But Spider-Man Can’t Be Black

By  · Published on May 7th, 2015

When I was a sophomore in college, I found myself in a beer-blurry debate about whether or not Hamlet could be black. Here was a group of young men and women majoring in theater arts – one of which would go on to write a Tony-nominated play – splitting into factions and discussing the finer points of code-switching one of drama’s most famous figures.

The prevailing theory on the Can’t Be Black side was that Hamlet was a Danish prince, and no Danish prince has ever been black. If you’re going to set the play in its original setting, in its original time, the situation simply can’t handle a skin color change. Now, I understand that premise, and I understand how being a stickler for verisimilitude would put you in a position to reject a Danish prince being anything other than white (although I don’t see how an Englishman playing the character is allowed either), but it’s also a situation where I just don’t care.

I don’t care whether Hamlet is a Danish prince from Mexico or Mauritius or Mongolia. More than that, the central premise that leads anyone to deny that a character like Hamlet can be another race (beyond the apparently all-encompassing “white”), is a faulty one that should be dismissed with great prejudice.

Which is why it’s infuriating to see people – especially decision-makers – clinging to it like it’s some kind of Get Out of Racism Free card. It’s the same argument some fans made when Idris Elba was cast as Heimdall in Thor. “Viking Gods aren’t black!” they cried, as if the statement didn’t deserve to be tossed instantly on the tall pile labeled Who Gives a Luxurious Fuck?.

Of all the things to worry about in the fuzzy logic universe of superhero movies, right? Fortunately, they’re the intense, marginal minority of sticklers who can’t imagine any character looking any different than it used to.

Except Spider-Man is going to be white. Again. For the third time on big screens. Ten bucks says they’ll make it an origin story again, too, because they hate us.*

All of this stems from the illusion of change in comic book movies, which is also why a move toward greater equality in representation is nearly impossible.

In his latest must-read piece – “The Marvel Industrial Complex” – James Rocchi invokes Umberto Eco’s sentiment toward the broad-based commercial constructs of comic books that had to simultaneously engage fans while drawing in new ones to each issue. That meant not confusing anyone, and the only way to do that with a serial story, is to make sure nothing important actually changes.

“To Eco, comics were a model of serial storytelling as commodified for a mass audience: Create the illusion of change in individual stories, but maintain a state of storytelling stasis, ultimately, so new readers can join the next installment even as regular readers marvel at the story leaps and jumps in each issue while noticing that the big red reset button is always being hit.

This is also the model for the Marvel movies, although with the reality of real-world contracts and aging actors in the mix.”

Avengers Age of Ultron Movie

Rocchi lays down the hammer on a series of difficult perceptions that stem from the dominance of superhero stories right now – particularly Marvel’s interconnected web. To strengthen his point, he uses Marvel’s latest villain to explain the studio’s thought process (emphasis his):

“Even Ultron’s put-down in Avengers 2“You Avengers want to save the world, but you don’t want to change it” – gets neutered by the follow-through: Ultron’s idea of change is killing humanity, and so the status quo of mere survival is ringingly endorsed above annihilation – which is really not that much of a choice. I do not expect $100 million movies to constantly, deliberately, and explicitly speak to the real world; at the same time, I do not want $100 million movies that constantly, deliberately, and explicitly decide to have nothing to do with the real world whatsoever.”

None of this should be in dispute. Even the heartiest of fans recognize deep down that they’re buying into an illusion of shifts in the narrative. Tony Stark will drive off in his convertible, Hulk will fly away to parts unknown, and Thor will head back home to investigate the plot of his next movie, but they’ll all come back for the next team-up movie where a bad guy wants to destroy the world. They don’t want him to destroy it, so they fight, they win, no one with a multi-movie contract dies, rinse, repeat.

I don’t care whether Hamlet is a Danish prince from Mexico or Mauritius or Mongolia.

However, the same illusion of change that plays out in the narrative also plays out in real life as Marvel and DC both retread characters who are 40 and 60 and 80 years old. Characters like Superman, Captain America and Hulk are inevitably imbued with the sensibilities of the time they premiered (1938, 1941 and 1962), which would be fine if change were possible. Since it’s not, they drag hefty suitcases full of outdated social norms that we’ve rightfully, mentally left in a mass grave. They are antiques made shiny again, and by bringing them back into the cultural spotlight, they bring along the kernels of retrograde thinking.

In The Avengers, when Captain America asks if the Stars and Stripes on his uniform won’t come off as old-fashioned, Agent Coulson assures him that, “With everything that’s happening, the things that are about to come to light, people might just need a little old-fashioned.”

That becomes a central theme of the film, that we the people will need symbols of yesteryear to guide us through the confusing modern era. It’s a sweet sentiment, and one that some AARP members will find comfort in, but it’s also insane that Captain America hasn’t had a nervous breakdown and quit working for S.H.I.E.L.D. or the American government by now. His response to the complexities of a surveillance state, devastating terrorism and a wholesale assault on New York City is to stick with whatever he’s doing, regardless of the psychic hand-wringing he does during the story. At the end, he’s back on board, because he can’t change. He can’t take off the Stars and Stripes.

It’s also not as sweet a sentiment when you consider that the past 80 years of comic book creation has been a slow crawl up a hill toward central representation for female and minority characters. By rehashing all of it through the most popular characters, and within the risk-averse context of studio production, comic books are essentially reliving that uphill battle in a new arena. Fortunately it’s on a condensed timeline (or at least studios are promising to bring stand-alone movies for women and minority heroes), but it still by definition ignores the initial gains made on paper from 1930 to 1999. Even though Thor is now a woman in the comic books, she’ll never get her own movie. Because that would also require change.

So when Sony announced that they wanted to give Spider-Man another go, there was never any real chance that he wouldn’t be Peter Parker or that Peter Parker wouldn’t be white. Change on a large scale eludes both comic book movie production and storytelling.

The bizarre thing is that change is an integral part of superhero stories because they’ve existed so long. Marvel and DC are both addicted to alternate universes and retconning and all the things that make the concept of a definitive canon laughable. The fact which drives all of this even further into absurd territory is that Spider-Man is black. He’s also Puerto Rican. And American. Miles Morales is Spider-Man. And so is Miguel O’Hara. And so is Peter Parker.

In another must-read piece, Eric Berlatsky at Hooded Utilitarian explains the rusty lining of a character like Morales:

“As in other matters, diversity is almost always presented in the form of a “What if” question. What if, for instance, Spider-Man were black? This thought experiment is explored through the character of Miles Morales in the Ultimate universe. Interestingly, in this timeline Peter Parker dies in order to pave the way for Miles’ ascension to superhero status. In a vacuum, of course, this turn of events seems to dynamically symbolize the exact scenario I suggest.

If Peter Parker is a symbol of white privilege, then perhaps his death is a symbol of the sacrifice of the privilege that must occur if true equality is to be achieved. However, “Ultimate” Peter Parker is only one “forking path” and, in fact white, straight, male Peter Parker remains as Spider-Man in the primary Marvel Universe. In truth, Marvel is not willing to sacrifice white male power and privilege for the sake of diversity. Instead, diversity here becomes a consumer option that requires no sacrifice of another more common to the superhero idea, that of white supremacy.”

What he’s referring to is the continued survival of major superheroes. Whenever publications start regretting the direction a What If title is going in, they can fly around the earth fast enough to turn back time and have the hero return to his original form. Peter Parker has died in several stories, and then he comes back to life. No sweat.

Sony is now mirroring that concept perfectly. One franchise incarnation fails, and the reboot fails, so it’s time for another reboot.

Create the illusion of change in individual stories, but maintain a state of storytelling stasis, ultimately, so new readers can join the next installment even as regular readers marvel at the story leaps and jumps in each issue while noticing that the big red reset button is always being hit. – James Rocchi

That we’re getting a third cinematic Peter Parker is a signal that Sony and Marvel believe that fanatics, fans and casual movie-goers all have a vested interest in Spider-Man being only Parker. For the citizens of New York City, Spider-Man could be any color under the sun, but for all of us, we know that he’s a Caucasian kid wrestling forever with his identity.

Beyond the racial and sexual politics of who we see in our art, there’s also a problem with false change on a story level. Not only can the characters not really progress, we’ve all already seen these stories before. Same heroes, same villains. “Days of Future Past.” “Age of Ultron.” Uncle Ben lying dead on the sidewalk. They all become sit-com characters where everything reserts regardless of the havoc in each episode.

It serves a grand marketing purpose, but it’s a little confusing to see just how many people are thrilled to have things they already know regurgitated back at them in a different medium. It taps into the fetishistic treatment of these stories where a passionate core is ecstatic to debate and revel and grow enraged and worship over a new set of knee pads on the concept art for Captain America’s fifth almost-identical movie uniform. It is the praise of minutia, and superhero marketing teams have tapped into it beautifully with “leaked” photos and the release of familiar material teasing movies that won’t come out for years.

Some say that this is a problem because it places so much emphasis on what’s to come that we don’t worry about the movie in front of us, and I agree with that, but I also see an extra dimension to the issue.

It’s troubling in a more fundamental way because it necessitates a product that we instantly recognize, every single time. This is the key to why blockbuster comic book movies can never change. In order to complain about Ant-Man’s costume, you first have to know who Ant-Man is.

That might be fine (except name-recognition would still perpetuate a lack of diversity via the Hamlet Argument), but the problem goes deeper. It’s not enough to make us complain about Ant-Man’s costume; we also have to complain about the villain they’ve picked, to obsess over what they’ll change from the storyline they’ve chosen for the post-colon title, to grapple with the involvement of known side characters, and to worry about how all of this will fit into the pre-ordained timeline.

It’s a cycle we’ll never escape. Marvel movies in particular have consistently had terrible villains, and they’ve built up a baddie in Thanos who 1) was weak and stupid in the comics and 2) who can’t possibly live up to the strength of hype they’ve crafted around him. They chose him because he’s from the comic books, and we’ve heard of him. Or at least some have, some will have pretended to, and that base will help the groundswell for all the casual fans to safely get on board.

All of this is also in service of selling old and current comic book issues. There’s no reason to create a movie-only villain if using a dusty one from the books can bring even a fraction of renewed interest in those editions. A new villain or, gasp, a movie-only hero would be a wildcard. A variable. Fans wouldn’t know what to do with it, movie news websites wouldn’t blow up with opinions, and a surplus of mental space wouldn’t be dedicated to it.

It’s a cycle we’ll never escape.

I understand the thrill and wonderment of getting cinematic versions of some characters, but for some reason we’re happy leaving exactly zero room for new heroes and villains and base storylines. Marvel will never invent a new villain for their movies. Never. Ever. It will always be some shadowy figure from their pages regardless of how depleted their rogues gallery gets. To get a sense of how imprisoned we are by this system, consider that Star Trek Into Darkness used Khan as a villain despite having no real need to do so.

They proved this specifically by refusing to acknowledge who the character truly was in marketing, creating a mini-experiment where the movie benefited not at all by the name-recognition of the villain but bafflingly didn’t have a new villain. Thus, having a completely new villain wouldn’t have harmed the movie at all. In fact, it might have helped.

In that way, it will always be a closed system. Which leads us back to the core problem of building diversity into these movies. If you’re working with what already exists, and what exists is all white dudes in capes, then you can never progress. You’re limited to the women and minority heroes that you already have, so you’ll be re-delivering the 1950s to your audience in 2015 and the next year and the next year and the next.

Which is partially why the backlash against Whedon for Age of Ultron being sexist is a little laughable. It’s one of those situations where I’ve read the remarks, understand the logic behind them, and disagree 100%. Black Widow’s relationship with Hulk is the most human element of that movie – a situation that makes her vulnerable, nurturing, complicated, guilt-ridden, hopeful and still able to crush large amounts of bad guys in battle. For all the consternation over women fighting on front lines in real life, the fact that this is never an issue for Black Widow and The Avengers, despite her not having super powers, speaks louder than any direct statement could.

That she’s been forced to give up creating life but Hawkeye hasn’t is far more a shot across the bow at conservative religious-ish factions who seek to control female bodies, and it manages to create even greater empathy for an already beautifully complex figure. So far the best response to the backlash is from Mark Ruffalo:

“I think it’s a misplaced anger. I think that what people might really be upset about is the fact that we need more superhuman women. The guys can do anything, they can have love affairs, they can be weak or strong and nobody raises an eyebrow. But when we do that with a woman, because there are so few storylines for women, we become hyper-critical of every single move that we make because there’s not much else to compare it to.”

Plus, it’s important to keep in mind that Whedon can be praised for writing strong women while still being an imperfect writer – just like all writers. Add to that the battle of working within a tightly regimented corporate structure with a bombastic, multi-billion-dollar ten-year plan, and it starts to look like a miracle that he even got the progressive elements in the movie that he did. It’s still bonkers that Marvel doesn’t make Black Widow merchandise, though.

But wait. Think about that. Here’s a director working within a structure that refuses to make money off their female characters. They probably don’t even recognize that all the money the producers made off the Black Widow movie called Lucy should have been theirs. It’s amazing that Whedon’s voice tunneled up to the surface at all.

You can also see how impossible any progressive momentum is for these companies and characters. They are bound by two ironclad problems:

1. Handcuffed to old characters who are mostly white and male.

2. Can’t innovate.

But here’s the thing to remember: Idris Elba did play Heimdall and the sky didn’t fall. In fact, most people probably didn’t know there was a “problem.” Because there wasn’t. At least not a real one.

That should go for lead heroes like Spider-Man, too. Of course he can be black. Or Thai. Or Italian. Or Brazilian. Because he’s fictional, and regardless of the totemic power that Spider-Man The Icon has become, changing his race shouldn’t affect his core values of a superhero, and those are what genuinely matter. In fact, part of the appeal of Spider-Man’s full-coverage mask is that he could be anyone, of any race.

But change doesn’t exist in the world of superhero comic books or superhero movies, so they say, “But Spider-Man can’t be black,” and move on with casting Asa Butterfield and patting themselves on the back for doing the least interesting thing they could do. Despite the failure of The Amazing Spider-Man series, Sony (now with Marvel, as if that matters) is going to try the recipe one more time to see if we’ll somehow magically drool over the same ol’ cut of beef being advertised to us.

So, we’re stuck. For those looking for more female and minority superheroes getting their own movies, and for those simply looking for innovative stories, expect more of the same for the foreseeable future. Change as an illusion isn’t just a guiding story principle for comic book movies, it’s also a business model.

*I know Kevin Feige has already claimed the next Spider-Man won’t be an origin story, but I’ll believe it when I see it.

Correction: this article originally said 1963 was when Captain America debuted, and we have no excuse for why. We regret the error. Thanks, Khal Mifune.

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