Have you seen Spider-Man: Homecoming? In case you haven’t heard, it is lighter and more fun than the previous 46 versions of Spider-Man. As a matter of fact, there’s a “touch of innocence”. It’s “light, good-natured”. And apparently it’s even the “best super hero movie of 2017” because it “gets Peter Parker right”.
All of this is true, more or less. And yet, Spider-Man: Homecoming still feels like a run-of-the-mill super hero movie.
How much more is there to say about Spider-Man? How many times do we have to watch the same character go on the same journey of escalating fight sequences and lesson-learning? At what point do we shout, as a people, “I don’t care what the Tomatometer says! This does not feel fresh!”
In fact, the only thing that does feel fresh in this movie is the diversity of its cast.
Listen to the open and honest super hero chat in the new episode of The Playlist (from 14:00)
(and that's not all: Nick and Fiona also talk about other movies that give them 'funny racial feelings', like The Beguiled, and talk to Bong Joon-ho and Steven Yuen about Okja):
Finally, Peter Parker’s high school looks like an actual high school in Queens. One of the most diverse places on the planet, Queens’ population is about 50% foreign-born and roughly 65% non-white. And in this movie, most of Peter’s friends, as well as the students and teachers at the school, are non-white. Even classic characters like Flash (and, metaphorically Mary Jane – the character is technically named Michelle, but calls herself MJ, which is what Peter Parker calls Mary Jane in the comics and the other movies) are played by non-white actors, despite the protests of white nationalists.
But Spider-Man himself, played by Tom Holland, remains white. I’m not a scientist, but in that particular New York City borough, the odds of a radioactive spider biting a white kid appear to be much less than the odds of a black / Latino / Asian kid being bitten.
So why can’t we have a black Spider-Man? What is our problem (aside from the scourge of white nationalism)?
Well, it’s not like we haven’t tried. In 2010, a lot of people thought that would be very exciting – and they lobbied the Internet for the wildly likeable Donald Glover to step in for the reboot. The role eventually went to Andrew Garfield, who is, as far as anyone can tell, white.
Meanwhile, in the comics, Marvel killed off Peter Parker and replaced him with Miles Morales, a half black/half Puerto Rican kid from Brooklyn. In what appears to be some sort of Easter egg, Glover appears in this new movie as perhaps the uncle of Morales.
So if we’re lucky we’ll get a black Spider-Man in a mainstream movie in 10 years or so? Not interested. We need this now, before super hero fatigue seriously sets in and people start rioting in the streets, begging for no more Avengers and whatever the New Warriors is.
Even if we don’t call out the blackness of a black Spider-Man with stories about police violence or the subtleties of post racial racial issues faced by young people of colour today, the thrill of watching a non-white person play an iconic hero would be overwhelming. And it could potentially be more lucrative. If you were going to see a Spider-Man: Homecoming, odds are you’d be seeing it with a black Spider-Man. And imagine all the new fans who would come out for that movie.
Of course, you might lose some of the white nationalists who can’t stop railing against the kind of PC culture that would allow a black Spider-Man to exist. If they got upset about a black Stormtrooper or wanted more white people in Luke Cage, you can imagine what they would do about a black Spider-Man. Trump would tweet about it. Fox News would complain about the War on White Spider-Man and work hard to remind us all that, like Jesus and Santa Claus, Spider-Man is a proud Caucasian.
I loved the Spider-Man comics and I certainly wouldn’t want to the character turned into something unrecognisable. But just because there’s a race or ethnicity change doesn’t mean that will happen. Michael B Jordan and Jessica Alba were cast as The Human Touch and Sue Storm respectively in The Fantastic Four. Samuel L Jackson is Nick Fury in the Avengers movies. Idris Elba is Heimdall in Thor. And Chiwetel Ejiofor is Baron Mordo in Dr Strange.
And the comics certainly seem to recognize the value of diversity. In addition to Miles Morales, there is now a female Thor, a black Captain America, a Pakistani American Ms Marvel, an Asian American Hulk and the new Iron-Man is a 15-year-old black girl named Ironheart.
Besides, if we stuck to the versions of these characters from when they were created, Iron Man would still be fighting the “yellow peril” version of The Mandarin, Superman would still be “slapping Japs” and bamboozling Native Americans, Batman would be fighting “the tricky Chinaman”, Green Lantern would be taking shots at Eskimos and the X-Men would be tossing around the N-word (so many wonderful memories…).
And the comics are way ahead of the movies when it comes to diversity. The best thing about Wonder Woman – which has been extremely successful on a lot of levels – is that the hero is a woman. Otherwise, it’s a pretty straight forward DC comic book movie. Hero discovers responsibility, has a couple of laughs, saves the world after a big showdown at night where you can’t really see what’s happening but you surrender to the effects punching you in the face anyway.
And I know there’s some debate over whether Israelis would be considered white, but I chose to appreciate the fact that Wonder Woman had a non-American accent and looked browner than she does in the comics. And yet, the world did not end. There was no race war. The movie was a success. And she was still unmistakably Wonder Woman – and certainly an improvement on previous live action versions.
In the upcoming Justice League movie, Jason Momoa plays Aquaman. I don’t know if you’ve seen Aquaman in the comics, but he’s a blonde and blue-eyed white man. Jason Momoa is not. And yet, he looks like he’s more than capable of handling the role of a guy that jumps around a lot and talks to fish.
At a time when super hero movies seem like the only ones anyone cares about, representation is more important than ever. And if you want to whitewash the Asians out of Ghost in the Shell and Dr Strange, and miss the opportunity to cast an Asian person in Iron Fist, and then cast an Asian in Guardians of the Galaxy 2 but then have her perpetuate a stereotype (seriously, why are more people not talking about that?!), the least you could do is coloursplash (that’s a new term I just invented – don’t steal it) in some of these other big dumb blockbusters.
And if my words don’t move you, let’s hear from Djimon Hounsou, who starred in Gladiator, Blood Diamond and Guardians of the Galaxy and other films beloved by all.
“I have a 4-year-old son who loves superheroes from Spider-Man to Iron Man to Batman. He’s got all the costumes,” he said at Comic-Con in 2013. “One day he looks at me and says, ‘Dad, I want to be light-skinned so I could be Spider-Man. Spider-Man has light skin.’ That was sort of a shock.”
Oh my God that is heartbreaking. Are you in tears? Well, you should be.
But even if you didn’t love Blood Diamond and you don’t care that the son of its star wants to be super hero white (because you’re a monster with ice running through your veins), the request for diversity doesn’t have to be about the PC plea for diversity and representation. It’s also about what makes a good movie in 2017.
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Correction: 21 July 2017
An earlier version of this article referred to the Michelle/MJ character as Mary Jane, which, as currently pointed out, is figuratively true (why would they call her MJ?), but not literally. Please accept the writer’s apologies, haters.