Should Spider-Man be black?

Yes, it’s that time of the season again. In the midst of rampant fandom speculation, Jeff Sneider of The Wrap has declared, based on purported insider information, that “Spider-Man’s not going to be white. … I am 95% sure.” Instead, Sneider argues, Spider-Man will either be Latino or “most likely black”, and will not be Peter Parker. Putting aside the verifiability of these statements (Mr. Sneider is not the studio, after all), this basically reignites the argument we’ve seen come and go so many times over this last year, if not longer: Casting non-white actors as normally white superheroes: Good, or EVIL?

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Actually, scratch superheroes, since in the UK we’ve had a minor bit of murmuring over the possibility of casting Idris Elba as James Bond, a choice endorsed by current Bond Daniel Craig, and ex-Bond Pierce Brosnan. It’s unlikely to happen, mind you (for reasons of age; Craig is signed on for two more movies, and Elba would be pushing 50 if and when he finally lands the part), but to be honest, I don’t think anyone would make too big a fuss if he or another black actor played the part of 007, as long as he’s good in the role. Of course, people initially complained that Craig shouldn’t have gotten the part because he’s blond, but if we can live with that, I’m sure we can accept him not being white. It would have been an issue if the character were closer to his literary counterpart (who was an outright old-fashioned, post-war, imperialistic racist, among other things), but Film-Bond and Book-Bond are two different beasts.

As for Peter Parker…Well, okay, let’s get one thing out of the way first: I would personally prefer a black/Latino/green-skinned Peter Parker over Miles Morales, for the same reason I would prefer to see Batman be Bruce Wayne rather than Dick Grayson. My objection to Miles Morales is simply that, however good his run was, Miles Morales doesn’t have the history or backstory or relationships with his supporting cast and enemies that Peter Parker does, and even after five outings, the Spider-Man movies have still barely scratched the surface of what the source material has to offer on that front. The whole Peter Parker versus Miles Morales argument is a whole other debate that goes beyond ethnicity or race (as well it should), and I’d rather not deal with it in this article. From a purely artistic and personal perspective, I still want Peter Parker, regardless of the skin color of the actor playing him.

Should Spider-Man be black?

So, moving on.

Little-to-nothing about Peter Parker necessitates that he be played by a white actor. The fact that Spider-Man lives in New York City is a pretty important part of his character, but the fact that he’s a white Anglo-Saxon Protestant is not.

Amazing Spider-Man 2 saw his enemy Electro be played by Jamie Foxx without any complaints (well, complaints about him being black, anyway). The Kingpin (a comic book character who was reportedly going to be black originally, until Marvel decided they didn’t want to get involved in ‘60s racial politics by making a black guy responsible for all crime in New York City) was played by Michael Clarke Duncan in Daredevil, cast not for his race but for his size, and the fact that he was one of the few bald, muscular actors over 6’4 who could actually act worth a damn.

Laurence Fishburne lends his gravitas to Perry White in Man of Steel. And Samuel L. Jackson was cast as Nick Fury in the comics before he was brought in to play the part for real. The biggest anachronism would be the aforementioned Idris Elba as the Norse god Heimdall, but that doesn’t really bother anyone. In fact, it doesn’t seem to be much of an issue at all when formerly white supporting characters or white villains are played by black actors, so why can’t comic book movies do the same with the main hero?

Should Spider-Man be black?

Well, in the spirit of getting a little meatier with this, allow me to play devil’s advocate. Why would they cast a black actor as Peter Parker?

I’ll admit, I’m a guy who once argued furiously against the idea of casting Tom Hardy as Bane in The Dark Knight Rises, simply because I felt he was too short (Hardy is 5’9; comic book Bane is usually 6’8). I even argued against the casting of Vincent D’Onofrio as the Kingpin in the upcoming Netflix Daredevil series for the same reason (D’Onofrio is 6’4, but Wilson Fisk is freakishly huge). Mostly, this was just me letting off steam. On a purely artistic level, and in an ideal world, I prefer an adaptation to stick as closely to the source material as possible.

My main objection to D’Onofrio is probably more that he doesn’t seem to be an action guy, and Wilson Fisk is traditionally a fighter who can hold his own against the Man Without Fear, but when it comes down to it, I can’t deny that the man has acting chops that few (taller) actors can rival. As for Tom Hardy, his Bane was different from the comic book version in so many ways that I can’t really complain about the size thing that much anymore anyway. And besides, as different as he was, I can’t deny that TDKR Bane was one of the highlights of a somewhat hit-or-miss movie.

Another anecdote, this one with more Idris Elba: When Jesse Eisenberg was announced as Lex Luthor in Batman V. Superman, it was a choice that took me and probably most other people by complete surprise in a way that wasn’t good or bad, but more along the lines of “…Really? Him?” When it comes to Luthor, Idris Elba was the one black man on my fantasy casting list for the role. And while sizing up the pros and cons of each actor on that list, I came to Mr. Elba and decided that the only problem casting him was that he’s black… and that wasn’t really a problem at all. Basically, Idris Elba is now my fantasy casting choice for Lex Luthor, and that isn’t because he’s black—it’s because he’s a damn good actor and would be demonic in the part. In my humble opinion.

Should Spider-Man be black?

Casting Peter Parker as black or Latino, however, may be slightly different, in the sense that it sounds from Sneider’s source that they’re deliberately going out of their way to cast someone non-white. When Michael B. Jordan was cast as the Human Torch (regardless of all the controversy it caused on the Internet), it wasn’t simply because he’s black; if anything, he was cast in spite of that fact. The Fantastic Four reboot is directed by Josh Trank, who directed Jordan in Chronicle and wanted to work with him again. Intentionally casting a black/Latino actor in a traditionally white role is one thing, but casting the ethnicity rather than the actor is a different matter.

Should Spider-Man be black?

And let’s be honest here—this could end up being seen as little more than a case of glorified tokenism. The reason for casting a black actor in this type of role is both because black actors rarely get these parts (as the lead in a surefire summer blockbuster, let alone a superhero movie, let alone a major fictional icon like Spider-Man), and also because there are simply more white superheroes than black superheroes, and the most well-known heroes are white (and male, but we’ll just focus on the white part for right now).

But the other problem is the lack of black (and other non-white/non-male) roles and characters in both mainstream Hollywood movies and superhero fiction, never mind popular fiction in general. It’s not that they don’t exist; it’s that they’re disproportionately underrepresented when compared to their white counterparts.

Should Spider-Man be black?

So on the one hand, purposely casting a black Spider-Man would be making a statement, yet arguably masking the problem on the other, since whether or not the lead hero is black, the rest of the supporting cast of these movies (and likely most of the extras) will still be predominantly white. It would be easy to accuse the studio of exploiting racial politics for their own gain—and even though that’s probably at least partially true—this would ignore that a lot of people would be happy to see a non-white actor play a major character like Spider-Man regardless of the motive, as a way of redressing racial imbalance in the media. But it would be more of a symbolic move than one that radically deals with the existing problem.

But let’s say it is glorified tokenism, that they are just casting a black Spider-Man for the sake of casting a black Spider-Man. Is that wrong? Well… that’s a complicated matter. The obvious response to this sort of move is “would you cast a white actor as a black superhero?” Obviously, someone like Black Panther is out of the question, since the fact that he’s an African prince is central to his character. But what about someone like Blade, or War Machine?

These types of questions might normally be ignored or dismissed in this kind of article, but I’d like to answer them: No. The answer is no, you wouldn’t, and it’s both because you would be seen as racist, and also because it never entered the minds of the casting crew to do otherwise. White character? White actor. Black character? Black actor. There will always be various exceptions for one reason or another, including adding diversity or because the actor you want to cast happens to be white or black. But as stated, these exceptions are generally reserved for the non-leading roles, and it’s usually a case of white characters being changed to non-white, rather than the other way around.

But here’s the thing: Spider-Man is white, and the bulk of his supporting cast is white. Same goes for Superman. And for Batman. And for the X-Men. And for the Fantastic Four. The most popular, successful and most well-developed superhero franchises are dominated by white characters, especially white male characters. Yes, you’ll find plenty of non-white, non-male supporting characters scattered around each of these stories; and yes, these characters are generally presented in an excellent light and are great characters in and of themselves. But there’s still a grossly disproportionate ratio of ten white and/or male characters to one ethnic minority and/or female character (yes, I pulled that statistic out of my ass, but I’m in the ballpark, and you know it), even when the fact that they are white and male doesn’t really come into play at all.

So, I suppose my point is this: in a fair world, no, you shouldn’t cast a non-white actor for the sake of casting a non-white actor; you should cast the actor based on talent and merit. And more brutal honesty: a female Thor? A black Captain America? An all-female Avengers? These aren’t changes that are going to last; these are just more token gestures that at best draw attention to the fundamental problem in the way diversity is handled in the superhero genre, but will be immediately forgotten once the status quo is inevitably restored. Getting into a real, lengthy debate about this issue means talking about history, class, segregation, the economy, and a whole bunch of other social topics that are beyond the scope of this article.

Casting a black or Latino Spider-Man for the sake of casting a black Spider-Man may or may not be the right move. It could very easily be used simply to divert attention away from the problem of how many more white characters (and actors) there are in these movies, and thus represent the illusion of progress more than actual progress itself. It could also, let’s face it, be more than a little condescending to the actor in question, whoever he is, especially if he ends up facing accusations that he got the role because he’s not white.

On the other hand, I can’t think of many good reasons to not give a non-white actor the role, and if they’re good in the part, then that should be the beginning and the end of it. And I can’t deny that, while giving a non-white actor the job would likely just be a symbolic victory more than anything else… as superhero stories repeatedly point out to me, symbols can be pretty damn powerful.

Tag: Marvel Cinematic Universe

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  • mamba

    In my head, all I can hear is the same 2 words in sentences again and again…WHO CARES.

    “Can spider man be black?” Yes becasue he’s drawn out of thin air, but WHO CARES what race he is, it’s irrelevant because race is irrelevant to the character. If people care about his race, make him alien or a literal human spider so he offends nobody.

    “Should he be black?” It’s not a part of his character so WHO CARES, because it’s irrelevant. If they make him black, people will just complain it’s pandering or “non-traditional to the character” or whatever, OR they’ll complain that it’s not enough and the race is still underrepresented, etc…etc…(notice they never complain about the lack of spainards in comics or australians or literally any other race or culture, apparently only the popular races and cultures count for outrage.)

    “But what about the misrepresentation of the race in comics?” WHO CARES, because you will never never NEVER please people looking to balance race anyway. It will never happen. You could make everyone in the comic 100% black for example, and people would complain about the WAY they’re drawn as a problem, or the fact they don’t “represent black culture” (when we’re trying to get AWAY from racism and treat everyone equally, I remind you), and that ignores the OTHER races that would get upset. So why try?

    “So we should just forget about this race thing entirely then?” Uh…yeah, we should. You want to stop racism, then stop seeing race in people at all. And yes, that means that sometimes a character will be white, or black, or asian, or whatever…and it is GUARANTEED to piss someone off no matter what. If they complain, WHO CARES because they’re going to anyway obviously.

    Thought experiment…remove ALL WHITE characters form the world and re-assign everyone. Now everyone’s happy and only the whites are shunted but they deserve it historically. How long before the remaining races start complaining about THEIR misrepresentation? I give it a week at best, becasue like I said, you will never please a racist, or even an anti-racist.

    In summary, when thinking about the race of a fictional character, just repeat…WHO CARES and enjoy the story/writing/art. The only way to play the race game is to ignore race entirely, because that’s the stated GOAL of anti-racists…to treat everyone as people and not “black” or “gay” or whatever, right?

    Then start DOING IT and make this entire conversation go away already!!! Because I assure you, talking about it to achieve “balance” will simply never occur.

    Final thought experiment to ponder: You’re making a new superhero team. You have 3 core members. Now write these 3 in a way that does not exclude the black, gay, straight, latino, asian, nor white community nor the religious community, and remember that there are only 4 members. By simple math, SOMEONE’S getting excluded, and you’re not a racist writer trying to defend a racism accusation that never even existed. If you answer “Well make it more than 3 characters”, you missed the point, as I purposely left out DOZENS of potential other races/cultures just to make it easier for you!

    • Fantasy Mission Force

      Wait, I’m confused; is it ‘3’ members, or ‘4’…?

      • mamba

        3, I’m just a terrible typist sometimes. You’ll see LOTS of typos if you look carefully, and thank everyone for being so polite not to mention them, very considerate!

        Until the day we can leave audio comments, these darn fingers will have to do. But if you really want to, make it 4 and add another culture to try and please to the mix, won’t change the point any. :)

  • Sardu

    Mmmmm… sure, why not. Just make a decent movie. It’s a fictional character, who cares. I mean, if you’re casting a black guy as John F. Kennedy just because “black actors need a chance at these sorts of roles” that could get a little weird. But otherwise just cast a GOOD actor. That’s the main thing.

  • Wizkamridr

    Just make Spider-man the emissary from hell, and give him a
    giant robot.

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_detailpage&v=oey8s7eteqk

    Power Rangers Dino Charge has a non-white as the Red
    Ranger. I don’t think they have done that since Tommy got replaced in Turbo
    Ranger. They need to do it more often. A white guy doesn’t always need to be
    the leader. They should also put a female in charge every once in a while too.

    What am I saying? Power Rangers is a kid show and isn’t
    taken seriously. They aren’t cool like D.C. or Marvel. LOL.

  • Justme

    I honestly do not care. As long as the story is good, Spiderman could be a pre-op transgender female for all I care. In the larger scheme of things, that is such a petty issue to be worried about that I honestly cannot bring myself to care.

    All I care about is that there is a movie better than the last two on the horizon at some point. And I don’t care who plays Spidey in it – if it’s good, I’ll like it.

  • FK3

    It matters.

    I read in a Spider-Man comic (coincidentally enough) a letter to one of the writers – I forget who, and I can’t find it online – and the reader asked why certain changes were never done to Peter Parker/Spider-Man. The writer responded that they (the creative team) weren’t the “owners” of the characters, but that they were the “shepherds” of them. That the characters were going to exist long after a given writer left or died, but it was the current writer’s job to respect the character and their legacy.

    Making Peter Parker Black for one (or more?) films doesn’t help the character. At most it’ll create buzz for the film, sell more or less tickets (but no way to track that specifically). It won’t help any Black kid in the theater to go out and buy Spider-Man comics when there wouldn’t be a Black Parker to read.

    For myself, I have never looked at a character of any race or gender and wished they were more like me for me to relate with them. I like Black Panther/T’Challa or Wonder Woman just as they are. I just watched an episode of The Twilight Zone about a Black boxer – he’ll live on as a perfectly formed character like that.

    The world hasn’t run out of room fr new characters. Don’t get mad at the characters that have, for whatever reason, lasted long enough to have built legacies.

  • Alexa

    I just want a good actor to play him, so it really shouldn’t matter. But again you have the question of being true to the source material, but that’s not always a difficult thing to approach cause well some source material (like James Bond) is okay to break cause times change and people progress and change is something to consider when you want to make things better. You don’t have to change the fundamentals of the character, cause no matter the race, the fundamentals of a character stay true.

    • tcorp

      Now that you mention it, I think it would be fun to change up James Bond.

    • KLLRFRST

      Bingo. I don’t care if Bond is white, black, Asian, Latino, etc. All that matters is that the actor portraying him is good-looking, can stay cool under pressure, totally suave with the ladies, and is in good enough shape to be believable as a special agent.

  • I’m all for Spidey being black/asian/latino, solely because it’s at least something to distinguish this movie as more than just ‘another fucking Peter Parker movie’. We’ve had five films with the guy now, can’t we move onto other heroes?

  • How about we have a movie in which the mask never comes off? That we get a voice actor with a racial indistinct identity to play SPIDERMAN. Not a White or Black Spiderman. But just SPIDERMAN. We’ve had a lot of movies about Pete and his miserable life, let’s just have a movie that is 2 hours in the life of Spiderman fighting bad guys.

    Like “Dredd” but with less anger and more witticisms?

    • mamba

      Ooooo, I LIKE that idea a lot! Seriously, that’s awesome…solves the stupid race problem some people have, AND gives us more of the title character doing what we want, ya know, the guy you pay to watch, as you said.

      For those who want more Parker, they can have a spin-off movie, “Parker, the man behind the mask” or something, which focuses on his non-swinging life. A few intercuts with him donning the suit and jumping out a window…then returning later on to continue THIS movie’s plots, that kind of thing.

      EVERYONE’S happy then! Good job!!!

  • Zack_Dolan

    I actually agree with pretty much all of this. def. one of the best takes on the subject I’ve seen in a while. I like that actually spoke up for both sides instead of offering a token straw man for one side like a lot of these articles do

  • Jonathan Campbell

    Oh, and…I’m staff now. YAY!

    • danbreunig

      [tips hat] We ought to celebrate. Next time I’m in Scotland I’ll share a beer and party with you and Suzie/Blockbuster.

      Like Zach says, this article works because you’re looking at the matter from all sides and giving the benefit of the doubt to different factors, yet you have a solid conclusion (and one I agree with, definitely) both informed and respectful. That’s getting to be a rarity with many sites lately, or really more in their comments sections than in the articles themselves.

    • Zurn.

      Damn overshare dude.

      Oh wait, I thought it said you were stiff now. My bad.

  • Gallen_Dugall

    The next Spider-Man should be a character with an alter ego. Rami’s Spider-Man was all Parker all the time and un-Amazing Spider-Man was Spider-Man even before he became Spider-Man. How hard is it to understand that the mask goes on and it allows the character to act like and the powers let them become a different person, a hero who is joyously accepted and praised by their community while their everyday persona is not. This is the conflict that’s at the core of the character and they’ve never gotten it right.
    And don’t forget to throw in the a-hole boss who serves to voice the character’s own self loathing and self doubts about being a hero.

  • Murry Chang

    I don’t really care as long as the writing is good and the actor is good. They’re going to have to pull off a heck of a trailer to get me interested in yet another friggen Spider-Man film though.

  • If they do have a black Spiderman, will his civilian persona be his own original characterisation or just be a pallet-swap of Peter Parker?

  • I know personally of more than a few Black people with the last name Parker, so even if they don’t go the Miles Morales route, they could still make Spidey Black. Just keep the nerdy personality (because Black Nerds exist; in fact I know of one who has a show on YouTube…) and the photography job, and the dead Uncle, and boom, you’ve still got Spider-Man.

  • KLLRFRST

    UGH to Tom Hardy as Bane. Dude sounded like a drunk Sean Connery with asthma. Danny Trejo should have gotten the part: He’s Latino (Bane is from South America), muscular, spent a few years in jail, and had experience with the character (he was the VO for Bane on “Young Justice”). Perfect casting that got overlooked for an overrated prettyboy (who isn’t even that pretty cause his ears stick out, his lips look weird and his teeth are fucked up)

    • Jonathan Campbell

      Actually Bane is from a fictional island in the Caribbean, not South America. And technically he is half-English since his dad was a Brit (not that this matters since they made him Uzbekistani or something). And I hardly think Tom Hardy was cast because he looked “pretty”- he was cast because he looks like he will beat the sh*t out of you if you look at him funny.

  • Alevim

    Can wonderwoman be male?

    Can the black panther be asian?

    : ) Just asking

    • CaptainCalvinCat

      Well, some names go in that kind of direction, the character should be – a male Wonder Woman wouldn’t work, you’d have to rebrand him “Wonder Man”, a male AMAZON could work again, why not.

      • Alevim

        Well, thats my point, if Thor can be female, Syf can be male?

        I’m okay with gender swapping ethnicity swaps. But make them go every way. Make Spider man a Latina. : )

        • CaptainCalvinCat

          Well, if you change the name from “Lady Sif” to “Lord Sif” and from “Wonder Woman” to “Wonder Man” – I don’t see problems. Well, probably with the Star Wars fans, who think that “Lord Sif” is a misspelling for “Lord of the Sith” and with the fans of the character of “Wonder Man” (or the movie with Danny Kaye, with the same title) but otherwise… ^^

  • Cosmic Destroyer

    Donald Glover as Peter Parker, yes.

    Jaden Smith as Peter Parker FUCK NO!