When I first found out Zendaya would be in Marvel’s Spider-man: Homecoming, I thought, “The Disney Channel girl. Okay.”
When I found out she was playing Mary Jane Watson, I thought “That would be cool.”
I grew up reading Spider-man. I know the “canon” look of Mary Jane is this:
A white, redhead. I get that. I understand and appreciate that. It’s obvious that Zendaya, a half-black, half white” young woman is not the comic book counterpart of Mary Jane.
And I’m Okay With That.
When I see the vitriol lobbed to Zendaya for being signed on to play Mary Jane, or Michael B. Jordan to play Johnny Storm in The Fantastic Four, or Scarlett Johansson for being signed on to play Motoko Kusanagi in Ghost in the Shell, I can understand. But I don’t agree…most of the time.
I Can Agree…to a Point
Comic book adaptations are a special kind of movie. In novels, characters are described. They are given races and physical descriptions and the reader forms an image in their head. Many books are adapted to film. Every so often, an actor is chosen who perfectly encapsulates the character. Overall, the basic ideal of a character is etched in the reader’s mind.
In comic books, the reader sees what a character looks like. The image is given to them, thus the image becomes as vital as the mythology.
Comic book adaptations historically have not been very good. We had gems in the past. Richard Donner’s Superman 1 & 2, Tim Burton’s Batman. Besides those, there were a ton of movies that flopped. I feel the genesis of great comic book movies began with Wesley Snipes in Blade.
Fast-forward to August 26, 2016. The Marvel Cinematic Universe is the biggest movie franchise in history. DC is tearing it up on the small screen. Big screen…not so much. So comic book fans (I won’t talk about fans of comic movies in this blog.) salivate to see their comic heroes to be portrayed on screen as accurately as their comic counterpart.
Herein lies the issue.
I understand where the anger comes from. When a fan goes to a Superman movie, they want to see an All-American Caucasian male be Superman because that’s how Superman was drawn. If they see a Hispanic man play Superman, the anger, mostly, is not at the Hispanic actor but at the disrespect of the source material.
Granted, the present time is rife with racial tension and I am sure the racists and bigots are typing away safely behind a computer or cell phone and wouldn’t dare say “Mary Jane is not a nigger” in public, but for the most part it’s “Mary Jane does not look like that.”
For that, I agree. When casting a live-action version of a former animated property, the studio should respect the characters.
Where I Play Devil’s Advocate
I, personally, feel many of those who argue about actors playing specific roles don’t understand the history of theater.
In the days of Shakespeare, all acting was done by men. Men played women’s roles. All characters of various races was done by white men. You know what.
Juliet. White Man.
Othello. White Man (probably in black face)
Ophelia. White Man.
Or let me clarify. No one cared as long as a white man played a role because that’s who all the actors were and that was what was accepted. Check out this clip from Shakespeare in Love.
As you can see, while initially aghast, the crowd accepts her. (This is a Hollywood movie, though.)
We, in 2016, are in a different place. Women act. People of different ethnicities play the roles of the intended character. However, in the past it was not about who performed what role, but how well could they act.
Today, we are surrounded by loud mouth social justice warriors who have to make an issue of everything or comic book fans who vilify the person who is racially different.
When Does Race Matter
Race matters. Let’s not act like it doesn’t. It does and when it comes to adaptations it should matter when a character’s race is integral to their being.
Spider-man is a white kid. His whiteness does not affect him. Thus, I can look past him being white and so he could be Tom Holland (current Spidey) or Caleb McLaughlin (Lucas from Stranger Things). I will say that Lucas himself, could be played by a white actor or Hispanic or Asian because his race does not define his character.
Also, The Flash has changed the race of a major character.
Candice Patton doesn’t resemble the comic version of Iris West.
Now, there is the Wally West issue who has a black actor (Keiynan Lonsdale) who portrays the black Wally from the comic, but in the show is Iris’s sister.
However, because of the racial history in America, characters of ethnicity normally have their race shape their personality and to many of that race, it’s an oasis in a sea of White to see a Luke Cage, Black Panther, Falcon. To portray these characters with a non-Black actor, is an affront to the character and Black community since this action would undermine the mythos of said characters.
Let’s not forget that Michael Clarke Duncan portrayed The Kingpin in Ben Affleck’s Daredevil. (I actually like it.)
While I love a red-headed Mary Jane, her hair color or white skin does not define her, so I am happy to see Zendaya portray her. I think she will do a great job and let me finish by quoting Spider-man creator, Stan “The Man” Lee.
“If she is as good an actress as I hear she is, I think she’ll be absolutely wonderful,” Lee told the paper. “The color of their skin doesn’t matter, their religion doesn’t matter, all that matters is that this is the right person for the role.” — Stan Lee to the Toronto Sun.
Butter Your Own Popcorn!
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My novel is being edited. Can’t wait to finish “The Light of Atlantis”.