Exploring the troubling undercurrent behind the reaction to the latest casting rumor.
When a rumor broke out last week that a young black woman named Zendaya would be playing the character of Mary Jane Watson in the upcoming Spider-Man: Homecoming, the internet went kray-kray. When Guardians of the Galaxy director James Gunn tweeted about the reaction, he received many positive comments but also a lot of negative and racist ones. Gunn responded to the reactions via Facebook, first to clarify that this casting rumor was simply that – a rumor – and to make a point about casting comic book characters in film: physical attributes like skin color and hair color do not a character make. In some ways, it’s great to see that people feel so strongly about the characters they love to read about and can’t wait to watch on-screen. But fan reactions can also bring out the absolute worst in people. And folks need to realize that nontraditional casting can actually lead to amazing performances that can push the limits of the original source material.
First of all, fan reactions aren’t always all that bad. They can lead to positive changes and can keep the filmmakers and studios in check. A great example of this would be Deadpool, which was passed on by Fox in 2011 because their executives feared an R-rated comic book film wouldn’t be profitable. Tom Rothman, who was then chairman at Fox and now heads Sony, the studio distributing Spider-Man: Homecoming, famously said he didn’t get it. But when test visual effects footage leaked online in 2014, fanboys ate it up and the long-gestating film received a greenlight from Fox. Ryan Reynolds has even admitted that the extremely positive fan reaction to the footage leak was the cause for getting the movie made.
But with every positive fan-made change, comes several awful fan reactions. Many of the MJ casting rumor haters cite “staying true to the source material” as a main reason as to why MJ should be cast as a white woman with red hair. This argument is utterly bogus. MJ may be a redhead in the “source material” comics, but she doesn’t necessarily have to be one in the movies. Her cool girl attitude and, as Gunn puts it, “alpha female playfulness” are what makes MJ, well, MJ. It’s not simply her appearance that matters, but, unfortunately, looks are often what many think form the basis for a female comic book character.
Comic book series have gone on for so long that they are known for having various timelines. I am, admittedly, not super familiar with all of them but the key thing to note here is that characters go through reinventions in these timelines. Nerdy caucasian Peter Parker may be the first character to don the Spidey suit, but in a new timeline the suit is put on by half-black, half-Latino, equally nerdy Miles Morales. This same reinvention of comic book characters can and should happen in the movies, otherwise we’ll be stuck with the same old reboots of the same old storylines.
One could argue that The Amazing Spider-Man 1 & 2 didn’t do as well as first round of Spider-Man movies because they basically rebooted Peter Parker’s origin story in an all too similar way, just with a different girlfriend and some different bad guys. The filmmakers are taking a big risk rebooting the beloved superhero yet again and so soon in Spider-Man: Homecoming, but the inspired and diverse casting of Tom Holland, Zendaya, Jacob Batalon, Laura Harrier, and Tony Revolori is promising. We’ve already seen the straightforward renditions of Peter Parker, Mary Jane, and Gwen Stacy in the earlier Spider-Man movies. Now it’s time to take it a step further. If Sony and Marvel want this latest Spidey reboot to work, they’re going to have to take some big risks.
Another misguided reaction to the MJ casting rumor was the comparison of Zendaya being cast as Mary Jane to the casting of Scarlett Johansson and Tilda Swinton in Asian character roles in Ghost in the Shell and Doctor Strange, respectively. Fanboys said that if Zendaya can be MJ, then Johansson can be Major Motoko Kusanagi and Swinton can play the Ancient One. This isn’t exactly all true because people of color don’t get the same range of roles as white people do. Asian roles, in particular, are often whitewashed because studios and certain Hollywood writers seem to think that there are no Asian stars. It raises concerns when a non-Asian actor is cast in an Asian role because there are so few of them in the first place. As Gunn said, we’re going to have to get used to characters in super hero movies “being more reflective of our diverse and present world.” This goes for any kind of movie casting, actually. The world we live in is vastly different than in the 1960s, when Spider-Man was first introduced in the Marvel comics. Makers of comic books, movies, television, and all other forms of media and entertainment need to be cognizant of these social and cultural changes and reflect them in their work. And the fans need to get over themselves and get with the program too.
Lastly, nontraditional casting choices can breathe new life into tired franchises. Ryan Reynolds may have bombed as The Green Lantern, but his take on Deadpool was spot-on and highly entertaining. The movie made $782 million worldwide on a $58 million budget, and proved that an R-rated super hero comedy can work. The X-Men series was rejuvenated with a younger, newer, and mostly unknown cast in X-Men: First Class. Jennifer Lawrence notably stole the show as Mystique and, as her own star began to rise outside the X-Men franchise, her character Mystique moved to the forefront of the storyline in subsequent films.
But the most surprising and originally fan-hated casting that eventually turned the comic book movie genre on its head is Heath Ledger as The Joker in The Dark Knight. It’s kind of hard to believe that people were furious with his casting when it was announced in 2006. Though he was an accomplished actor, fans made hateful comments about his casting because of his roles in 10 Things I Hate About You and Brokeback Mountain.
Ledger proved the haters wrong with a completely unique interpretation of the iconic Joker character that became iconic in its own right. Instead of doing a literal interpretation by lifting the character directly from the comic book page, Ledger pushed the boundaries of what it meant to play a comic book character on-screen. And then messed with it even more. Film gives actors and directors the opportunity to push the limits of a script or comic book. And Ledger did exactly this, leading to a posthumous Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor for his performance following his untimely death.
If the rumors are true and Zendaya will play MJ, it would be a fantastic choice that makes perfect sense for a fresh, new version of the Spidey story on film. Zendaya is a young singer and actress whose career highlights includes stints on the Disney Channel and an appearance alongside other top black female talent in Beyonce’s visual video for Lemonade. She’s also got a huge social media following which will be helpful for Sony once it comes time to market the movie. Finally, Zendaya is a bad ass feminist, known for putting haters to shame and for playing characters with spunk, just like a certain comic book heroine we know and love.