Why black superheroes matter

Why black superheroes matter

By: Adam X Smith


Writer's note - Since the original article was published in December, Sony and Marvel have announced a joint-licensing plan that would allow Spider-Man to appear in Marvel Studios produced films whilst allowing Sony to retain film rights and final creative control, with a new Spider-Man film tentatively set to be released July 2017, with Kevin Feige producing in partnership with Sony’s Amy Pascal.

Andrew Garfield and long-time Spider-Man producer Avi Arad are, at the time of writing, not involved in these plans. The article below has been amended accordingly.

In the past month or so, the internet has played gleeful host to the circus that has been the Sony hacking scandal. 

This past winter, the internet has played gleeful host to the circus that was the Sony hacking scandal. Personal information, financial details and company emails have been posted online for all to see, resulting in severe embarrassment for many, not least Sony Pictures head Amy Pascal, and Seth Rogen and James Franco’s The Interview sparked an international incident when North Korea took exception to Kim Jong-Un’s portrayal therein.

Yet during all the uproar and tabloid gossip that was fuelled from it, one thought never strayed far from our mind…

What does all this mean for the fate of Spider-Man on film?

It may seem like a trivial topic to focus on when the future of freedom of speech in cinema is threatened by cyber-terrorists, but the topic of the rights for Spider-Man reverting from Sony back to Marvel’s parent company Disney is a topic that has been on a lot of minds for some time now. Up until the events of December and the recent announcement of a joint venture between Sony and Marvel, it looked relatively remote as a possibility, and with good reason: until recently, we didn’t have direct access to every questionable business decision Sony had made in the recent past.

However, just as the hacked emails revealed the fact that Scott Rudin apparently really hates Angelina Jolie, those same emails revealed that Sony have been discussing the fate of everyone’s favourite web-crawler a lot more seriously than anyone had previously thought. According to various sources, Sony have been in conference with the House of Mouse about the possibility of a ‘joint-custody’ situation where Spider-Man would make appearances in the Marvel Cinematic Universe of films (presumably in time to appear in Captain America: Civil War, in which the character figures prominently), with Sony providing distribution. These talks broke down, allegedly over Sony’s unwillingness to cede creative control to Marvel/Disney. Then the hack scandal hit and all that backstage rigmarole became common knowledge.

Now, less than two months later, those same talks are back in the news in a big way, in what seems to be the biggest coup for the Marvel Studios slate since the announcement of The Avengers: Spidey is back in Marvel’s corner. Sort of. He’s probably going to be soft-rebooted again, what with Andrew Garfield evidently burning his bridges with Sony over comments he made regarding studio-mandated rewrites and reshoots to Amazing Spider-Man 2, and Sony still gets to own the rights to him in a token gesture that seems to suggest that the notoriously tight-fisted Marvel weren’t willing to simply buy Sony out lock, stock and barrel, but Kevin Feige’s previous statements regarding their desire to move away from origin stories and use existing films as “back door pilots” for their new characters means we hopefully won’t have to go through another retelling of Uncle Ben’s death any time soon.

Which brings us to the topic of the title, and the hashtag #DonaldGloverForSpiderMan.

Short version: at one point, comedian, rapper and Community star Donald Glover became the subject of an online campaign to get him cast as Spider-Man that split the fandom neatly down the middle between enthusiastic agreement and blind rage. We’ll let the man himself explain in more detail…

 


Naturally, Glover didn’t end up as Spider-Man that time around, but the campaign inspired Brian Michael Bendis to create Miles Morales, a Black-Latino pre-teen who becomes a successor to Spider-Man in an alternate universe following the death of Peter Parker in the Ultimate comics line. Whilst recent events have resulted in Ultimate Peter Parker being resurrected (natch), it seems that Morales is here to stay, as he remains popular with readers and critics alike and continues to be a high-profile member of various Marvel storylines. He’s even made the transition to animation, with Glover voicing him in a multi-episode crossover on Disney’s Ultimate Spider-Man.
 




We’re not advocating specifically that Sony give up the rights to Spider-Man in time for Marvel to incorporate Miles Morales into Captain America: Civil War, with all the legal and technical issues that massive undertaking would entail. Nor are we suggesting that Donald Glover is the only person capable of playing the role.

But let’s not forget that some of the biggest stories that have affected the American psyche this past year have involved the return of race and gender inequality to the fore of political conversation. Marvel aren’t idiots. As Bob Chipman points out, their track record has been stellar for a long time - even their lesser films make big box office and they have the goodwill of the majority of comic fans to fall back on. In lesser hands, Chipman argues, bringing Spidey into a homogenized MCU after two or three unsatisfying jaunts on his own would be worrisome, but Kevin Feige has managed to completely flip the script when it comes to big budget filmmaking in a way not seen since the days of New Hollywood.

One of the things that has long been a hallmark of Marvel’s relationship with its readership is the readiness to reflect the changing social dynamics of its fans through their characters, and Marvel Studios under Feige’s leadership continues to demonstrate that this approach can work in cinema too. That’s why Idris Elba and Tadanobu Asano can play Asgardians in the Thor movies and it doesn’t make any difference to anyone but pedants and closet racists.

The reason the whole ‘Donald For Spider-Man’ thing is still relevant now is the same as why it came about in the first place: because audiences want to see racial diversity in the characters they see on-screen, and whilst there will be predictable blowback and bleating from particular cross-sections of fans who really need to grow up, be quiet and go away, there isn’t really a legitimate reason that Spider-Man can’t or shouldn’t be any race or gender the creators need him to be to serve the story. Hell, there’s a version of Spider-Man that’s a pig, for Christ’s sake.

Frankly, right now would be the ideal time for a person of colour to play Spider-Man, divorced as it would be from the baggage of previous interpretations of the character and at a time when Marvel is already attempting to push the diversity envelope with its casting. And if Marvel really wanted to bring it full circle, Glover would still work as a slightly older Miles Morales; he’s got previous experience with Captain America directors Anthony and Joe Russo, and having left Community mid-season to work on his music and other ventures, there’s probably room in his schedule. Sure, Miles has got a different background to Peter Parker, and jumping into Civil War fully formed is a little risky, but all of that is trumped by the fact that he’s an alternate version of a character that’s been around for FIFTY F***ING YEARS! It’s Spider-Man we’re talking about, not Squirrel Girl or Forbush Man!

What’s more, it’s not like this is the first time someone has done this at Marvel, even if we ignore the recent ‘uproar’ over Thor becoming a woman and Sam ‘The Falcon’ Wilson taking over as Captain America for Steve Rogers. Both Iron Man and Cap have had brief reimaginings or replacements with black characters in the past - James ‘Rhodey’ Rhodes in the former instance during Tony Stark’s battle with alcoholism, who would go on to become War Machine/Iron Patriot and be played by Terrence Howard and Don Cheadle; in the latter case, Isaiah Bradley’s backstory is a twist on the well-known Cap origin with parallels to the horrific Tuskegee experiments that resulted in thousands of African-Americans being deliberately infected with syphilis without their knowledge. Fox are also in post-production on a reboot of the Fantastic Four films with Josh Trank and Michael B. Jordan of Chronicle directing and starring as Johnny Storm respectively.

So the idea of Spider-Man being born and raised in Brooklyn, the son of an African American father and a Latina mother, doesn’t really seem that strange anymore. Plus, as a black kid growing up in a modern America that treats him as a menace both in and out of costume, it would make for even more of that timely political allegory that modern superhero movies are so eager to latch onto.
 


 

Artwork by Nikolas A. Draper-Ivey

This isn’t about how corporations are stupid and evil or that fulfilling the whims of an intellectual property’s fans is the soul metric by which franchise filmmaking should be considered successful. What we’re trying to say is that we are on the verge of a tipping point in cinema, where minority representation can make some serious inroads. Making Spider-Man black, or Hispanic or Chinese or female or gay or half-alien for that matter, isn’t the crux of the matter, but it’s still a choice that Sony and/or Marvel can choose to make or not make - a choice that could have implications for the rest of the industry moving into the second half of this decade, one that promises, now more than ever, to be an era where the supergods reigns supreme at the box office.

What will the history books say?