Has Marvel Finally Solved Its Diversity Issues?

Marvel has made diversity a priority, but there's still more work to be done.

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Complex Original

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Resistance is in the first sentence of a superhero's job description—they're fighters by nature. Many of them are evolved humans at odds with a world still struggling with evolution and acceptance. In that sense, their fictional surroundings aren't far off from the world we live in.

Next year, Spider-Man: Homecoming will reboot the embattled movie franchise for the third time in 15 years. Newcomer Tom Holland will inherit the Peter Parker/Spider-Man reins from predecessors Andrew Garfield and Tobey Maguire, but that's the least intriguing bit of casting news surrounding the film. The additions of black actors such as Donald Glover, Zendaya, Hannibal Buress, and, most recently, Bokeem Woodbine, contrast Spider-Man’s traditionally white story. It’s an eye-opening move that will make the next film a more accurate reflection of society—especially Peter Parker's NYC-raised environment.

Spider-Man: Homecoming's ongoing casting is an extremely welcome development, and it's not the only project with which Marvel is making strides. The impending Black Panther film is also a sign of immense progress. And that should be recognized, but we can't shower Marvel with wholehearted applause just yet.

Third time’s a charm, right? Sam Raimi’s series of Spider-Man movies got it right, quality wise, from the gate. But to be blunt, I can't remember a single black person being in that trilogy. (Oh wait, nevermind.) It’s now taken three reboots for Marvel to realize that Peter Parker, a kid from Queens, might occasionally interact with minorities. So the casting of Glover, Zendaya, Buress, and Woodbine shows a bit of social awareness: New York City is a massive stew of culture; overlap—or, at the very least, intersection—is inevitable. Furthermore, it shows that Marvel and Sony are committed to casting the best talent, race be damned. The range of Glover’s ability has been on display for over a decade, while Woodbine is on the heels of an unexpectedly brilliant, career-changing turn in Fargo’s second season. Spider-Man: Homecoming’s creators appear aware that the power of strong performances are key to resurrecting this tale once again. And per the classic Spider-Man adage: “With great power comes great responsibility.”

For Marvel, the greatest responsibility lies with the most powerful man in its universe. Stan Lee, its 93-year-old ruler, diversified the comics amid the Civil Rights struggles of the 1960s by introducing Black Panther, Wyatt Wingfoot, and Falcon. He wanted Marvel to reflect the real world. Lee has been adamant about bringing variety to the comics, but admitted he would prefer characters remain as they were originally created.

To be blunt, I can't remember a single black person being in the spider-man trilogy.

“For example, I'd like Spider-Man to stay as he is, but I have no problem creating a superhero who's homosexual,” he told E! News after last year's Sony email leak revealed a mandate that Peter Parker must be a straight, white male. “I have no problem with having a black one, a Latino one, a Chinese one, anything—the whole world is our playground. The whole world has heroes we can draw from. I'm just not too happy changing what has already been established.”

In other words, Spider-Man can be black, Asian, Latino, gay, whatever—Peter Parker just has to remain white. Miles Morales, who’s half-black and half-Puerto Rican, replaced Parker as Spider-Man in the comics last year. This isn’t the first time Marvel has upset the white, male hero status quo (James “Rhodey” Rhodes assumed the Iron Man role in place of Tony Stark at one point; Sam Wilson, the Falcon, became Captain America; Kamala Khan, the new Ms. Marvel, became Marvel’s first Muslim headlining character), but that type of change is only common in the comics. Outrage, however, is common when it happens in the film adaptations. Maybe that's why Sony and Marvel agreed on both Spider-Man and Peter Parker being white.

There was fury when Michael Clarke Duncan was cast as the Kingpin in 2003’s abominable, Ben Affleck-led Daredevil. Samuel L. Jackson’s Nick Fury caused anger years after he first appeared in Iron Man despite a comic version of Fury being fashioned after Jackson before the films came to fruition. Anger at Michael B. Jordan’s casting as the Human Torch in last year’s universally-panned Fantastic Four mulligan was so intense that Jordan wrote an essay for Entertainment Weekly urging the “trolls on the Internet” to take a look at the world around them.

“Get your head out of the computer,” he wrote. “Go outside and walk around. Look at the people walking next to you. Look at your friends’ friends and who they’re interacting with. And just understand this is the world we live in. It’s okay to like it.”

Lee defended the change leading up to Fantastic Four’s release, contradicting his previous comments about characters staying as they were originally written. “It was more than okay,” he told EW, adding that he “thought it was a great idea!” What’s more, Lee claimed that the displeasure was more the result of loyalty to the source material than racism. “They’re outraged not because of any personal prejudice,” he added. “They’re outraged because they hate to see any change made on a series and characters they had gotten familiar with. In Spider-Man, when they got a new actor, that bothered them, even though it was a white actor. I don’t think it had to do with racial prejudice as much as they don’t like things changed.”

For all of his good intentions, Lee apparently fails to see the uniformity in the world that’s made him ridiculously wealthy. It’s predominantly white and male at the publishing level; the bulk of the heroes follow suit, as does the core consumer base. That demographic is so accustomed to seeing itself between the pages and on-screen that the knee-jerk reaction to change is criticism imbued with racism, whether it’s deliberate or not. And as Ta-Nehisi Coates (who’s brought his exceptionally sagacious pen to the new Black Panther comic series) explained to NPR, if you aren’t depicting diversity in the superhero realm, you’re robbing it of its last shred of reality:

Why would there not be black superheroes? Why would there not be Asian-American superheroes? If this is our mythology, why would our mythology only be straight, white males? What is actually going on there?
For all of his good intentions, [stan] Lee apparently fails to see the uniformity in the world that’s made him ridiculously wealthy. It’s predominantly white and male at the publishing level; the bulk of the heroes follow suit, as does the core consumer base.

Coates also cited the responsibility that comes with including diversity in these stories. “I think a) you have an imperative to really interrogate what our imagination actually is and b) you have an imperative to depict the world as it is with some fealty and some loyalty,” Coates said. The Black Panther film, which will be co-written and directed by Ryan Coogler, is inherently black as fuck. The casting (Chadwick Boseman in the lead role; Lupita Nyong’o and Jordan as reported additions) is a function of its setting and story: the brilliant, somewhat reluctant king of a fictitious African nation moonlighting as a crime-fighter. A film like Spider-Man: Homecoming would feel inauthentic if it erased a significant portion of the city’s cultural fabric, so while the casting updates inspire some faith, they don't fix the larger problem.

It's unlikely that the friction between Marvel's narratives and their cinematic adaptations will ever be resolved. Race only complicates the matter, especially since Marvel and its business partners agree that white is right and have no problem spelling it out. Spider-Man: Homecoming looks like a step in the right direction for now, but only time and the creative powers that be will tell how it plays out. Black Panther's appearance in Captain America: Civil War was pivotal, but the film is still two years away. And, despite Marvel's justification, Tilda Swinton playing the traditionally Asian mentor of Doctor Strange in the upcoming Doctor Strange film is already causing problems so glaring that Netflix's Luke Cage (out in September), which is also black AF, won't be able to totally offset them.

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