Sony and Marvel Studio’s joint venture film, Spider-Man: homecoming is in full swing (see what I did there?) and we are blessed with bits and pieces of news trickling through the internet each week. And this week the internet is in uproar over the casting of Mary-Jane Watson, the red headed actress/super model and perhaps most importantly, Spider-Man’s long time lover. Sorry Gwen. What’s got everyone all abuzz over this casting is that the actress chosen to bring this much loved character to the big screen is a woman by the name of Zendaya – who I was shocked to learn isn’t an Overwatch character.
Now what is it about Miss…Daya? That has man-children and comic purists alike rolling and writhing in pain? Well, she’s got some rather darkened pigmentation when compared to the last actress to play MJ. That’s right. Zendaya is BLAAAACK.
This is the latest iteration of a Hollywood trend reaching back almost since before Hollywood – take a character, cast an actor of miscellaneous contrasting race/ethnicity/gender/sexuality and let the headlines sell your movie based on that alone. Getting the press to work for the movie while they think they’re working against it. Sure this can backfire (See: Ghostbusters 2016) if the drama is oversold, and if it’s undersold (See: Fant4stic) the results can be pretty disastrous too. Mind you, both those films were garbage regardless of the cast. I mean, sure the casting was awful in both cases, but you could have the best of the best in those films and they’d still be abominations.
I think when it comes to changing the race of a character there are a few questions that need to be asked.
Where in the character’s description does race lie? And at what point does changing it change the character, making it essentially that character in name only?
Lets look at one famous controversy that has stuck around for a while now – 007. Practically since Pierce Brosnan retired the Martini glass and tuxedo of Ian Flemming’s James Bond, there have been two warring factions who each spread their propaganda routinely online. Those who say it’s time for a black actor to play James Bond, and those who say James Bond is a predominantly white character. Now, I fall into the latter category. James Bond actually NEEDS to be a Caucasian. And while I let you sharpen your collective pitchforks, I’ll tell you why. James Bond has always been a symbol for the crown of England. An outdated and old school cog in a once grand machine desperate to stay relevant. Even in the earlier films, 007 was still outdated by the standards held of the time. He’s a caricature of privileged, wealth and arrogance. A tool to be used to achieve England’s goals. He’s a product of a desperate nation that took in an orphaned rich boy and turned him into the ultimate spy, who no man could best and no woman could deny. Now, if we were to cast popular contender Idris Elba in the role, it does indeed change 007. Why? Because it politicises him. Contextually, it makes James Bond the victim of cultural misappropriation – look at what England has done to the world with colonisation, then you have a man descended from Sierra Leonian nationals… It takes James from being a symbol for all that the crown IS, to all that the crown has DONE. And by doing so, changes the character.
Now I’d like to direct your attention to Marvel’s upcoming Doctor Strange. In which we have the character of The Ancient One – an immortal mystic and magical mentor traditionally illustrated as an elderly Chinese man with a beard that puts Gandalf to shame. This ancient Chinese man has been cast as androgynous power actor Tilda Swinton. And you know what? This is great casting. Or maybe I’m just racist. But I think Tilda is the perfect actress to play The Ancient One. She has this otherworldly and disjointed, aloof quality to her performances – I can genuinely believe she’d be an ancient, immortal, dimension hopping mystic who’s mastered the arcane arts. I can believe she’d be a mentor, and a force of nature. She actually suits the character BETTER than the original design of old Chinese man. The Ancient one doesn’t need to be any race. It can be all of them. He doesn’t need to be human. You could have him shown as a ball of light voiced by Andy Serkis and it’d probably work.
Which brings me back to Mary-Jane Watson
She’s a fiery girl next door who grows up to be the driving force behind Peter Parker. She’s supportive. Kind. Understanding. She’s gorgeous – so much so that she’s had years of success as a supermodel and an actress. She’s socially clever and knows a great deal about the heart and mind. She’s a good motivator and always knows what to say to get Peter to believe in himself. She’s passionate. She’s self assured. She’s a girl in a short skirt and a looooooong jacket. Scratch that last one. She is, as she put it, the jackpot.
Now, nothing about what I just described is inherently white. There are dozens of actresses of all nationalities that could do that role justice. Can Zendaya? Maybe. I’m honestly not familiar with her work. Like, at all. I just keep expecting her to say “PASS INTO THE IRIS” every time I see her on my Facebook news feed.
So what do we do?
We have a potential controversy on our hands. Should we get caught up in the hysteria? No. Let’s not. Let’s leave the scandal alone and wait until we see how the character is written in this movie, and more importantly – how she’s acted out. This is a character that doesn’t have a definitive race to change. Sure she was drawn white to begin with, but it’s not inherent to her character like James Bond, and for all we know this could be a great actress who will not only do the role justice, but become the definitive MJ for years to come. I’m already forgetting about Kirsten Du…Never mind. Now I remember her terrible performance in Spider-Man 1-3. Thanks Sam Raimi.
So in closing, I think we should sit tight and hold off on the hate-boner stroking until we have something worth angrily jerking our mad-bone to. And if you’re already worked up and upset over this? Well, you’re a wanker. Grow up.