Back in 2010, breaking news in the comic book franchise world was that Sam Raimi’s SPIDER-MAN was getting a reboot, despite the last installment coming only three years before.
The Interwebs were abuzz, and along with many others came a campaign to place Donald Glover (a.k.a. Childish Gambino / of COMMUNITY fame) as our new Friendly Neighborhood Spider-Man.
And while we’ve come to know and love Andrew Garfield’s take on the iconic character, the response among fans when Glover appeared on a tongue-in-cheek episode of COMMUNITY in Spidey gear varied widely – from outpourings of delight to overtly racist derision.
Likewise, Jason Momoa’s casting and upcoming cameo as everyone’s favorite JL character, Aquaman, gave rise to a long-running discussion this past year with friends, co-workers, and now *co-bloggers* about diversity in the comic book/superhero movie genre. And with the release of official images for DAWN OF JUSTICE, SUICIDE SQUAD, etc – a conversation between we the fans is long overdue.
Diversity. It sounds so college-orientation-cliche. But here’s my take on it, as a fan who happens to work in The Biz:
The increasing minorities of the world are hungry for a superhero that looks Ike them.
That can be a role model to their kids, and an example of an intelligent, strong, successful human being to the rest of the world.
That can serve as an entry-point into non-Western cultures, and can shine a light on wider social/economic/environmental/political problems that aren’t as sexy when it’s not in IMAX.
This is near and dear to my heart because it’s one of my goals as a filmmaker and storyteller. The total viewing audience of your average Hollywood summer release is undeniably bigger than the most lauded documentary. These movies are created to be popular and easily understood across cultural and linguistic boundaries – making them an incredibly powerful vehicle for messages, morals, and yes, propaganda.
For flicksandpieces, the increasing diversity we’ve seen in summer action flicks (like the FAST & FURIOUS franchise, STAR TREK, THE LOSERS, THE MATRIX, etc.) in the past fifteen years or so is a step in the right direction. Warner Brother’s efforts to find a female director for WONDER WOMAN leaves me hopeful. But is the box-office-conquering superhero movie genre doing its part for cause? Is the X-Men franchise, for example, leading the way in diversity as it does so often in comic form?
To revert back to Spider-Man – in the same span of time, there’s been two different versions of the character on the big screen. Both were hugely successful at first, but each subsequent film was less and less popular with the fans.
What can we say is responsible for the failures that led Sony to sell one of their most lucrative properties back to the Marvel umbrella in a bid to restore its credibility? Was it the storylines? Too much studio intervention? A lack of franchise stewardship? …Casting?
Personally, I enjoyed Tobey Maguire. He was the perfect Peter Parker, but not a great Spider-Man. As for Andrew Garfield, his Spidey was excellent, but his Peter Parker felt all wrong.
I’m ready for a different voice.
This is ultimately what our discussion of diversity is about. For both of us, the argument is not that the “look” of a character (especially the iconic ones like Superman, Batman, and Spider-Man) is unimportant, but rather that said image is not what makes the character who s/he is. Yes, there are certain costumes, props, and stylistic features like hair or eye color – but what builds a character has everything to do with their back story, personality, and the way they interact with the universe; and nothing to do with race, gender, or the color of their skin.
No, Momoa does not have blonde hair and light eyes, and his skin is more caramel (oh yeah) than California-tan. He does not look like the Aquamen we’ve seen before. But the way this character looked in the 50’s is different from the way he looked in the 90’s, and will be different for the kid whose first interaction with Aquaman will be Jason Momoa’s Aquaman.
The same is true for all the superheroes through the ages. Regardless of how they’re drawn or who plays them, it is the characters themselves that remain the same. It’s why they’ve stayed with us, in the zeitgeist, throughout the decades. Nick Fury kicks a whole truckload of ass whether he’s white or black. As does Captain America, Green Lantern; and let’s not forget Heimdall.
Perhaps Donald Glover’s Spider-Man is everything we fans didn’t even know we were missing.
So, we issue this challenge to the directors, producers, and executives, all the way up there: Let’s try casting based on merit and performance, and not on looks. Maybe we could avoid the volatile fan fervor that seems to switch from love to hate on the wind.
We recognize the power you wield as decision-makers, and the intense pressure that must go into every one. We recognize the very valid desire to take the path of most assurance.
But, like someone’s Aunt said that one time, “With great power…”