My friends on Facebook are likely a little chagrined by my constant obsession with the state of Spider-Man in the movies. Anytime I come across some interesting news about what’s being done with the character, I want to share it and get other people on board my perpetual grump about the fact that Marvel and Sony won’t do a Spider-Man story about anyone besides Peter Parker. By this point, I’m pretty sure many people just roll their eyes and move on because Jason’s just climbing on his soapbox about silly comic book stuff again.
The irony, of course, is that I don’t really care about Spider-Man. Yeah, he’s probably Marvel’s flagship character (or he was before the Avengers movies hit it big), but I’ve never thought he was terribly interesting to read about. Of course, I’m primarily an X-Men fan, so I’m probably missing some aspects of the character that make him popular.
Nonetheless, I care about the way Spider-Man gets treated in film because he’s one of the most adapted characters in superhero fiction. When filmmakers are willing to take chances with such a well-established character, that bodes well for introducing new interpretations on other characters.
So that’s why I got kind of huffy the other day when I found this article from Gawker about the contract between Sony and Marvel outlining what traits Spider-Man is allowed to display in film adaptations. Some of this stuff makes sense as a way of protecting the general brand of the character; Spider-Man’s not a gritty superhero, so restricting him from engaging in torture or illegal drug use makes sense. It’s the stuff about race and sexuality that throws me for a loop.
Some close reading of the stipulations does suggest that Spider-Man can be portrayed as a person of color as long as his secret identity isn’t that of Peter Parker; this means that in theory Spider-Man could be black if filmmakers opted to use Miles Morales (which still leaves room for hope of a better attempt on the franchise’s third reboot). That’s all well and good, though I still have my doubts that such a thing will happen unless there’s a much larger, vocal demand for it. Big money films are like big money games in a lot of ways; the people bankrolling them want reasonable assurances that they’re going to turn a profit on their investment, and that leads to highly conservative thinking about the tastes of audiences.
But there’s a deeper problem besides the studios’ continued insistence that Peter Parker is the Spider-Man for them. When it comes down to it, we have to acknowledge that Peter Parker is a fictional character who’s positioned in a fictional multiverse where every aspect of a character’s identity is fluid. Yes, usually Peter Parker is a dorky straight white boy from Queens, but none of those traits must be adhered to, even in the context of Marvel’s multiverse, which we can safely assume all movies featuring Marvel superheroes exist within (warning: I’m about to get more nerdy than usual).
The Marvel multiverse, by its nature, is an infinite series of variations on the core concept presented in Marvel’s primary comics universe. Though live action adaptations don’t typically cross over, they still exist within the multiverse (if I’m not mistaken, the Marvel Cinematic Universe and various other versions of their characters even have official multiversal designations akin to the primary universe’s 616), and are therefore subject to the same fluid rules regarding character identity that get displayed in other alternate universes. The sexuality of a single character is never set in stone (I’ve seen gay versions of Wolverine, Beast, Colossus, and Hercules, just to name the ones that immediately come to mind), nor is the ethnicity (there’s an alternate universe version of Heather Hudson, a major white character in the Alpha Flight series, who is black). Just because the studios want to keep Peter Parker as their Spider-Man doesn’t mean they necessarily have a storytelling obligation to retain all aspects of the character.
I mean, let’s take a look at another traditionally white Marvel character who actually is being recast as black. While I’m of the general opinion that it’s better to just pretend Fox never made the first two Fantastic Four movies, I admit that I’m somewhat excited about the new one coming out. Besides the fact that the trailers at least make it out to be more of a science adventure than the standard superhero flick, I’m really happy that they’ve cast Michael B. Jordan, a black actor, as Johnny Storm the Human Torch (I’m even happier after seeing Jordan in Fruitvale Station and learning that he’s a quality actor). I don’t know how Johnny’s going to be portrayed in that movie (and I do have some worries that he’ll be written as one of the many bad black stereotypes that pop up in stories), but I’m just happy that Fox is taking the chance to do something different with the character.
I know I’ve said before that I like to push for more diversity in characters because I’m bored with always reading about people who are like me. That’s kind of a flippant explanation, but it sort of gets at an idea that Rachael mentioned to me the other day. Part of the problem with being white is that we get socialized to crave homogeneity in our communities. We’re taught that it’s not a bad thing to be surrounded by people who are like us, overlooking the fact that every other group doesn’t get that same privilege. White culture pervades the West so that if you are a person of color, you have to get used to the idea that stories will not always be about people like you, and while the overwhelming whiteness of entertainment can become fatiguing, even oppressive, the lesson this suggests about the value of diverse perspectives is a good one. White people should learn this lesson. I don’t see any reason why we can’t do that through reinterpretations of established characters.