Tale of Two Spideys

Looking at Superheroes, Suits and Segregation

  • Graphic Morag Rahn-Campbell

Marvel Studios recently struck a deal with Sony Pictures to bring us another damn Spider-Man movie.

For those not keeping track, the first Spider-Man trilogy starring Tobey Maguire began in 2002 and then, under the title of The Amazing Spider-Man, British actor Andrew Garfield took on the title role for two more films in 2012. That’s five films in less than 15 years. Reactions to the news ranged from exhausted to thrilled, as fans were pumped to finally see the web-slinging superhero team up with the likes of the Hulk and Iron Man.

Meanwhile in 2011, the comics witnessed the revelation of a new wall-crawler, Miles Morales, a Black Hispanic teenager who got his powers the good old fashioned way—bitten by a genetically modified spider containing some of Peter Parker’s DNA. Recently, Marvel made Morales their official Spider-Man. His first issue dropped on Feb. 3.

As it waited for the casting of the newest Spider-Man flick, the internet was wild with speculation. Though it was a total long shot, some dared to hope that Morales’s story would be the source material—a change from the same origin story with the same character, played by two white leads, already done twice-over. Some loved the idea. Some hated it. Some brought back the famous #donald4spiderman hashtag, lobbying for actor/rapper Donald Glover AKA Childish Gambino to take his shot at the role. Frankly, some people were rendered apathetic by the sheer barrage of superheroes already heaped on pop culture.

Then, the company revealed they had cast Tom Holland, a relatively unknown white actor as Parker. Wired published a sarcastically titled article that summed up a great deal of fan reaction to the announcement: “Your New Spider-Man Is a…Fresh-Faced White Dude. Great.”

The curious case of the three white Spider-Men is a study in culture and contrast of industries, especially when you consider Marvel’s recent “All-New, All-Different” comics lineup, which has spawned fresh new takes on already beloved heroes. There’s Korean-American Amadeus Cho, who was recently given the mantle of the Hulk. Ms. Marvel is Kamala Khan, a sixteen-year-old Muslim girl. Wolverine is a senior citizen. Thor is a woman. Meanwhile, Marvel Studios only recently announced its first superhero movies with a Black male lead, and a female lead—Black Panther and Captain Marvel, respectively. The Spider-Man reboot pushed back both of their release dates.

Many fans are thrilled to have two Spider-Mans, and are excited by the notion of both the upcoming film and Morales’s debut as the comic universe’s crime-fighting web-slinger. There’s room aplenty for love in the fandom, even if it initially began as trepidation.

“When I found out that they were going to be making a new Spider-Man … I didn’t want to like him, because Peter Parker was my Spider-Man,” said Raf La Rosa, who works at Astro Books on Ste. Catherine St. “Turns out I love Miles Morales. I like that he’s Spider-Man, but he’s different enough to be his own Spider-Man.”

Many fans are ready to embrace the change, but the studio executives are not—and people asking ‘why’ need to look no further than the mighty dollar.

“These superhero films are meant to be huge blockbusters. The movie studios are willing to put up big budget, but they are also counting on a huge audience coming to see them,” said Barbara Postema, a professor in Concordia’s English department who teaches the graphic novel class. “They play it rather safe. They have the sense that most of the people coming to see those movies will be white guys, I guess, so ‘let’s make sure that these are films that appeal to them.’”

In 2015, comic book distributor Diamond reported sales of around $579 million in North America—that includes Marvel, DC, Dark Horse and other companies. Marvel made more than a third of those sales. In contrast, Marvel Studios’s last film, Avengers: Age of Ultron made nearly $460 million in North America, and a worldwide total of $1.405 billion.

“You can try something in the comics and then cancel it if it doesn’t work,” Postema continued. “For a film, they kind of have to play it safe. Unfortunately, ethnicity, diversity—that kind of gets lost.”

“You can try something in the comics and then cancel it if it doesn’t work,” said Barbara Postema, a professor in Concordia’s English department

La Rosa was quick to point out that an audience that does not read the comics would not be familiar with Morales, and so it would not make sense to give him his own screen adaptation. A fair assumption, given that comics still reside in something of their own niche market. If the numbers tell us anything, it’s that more people are likely to pick up a movie ticket than a comic book. Which raises another troubling question—if we couldn’t have a Miles Morales film, why couldn’t they just have cast a Black actor to play Peter Parker?

The answer to that is entangled in a more sinister web. In June 2015, Wikileaks released emails detailing agreements between Sony and Marvel in regards to the traits contractually necessary for the cinematic depiction of Spider-Man—Caucasian and heterosexual were among the extensive list which noted Parker’s morality and history. Both companies declined to comment on the leak.

The ugly truth spans the microcosm of superhero movies and across the entire entertainment industry—you only need to look at the unadulterated slate of white actors nominated for the 2016 Oscars to see that the content of Sony’s secret emails reflect the majority of the biz—a phenomenon contested by actors such as

Will Smith and Idris Elba. What these clandestine, unsettling emails do not reflect is our modern society.

“In North American society, we’re very ethnically diverse, there should be more attention paid to an inclusive quality in media,” said Angela Ford-Rosenthal, a Concordia professor in sociology.

“Media has such an important role in constructing the way that people see other people,” she continued. “If you are in media, and you are part of a visible minority, you are part of a social construction of reality.”

The industry continues to ignore the multicultural reality that the world has always been. As Viola Davis said in her Emmy acceptance speech for Best Actress, “You cannot win an Emmy for roles that simply are not there.”

Ford-Rosenthal agrees with that sentiment: “It’s a slow movement towards inclusion, it’s very slow. Progress is slow in coming.”

Still, it is coming. There have been recent internet rumours that Miles Morales may be a character in the latest Spider-Man flick, alongside Peter, though executives and creatives alike has been tight-lipped about it.

In the meantime, comics will keep pushing boundaries—somewhat.

“In some ways it’s better than it has ever been,” Postema said, speaking about the state of diversity in the present comic book industry  “This is a great time in alternative comics, not so much mainstream comics. In small press, there’s more being published by [people with various] ethnicities.”

The small-press has less to lose, and more to gain in terms of taking larger risks when it comes to characters and their identities.

Still, it’s a brutal facet of the world we live in, that for two major companies, merely casting actors of colour in leading roles is considered a risk.

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