, adding new levels to that character and creating new depth, in more ways than ethnicity alone, in the same way that new writers and actors have been recreating characters in each new incarnation since the 1930s.
This has proven to work time and time again, as actors have silenced the objections of their ‘critics’ simply by providing absolutely stellar performances. Despite getting that initial bad reaction, there is hardly anyone now who doesn’t think that Samuel J Jackson was the perfect choice for Nick Fury. Similarly, Idris Elba’s ability to give a traditionally Norse (the blondest-haired and blueest-eyes of cultures) character such a vividly original yet very relevant personality has been widely applauded.
What many people don’t seem to understand is that this is not a two-way street.
Since Mary Jane is being played by a Black woman, can MLK be played by a White man in a next movie about him?
— Jason Bergkamp (@keksec__org) August 19, 2016
A lot of people justify criticising casting decisions that change the ethnicity of a white character by arguing that it would be unacceptable to cast a white actor in the role of an originally black character like Luke Cage or Black Panther. And they’re right. It would be unacceptable, there is a double standard there.
But there are very good reasons for that.
For a start, white people simply don’t need more representation. Already, the vast, vast majority of people you’ll see on television and in movies and in comic books and in all kinds of media will be white. There is also a statistical likelihood that they’ll be straight, monogamous and male. If you’re going to change a character, it’s not going to make them interesting or original if you give them these very common qualities. People want to know about characters that are unique, who stand out. If anything, this will make them more likely to blend into the background of popular culture.
There’s also the fact that white actors are already taking on a multitude of roles that, in their original form, were not white and they hardly ever get a negative response because of it. Often, there will be a handful of people, usually from within the ethnic community getting whitewashed, who make an effort to be vocal about their opposition to the decision.
But they’re usually ignored and the issue blows over without anyone learning anything from the experience.
Ridley Scott‘s Exodus: Gods and Kings is a prime example of this – a movie set in Egypt, with the English Christian Bale playing the lead role of Moses. When Scott rightly came under fire for this, his answer was heartbreaking for non-white actors struggling to make their way in Hollywood:
“I can’t mount a film of this budget, where I have to rely on tax rebates in Spain, and say that my lead actor is Mohammad so-and-so from such-and-such. I’m just not going to get it financed. So the question doesn’t even come up.”
This failing in the industry makes life even more difficult for people who are already afforded little enough opportunity to perform. If the issue of what a character should look like was really about commitment to realism or loyalty to a pre-existing story, then the people protesting Zendaya and Idris Elba would have just as much of a problem with this kind of ethnicity change, too.
But they don’t. For the most part, people happily watch the movies where a white actor plays an Asian or a Middle Eastern or even an African person and often don’t question it. They still see the films in the cinema and they still buy the DVDs and the studios that make the decision to neglect actors of colour profit comfortably. As long as they are still making that money, they have no motivation to change their practice.
And this is not an isolated incident.
Even though non-white actors are in a much better position today than they have been in the past, characters of colour are still being given to white actors on a regular basis. American actor Jake Gyllenhaal was cast as the lead in Prince of Persia, set in the part of world now known as Iran. American actor Scarlett Johansson was cast as the Japanese Major Motoko Kusanagi.
In a move that was probably trying very hard to be progressive, a gender-swapped Ancient One in the Doctor Strange movie due out later this year lost the iconic Tibetan heritage to British actor Tilda Swinton.
While these decisions have been questioned in some circles, they haven’t had anywhere near the kind of vitriol levelled at them as those that changed ethnicity in the other direction.
But the main reason the choice to change a character’s ethnicity doesn’t currently work on a equal basis is that white characters are rarely as defined by their ethnicity as characters of colour are.
Black Panther, for instance, has an incredibly intense relationship with his ethnicity that is unheard of among white characters. His African heritage is integral to his character and to change that would change who he is entirely. His backstory specifies that he is a tribal chief from a fictional African nation called Wakanda. He existed within a very specific place and the experiences he had there define the hero he became.
Changing his ethnicity changes him entirely. A white man would not be born into an African tribe, certainly not into the royal bloodline of an African nation. To remove T’Challa from Africa to justify changing his ethnicity would remove everything about his past that defines him, both as a character and as a hero.
White characters often don’t have relationships like that with their cultures.
When a character does have a close relationship with, for instance, the western city they grew up in, that doesn’t mean that they have to be white. Modern metropolises like the ones protected by Batman and Superman and The Flash and Daredevil and basically all of the city-based superheroes are very diverse in terms of population. A person of any ethnicity could feel that same connection to their hometown.
But it certainly wouldn’t make sense for a non-African character to have such an intense connection to an African nation or tribe.
On top of that, there is the impact that Black Panther had on representation of people of colour within society.
As the first mainstream African-American superhero, he is the figurehead of black representation in comic books. He was a catalyst in creating a more diverse comic universe and a more diverse media in general.
The timing of his release had a huge impact because of the racial tension, particularly in America, at the time. The first Black Panther comic book was published in 1966, just a year after the assassination of Malcolm X. 1966 was the same year that Martin Luther King gave his first speech about the Vietnam War. Race riots took place in both Michigan and Cleveland, and Constance Baker Motley became the first African-American woman to become a Federal judge. 1966 was a crucial year for African-Americans and having a black character presented as a positive role model contributed to that.
Black Panther’s significance as a non-white character was so important when his stories were first published that to reverse it now would be a slap in the face to the social progress it aided. Black Panther’s cultural identity – both within the comic world and the real one – is so crucial that to change it would completely undermine everything the character has stood for in his fifty years in print.
There is no white character that has that same level of cultural significance specifically because of their ethnicity.
Ideally, we would create diversity in popular culture by writing new characters who break the mould in every respect and give them the same kind of media attention that existing straight white male characters have enjoyed for decades. Unfortunately, new characters – of any description – don’t sell as well as those who exist in established worlds who already have huge fan bases.
Until this changes, people are creating a more diverse representation of the world by being more inclusive in the way they rewrite existing characters. That means allowing writers to explore what a character would be like if they were a different gender or sexuality or ethnicity.
Characters are updated and changed every time a new writer creates a new story for an existing character, every time a new actor is cast to play one, even if the changes are only subtle. Putting restrictions on how they choose to do that stunts the way culture evolves.
Society right now has a unique opportunity to create a wealth of new literature based on cultures from all over the world, to blend together tales from vastly different backgrounds to create entirely new stories. Working in ethnically diverse groups is the key to achieving that and those opposing it are going to get left behind as the rest of the world progresses.
The people working in those groups know this. The creators know it and they have unanimous support from the creative community around them. Stan Lee himself took the time to defend the choice to cast Zendaya in Spiderman: Homecoming. And recently Guardians of The Galaxy director James Gunn directed said this in defense of Zendaya as Mary Jane:
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.
People wouldn’t be making these casting and writing decisions if they didn’t know it was the best choice. It’s nothing but insulting that they then have to publicly justify their decisions to people who call themselves fans.
The only people who have a problem with it are the people who have nothing to do with the creative process – they are a small, but annoyingly loud, proportion of the consumer base. Perhaps its time they started accepting the decisions of the professionals.
With Roxane Gay writing the new Black Panther comics and Zendaya romancing Spider-Man, Marvel is embracing the many shapes, sizes and colours of the global community and celebrating it the way it deserves.