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Spider-Man Shouldn't be Black
Or A White Man Solves the Race Problem
In 2013, we saw a truly banner year for white (or mostly white) men playing Asian characters. Around the world, there was much rejoicing to see white (or mostly white-looking) men finally getting great roles in blockbuster movies. We saw the probably-not-at-all-Asian Benedict Cumberbatch playing the villainous and highly intelligent Khan Noonian Singh.
Just consider that for a second.
Benedict Cumberbatch played a guy named Khan Noonian Singh. Benedict Cumberbatch played a character with three different kinds of Asian names. The worst part of all of this is, what a great loss this was for filmmaking. The original Khan was an intelligent, calculating warlord thrust into the future. He was bred to be the perfect man; strong and smart. He was a genetically modified uber-mensch, smacking right in the face of the Aryan Superman ideal by being unabashedly not a white guy.
Sure, Ricardo Montalban wasn't far from being a pasty white guy, but he was just dark enough to make the character...interesting. There's a reason Khan is remembered, and all the white supermen characters have fallen to the wayside. It's a fascinating take on the idea of perfection, to have a dark-skinned man dressing in Sikh turbans as a genetically created idea. That's far richer for story than another white guy...
Luckily, Hollywood had a response: A towering slap in the face of hiring white people to play ethnic parts. The wonderful people at Marvel, seeing their chance to make an intelligent thriller that deals with the consequences and causes of terrorism, did the only thing they could do. They took a character, admittedly created in the stereotypical yellow peril archetype, and made him an almost white guy comedy character, leaving the true villain for the whitest guy they could hire.
Executive 1: Shit, we've been using the Ten Rings terrorist group in Iron Man. We have to include the Mandarin, right?
Executive 2: Hey, that's a good idea. He's like a Chinese guy who has magic rings. We could make one of them an Infinity Stone. We could use Tony Stark's previous career as an arms dealer to talk about the results of war and the military, discuss terrorism and the damages...
Executive 3: Hey! We can get Ben Kingsley! Let's use him!
Executive 1: Great!
Executive 2: I don't think he's Chinese. See, the Mandarin has an interesting backstory dealing with colonialism. We could make him, say, Taiwanese...half-British, half...
Executive 1: Ben Kingsley! He's Chinese, right? And he's HI-LARIOUS! Let's make his character comedic! Having a bad guy be Chinese won't go over well in China.
Executive 2: I think Ben Kingsley is, like, British and Indian, right? I mean...
Executive 3: You're right. The REAL villain should be a white guy! An evil business man! And he's really, really white! And in character of the Chinese guy who isn't Chinese!
Executive 2: WHITE BUSINESSMEN WERE THE BAD GUYS IN THE LAST TWO MOVIES!
Executive 1: Too late. Already hired Ben Kingsley to play the Mandarin, and he will only do it if it's a comedy part where he can use two random accents.
This leads to a movement that's been going around online, to take a historically white character, Spider-Man, and make him black.
I felt this was...wrong. I couldn't quite put my finger on it. On the surface, I don't mind. I want to see the best actors in the best stories. Period. Black Spider-Man? Sure. White woman Hulk? Sure, if it's a great story. Asian man as Captain American? Sure. Mixed race transgender person as Batman? If the story is good, why not?
Then I realized what my problem is: It's black Spider-Man. I've invested my entire life into Spider-Man. Spider-Man is my spirit animal. The reason I got into reading, and my career in science, can be traced directly back to those first few comics I got as a child, barely old enough to read. The first comic I ever read was a Fantastic Four comic. The second was a Spider-Man comic. It's that simple. I see Spider-Man as myself. He was an awkward, depressed kid with a love of science. He was raised by a single woman. He dreamed of being cooler, of being powerful. He worked hard to be a good person and was given the chance to change the world. Overcoming a lot of adversity, Peter Parker became a hero, a scientist, a husband, and a father. We can ignore the awful Clone Saga. Spider-Man is me and I am Spider-Man: a nerdy white man trying to do what's right.
Here's where I ran into the problem of casting a black person as Spider-Man.
1. I want to be Spider-Man, a historically nerdy white guy. I saw myself in Spider-Man as a child. As a human being, it's easier for me to relate to someone similar to me than different.
2. The fact that I keep reading articles and comments that say they want a black Spider-Man, shows me another issue with this. People aren't saying they want a good Spider-Man. They want a black Spider-Man or a white Spider-Man. Taking any character that's historically one thing and making it another brings tons of comparisons.
3. The mixed-race Spider-Man from the Ultimates comics is also a possibility. Miles Morales is a Spider-Man, but he hides in the white Shadow of the original Spider-Man, Peter Parker. I also find his character kind of boring, outside of his race, religion, or other factors. He just isn't Peter Parker.
There's the other big problem with pop culture in a nutshell. There are a lot of great white, straight male characters. There are fewer popular, great minority characters. The ones I can name are either sidekicks to white guys (Falcon), or minority versions of white guys (Batgirl, Miles' Spider-Man, War Machine). There is no better way to describe it: It fucking sucks. It sucks that non-white people have been relegated to sidekicks and ethnic versions of white people in pop culture. It really diminishes the world of storytelling and art. Movies are more vivid when they paint with a broader brush.
So, if I don't want you to take Spider-Man from me and I don't want to see only white guys get every part in every movie, what are we to do as a society?
There's a movie coming out loosely based on the Fantastic Four. I have a tendency to think it'll be terrible. To me, it looks like the filmmakers know nothing about the Fantastic Four. They're a family of adults going on sci-fi adventures. This looks like an action movie with cheap sci-fi sets starring young punk kids. That isn't the Fantastic Four. But they've cast a historically white characters, Johnny Storm, as a black actor. A good actor, too. This bothers me but not because I care if Johnny is black. I'd be happy seeing an entire mixed-race Fantastic Four. They're great characters, and that has nothing to do with their whiteness. I also don't see myself in any of them, despite loving the adventures.
No, the problem here was, the filmmakers cast the wrong character as black. There's one character that, even as a child, I always saw as a black man. I knew he was white. He had white skin. He has blue eyes. In my mind, though, I always pictured him as a black man with a gruff, masculine voice. He was sort of a depressed Barry White in my mind as I read him. This character was a loveable man, a born hero, that became the monster he saw himself as. Some people were afraid of him and his unnatural skin. Some people ignored it, seeing him as a hero. He was, of course, Benjamin Grimm, the ever-lovin' blue eyed Thing.
There's a great story there, with parallels to my own experiences. A hero many admire but don't want to be around. He's the black athlete, the Indian doctor, the transgender waiter. You want to see them on your team or performing surgery on your mother, but a large portion of the country wouldn't want them near their daughter. Isn't that a great story for the Thing? A man who wants so badly to be like everyone else but can't? A man who can only fall in love with a blind woman, the kind of person who sees his real soul?
But, nope. He's a white guy in Fantastic Four. I'm honestly shocked Johnny Storm wasn't a white guy. I imagine some executive somewhere wants to make a movie about slavery where everyone is played by a white, British guy. Women. Black women. Trees. Chairs. Everything in the movie is a white, British guy.
Aye, but there's the issue. I'm a white man, so I have plenty of escapist characters to imagine myself as. I have Spider-Man and the Fantastic Four to strive towards. When I was a kid, I doubt anyone didn't want me dating their daughter or moving next door to them. I had an entire world open to me. I was, and still am, a straight white man. That's the true shape of privilege: not that I've actually gotten anything handed to me, but that I had nothing taken from me. The puzzle pieces are all there for me, even if I still have to put them together.
Today, I am seeing comments about how the Confederate battle flag isn't racist because a black person flies one in front of their house. I see news stories saying gay people shouldn't get married, but, hey, let them have civil unions. This is the calling card of the kindly bigot, the friend racist, the nice guy who hates you.
"Look, I don't hate you, in fact I have a friend who's gay."
"Latinos should have all the rights we do, just different kinds of rights because they aren't real Americans."
"Spider-Man should be white! He was always white! Here, here's a comedy sidekick that's a Japanese woman. That's good enough."
When I see the popularity of comic books – a thing that I've invested 27 years of my life and thousands of dollars into – I get sad. It was once my thing, a secret I kept with a few others, knowing that only we knew how fantastic the stories were. It was a vivid, painted world where I could escape, but others couldn't. I suffered when it was uncool to read comics. I've gone on dates where women are aghast that I do something for kids. No real manly man adult reads comics.
Now, attractive young women wear Thor shirts, having never read a Thor comic. This is certainly what any small group feels like when their culture is appropriated. Luckily, I didn't have the violence that often comes with being that small out-group. Still, it hurts. Movies like Man of Steel hurt me. They're made by people with no connection, no love for the source. Maybe that's why I'm afraid to lose Spider-Man to anyone else. He's already suffered through 2 awful movies, can't I have him back?
Can't I hold onto my childhood?
Can't I have my character that I get lost into, that I can see myself as...
Oh. I guess I can share him. We can have a black Spider-Man. I already have my white Spider-Man. We can have a woman Thor. I have my man Thor. I guess it isn't mine to horde, to keep safe and protect from anyone who wants to change.
At some point, art belongs to the people. To hold onto the art, to keep it safe and away from society, is generally to see that art form die. So, if Spider-Man being someone other than the nerdy, white Peter Parker can give another kid an escapist character to enjoy, a love of science, or a love of comics, I suppose it's my duty to share. It's heroic to do so. If someone wants to make an all Arab lesbian version of the Avengers, and it's a good story, then why shouldn't they?
I don't know, though. If everyone agrees to stop making shitty Fantastic Four movies, I'll agree to go see a good movie where Miles Morales is Spider-Man and Peter Parker is nowhere to be found.
Seriously, though, fucking Benedict Cumberbatch played a guy named Khan Noonian Singh. What the hell, Hollywood? Star Trek was a future designed to be post-racial, post-sexist, post-whatever. It was a world where anyone could be anything, and they got a British white guy to... Ah, well-played. Anyone can be anything in Star Trek. Even a white guy can grow up to be Asian. Pop culture is awesome.