Jul 10, 2017

Racial Diversity and Bending in Spider-Man: Homecoming

Spider-Man: Homecoming is the best Spider-Man movie ever, and it isn't even close. To be fair, I don't think Tom Holland was the best Spider-Man — that's Andrew Garfield, who is much closer to my preferred version of Spider-Man (the late, college-age Steve Ditko version) than anyone else (Holland wins the prize for being the closest version to Ultimate Spider-Man. That's the thing. Spider-Man is open to interpretation. They all got a piece of him right.).

Nor do I think that it's the most groundbreaking of the Spider-Man movies, since that still probably goes to the first one with Tobey Maguire, which was mind-blowing at the time of release, but is horribly dated now. With context as to what the superhero movie would later become, Tobey Maguire and Kirsten Dunst look positively amateurish and incredibly underwhelming. (And whiny. Let's never forget whiny.)

Context matters, though. And in the larger scheme of things when the history books are written, Tobey Maguire's first foray as Spider-Man will be remembered as the character's coming out moment, for better or for worse.

Similarly, context matters when looking at creative choices made in a movie like this. And while I can't quite put into words why the movie fell short for me despite the fact that all the elements to make it successful were there, I can talk about something else regarding the movie, and that's the fact that it's one of the most racially diverse blockbuster movies in recent memory. So let's look at...

Racial Diversity and Bending in Spider-Man: Homecoming
by Duy


Spider-Man: Homecoming has a pretty damn diverse cast. Let's take a look at his main classmates Breakfast Club style.

So you've got Tom Holland in the middle playing Peter Parker. He's white. Over to his left is Zendaya, playing Michelle, is half-black, half-white, while in front of Tom is Laura Harrier, playing Liz, also half-black, half-white. Tony Revolori, to the right, plays Flash, and is of Guatemalan descent, while Jacob Batalon, who plays Ned, was born in Hawaii to Filipino parents.

It's diverse. It's a step forward in Hollywood. It's wonderful.

It also bugs me.


All of these characters are named after a longtime Spider-Man character. It could be argued that since their last names are never given (except for one), they could be anything from callbacks to tributes to trolling methods on the part of the filmmakers. And that's fair. All the same, I think there are missed opportunities here. Let's look at them one by one, in the order of the level of opportunity wastage.

Tony Revolori plays Flash, the school bully. This is named after Flash Thompson. Flash Thompson normally looks like this:

So now we've got a Guatemalan playing him who also doesn't play him as a jock. Instead, he's also another science nerd, who just happens to be the least smart out of all of them, and instead of threatening to beat Peter up or calling him "Puny Parker," he calls him "Penis Parker" instead.

I'm cool with that. Look, racebending a 1962 comic just makes sense. You know what schools in the US were like in 1962? Segregated. That means white people and non-white people couldn't really interact. You know what a New York high school is like in 2017? Not segregated. That means Peter Parker's gonna have classmates of all races and descents, and if you populate a cast with racially diverse characters, but the only ones he interacts with are all still white, that just calls attention to the whole issue to begin with. You can't diversify without empowering.

As for Flash being a nerd rather than a jock, that's cool too. The past decade and a half has seen a rise in the nerd bully, the type that torments you verbally rather than threatens you physically. See, for example, Gamergate, Kylo Ren, the villain in the last Ghostbusters movie, and the entirety of the internet. Are jocks vs. nerds still a thing? The nerds kinda crossed the line the moment Revenge of the Nerds happened, and that was in 1984 Are jocks still bullies? I dunno, I'm old. But from the looks of the internet, nerds certainly are.

Laura Harrier plays Liz, the girl Peter has a crush on. In the comics, this girl is Liz Allan.

Here's the thing: they've racebent Liz before, in the excellent Spectacular Spider-Man cartoon, which I still think is the best Spider-Man outside of the comics medium. She's Hispanic in the cartoon, I believe, and half-black in the movie. And that's fine — the character of Liz Allan works regardless of race.

I think it's a powerful message when young kids watching Spider-Man see a white guy having a crush on a girl who isn't white — and an interracial one at that. Seeing examples this early on in life can only have a positive effect.

Of course, in the movie, she isn't actually Liz Allan, so it was kinda brilliant because it built up that pivotal moment in the movie.

So we're fine with Flash and Liz. With that, let's go to Michelle.

Read More Below...

Zendaya plays Michelle. And at the end of the movie, Michelle says she prefers to be called MJ. I shouldn't have to remind readers, this is Mary Jane Watson:

Now, she isn't "Mary Jane," she's Michelle. But the role is still there. She's going to be Peter's main love interest moving forward (unless we get someone showing up as Gwen). And if that's the case, it was pretty smart in this movie to establish her as someone with her own agency and her own personality rather than someone who gets in trouble and motivates Peter. All the same, this bugs me, for two reasons.

The first reason is this: Zendaya's Michelle is nothing like Mary Jane Watson, party animal with a troubled soul... but she could be. We know this from what Zendaya's done before. She plays a socially conscious, withdrawn, isolated person when Mary Jane is usually the exact opposite of all of those things. She's basically another character altogether. The "MJ" reveal just feels tacked on and unnecessary, and without value past the first time you hear it. And it closes the door on a future MJ that may actually be like the MJ from the comics. (Kirsten Dunst was not the MJ from the comics. Kirsten Dunst played Kirsten Dunst.)

The second reason is that the character that Zendaya's "Michelle" is most like? A sarcastic woman who is both mean to Peter Parker and yet shows affection for him? That's actually a character named Michele. And she's awesome.

I'm always of the stance that racebending is fine if there is no counterpart that already exists. In this case though, there is. (Side note: Zendaya playing Michelle is still a racebend, since Michele is a Latina.) And what bugs me about this is more from a marketing perspective: Gwen Stacy and Mary Jane Watson became the big Spider-Man love interests by continued exposure. How can we possibly build more characters and the presence of those characters when we're still cycling back and forth between Gwen and Mary Jane? That's why fans get so resistant in the comics whenever Peter has a new love interest, the belief that it can only be one of those two. But we don't give chances to other love interests, partly because Marvel doesn't give them those chances either.

I have nothing against Zendaya playing Mary Jane Watson, because she clearly can, if she were actually playing Mary Jane Watson. But she isn't. Her character was named Michelle, who is closest to a character named Michele. And that's what bugs me.

Jacob Batalon plays Ned. Ostensibly, this is after Ned Leeds. And this is Ned Leeds:

Ned's a reporter who didn't even go to high school with Peter. In the movie, Ned is his best friend, who knows who he is, helps him with Spider-Man stuff, and looks like Ganke.

Ganke is the best friend of Miles Morales, the second Spider-Man.

Seriously, why didn't they just name him Ganke? He's right there.

Which brings us to Tom Holland, who plays Peter Parker. And he was great. He nailed high school/Ultimate Spider-Man, and got the right mix of humor and angst that that makes Spider-Man who he is. And that's fine. That's fair. But here's the thing. Peter Parker in high school classically is a loner, someone who makes sure no one knows he's Spider-Man, goes about things on a grassroots level, and doesn't let anyone — anyone — help him out. He's actually a bit of a jerk, honestly.

The thing is, there is a character named Spider-Man who grew up idolizing other superheroes, who has an overweight Asian best friend who helps him out as Spider-Man, and who is mentored by the Avengers, and that guy is Miles Morales.

This should have been a Miles Morales movie. By concept, premise, and execution, everything about the movie screamed "Miles Morales" to me more than it did "Peter Parker," to the point where it felt like it was, in fact, a Miles Morales movie, except they wrote out Miles and dumped Peter in his place.

And that's the rub about this whole diversity thing right now. Whenever we applaud a movie for being diverse, we mean one of two things. We could mean it, as we did for Captain America: Winter Soldier or Spider-Man: Homecoming, as "a racially diverse cast with a white male lead." Or we could mean it, as is happening and will continue to happen with Black Panther, as "a cast that is dominated by one race." Both are well and good and unheard of even ten years ago on the level that it is now. But there's still something missing, and that's having a non-white character headline a blockbuster movie with a racially diverse cast. I will consider the battle for diversity won when we can see that type of movie in spades and not have to remark about how noteworthy it is.

This would have been the perfect opportunity to do it. They could have written Peter as an older character to focus on later, one that's always been Spider-Man in the Marvel Cinematic Universe and just not heard of much, as he normally is in the comics where he isn't that well-known outside of New York City, while focusing on Miles. And it could have been done, since we literally just saw it two years ago in Ant-Man, where the movie focused on Scott Lang instead of Hank Pym, the original, classic bearer of that mantle.

And I get it, too. If this was the only time we're ever going to see Spider-Man in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, I would want that Spider-Man to be Peter Parker. But if that's the case, I wish I could've seen a movie that felt more like Peter Parker than a Miles Morales movie where he's removed and replaced with Peter Parker. That this didn't feel like a Peter Parker movie to me is a cranky old fanboy nitpick. That this wasn't a Miles Morales movie, more than anything to me, feels like a true wasted opportunity.

The movie was still really good. I still really liked it. And I still absolutely appreciate the effort at diversity. But it could've been more for that. It could've done more for that. And maybe, at the end of the day, that's what I think was missing.


sonsoftaurus said...

It has been a while since I've read new comics, and longer since I've read any Spider-Man ones. I never read Ultimate Spider-Man and am not very familiar with Miles Morales, Michelle or Ganke. But, based on what you're saying I think what we're seeing here is something that's not new to the MCU, combining things into one story, combining or re-purposing characters. This Spider-Man while outwardly Peter Parker, includes bits of the others (the "hey, what does this tech in my suit do?" part reminds me of the animated Ultimate Spider-Man). Michelle is MJ and Michelle combined (though apparently in attitude mostly Michelle at the moment). Red Skull was a combo of Red Skull and the original Baron Zemo. Jane Foster is a scientist. Falcon isn't a social worker/criminal brainwashed by the Skull. Bucky wasn't a kid during the war. Etc. We have to take it as an alternate reality, not as an attempt to translate a particular version to the big screen.

Duy Tano said...

All well and good; I really more meant to say that in its huge push for diversity, it could have been served more if the main character was Miles.

In other news, I can be really longwinded.

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