It came out yesterday that Zendaya, cast in a mystery role in Spider-Man: Homecoming, will be playing Mary Jane Watson, Peter Parker’s girlfriend and later wife in the comics. And likely the most telling moment out of it was the overwhelmingly positive response. We may, finally, be past the idea of color-blind casting as “controversy,” at least when it comes to superhero movies.
Zendaya’s casting has quite a bit of precedent. Casting an actor based on skill rather than skin color has been a fairly common thing in comic-book movies, even as far back as 1989 when Billy Dee Williams played the role of Harvey Dent in Tim Burton’s Batman. Michael Clarke Duncan took on the Kingpin in 2003’s Daredevil, Idris Elba portrayed Heimdall in the Thor movies, Samuel L. Jackson assumed the role of Nick Fury in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Candace Patton and Keiynan Lonsdale were cast as Iris and Wally West in the CW’s Flash series, and Michael B. Jordan played Johnny Storm. And reactions to Zendaya’s casting on Twitter are overwhelmingly positive:
Including, it should be noted, comics professionals, including the closest thing we have to a Spider-Man scholar, Dan Slott:
That said, while it’s much harder to find negative responses, there’s still a contingent of fans insisting that Mary Jane is a “redhead.”
It should be noted that red hair occurs independently of skin color, so all Zendaya needs is a good stylist if red hair is really that important. But then again, it’s worth asking why a character who’s been around for half a century is defined entirely by her hair color.
If this feels tiresomely, annoyingly familiar, it’s because we’ve been here before so often. A tiny subset of self-proclaimed “fans” crops up to gripe whenever non-white actors get cast in a superhero movie. They got so vocal about Michael B. Jordan’s casting as Johnny Storm, he spoke out about it directly. Probably the most blatantly racist objection was when neo-Nazis “boycotted” the first Thor movie over Idris Elba’s casting as Heimdall. To illustrate just how little their boycott mattered, Thor’s two solo movies have made $1.1 billion at the box office.
The objection usually goes that it’s not true to “the spirit of the comics,” but that’s always a somewhat disingenuous argument, especially so in the case of Mary Jane. If the Marvel Cinematic Universe were adhering to the comics, Zendaya would be showing up in an Iron Man movie. Or, quite possibly, playing Iron Man herself. Comic books change characters and their circumstances constantly, often in reaction to fans. Samuel L. Jackson was so popular as Nick Fury that the original version of the character retired, after a fashion, and let his biracial son take the spotlight.
And to be fair, it takes more digging to find negative fan reactions than positive ones. People are overwhelmingly happy to see Zendaya in the role and have been teasing people complaining about a lack of red hair, or just outright ignoring the trolls and celebrating the casting. And really the question is one of talent. What makes Mary Jane a beloved character is her personality, developed over years of writers taking the character on and making her a relatable person. The right actor able to capture that, and that, in the end, is what matters.