We learned Disney star Zendaya was cast in Jon Watts' Spider-Man: Homecoming back in March but a new rumor of who she's playing has some fans outraged. Marvel's Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 director James Gunn has made lengthy comments about race, comic book casting, and fan reaction.
Details were scarce in the initial report which said Zendaya would be playing “Michelle.” At the time I assumed it was likely a coverup to keep the secret of who she was really playing under wraps for a while. The rumor now is she's actually playing Mary Jane Watson, Peter Parker's long-standing love interest. Some fans did not want to accept this news because MJ is portrayed in the comics as a white woman with red hair. Many other fans were quick to argue it wasn't a big deal, some with the most simplest of responses:
– Jarett Wieselman (@JarettSays) August 18, 2016
Guardians director Gunn recently touched on some other comic book drama on his Facebook in a Q&A but this time he posted directly about the Zendaya backlash:
People get upset when something they consider intrinsic to a comic book character changes when adapted for a film. I get this. There are movies I dislike because I think there's a basic misunderstanding of the story or the character when the comic is transferred to film (I still hate how in the first Batman movie the Joker was revealed as the murderer of Bruce Wayne's parents, for instance.)
That said, I do not believe a character is the color of his or her skin. When Michael B Jordan was cast as Johnny Storm I didn't understand the uproar. The primary characteristic of Johnny was not, to me, that he was white, or that he had blonde hair, but that he was a fiery, funny, big-mouthed braggart of a hero. I was happy that he was going to be played by one of the finest and most charming young actors out there.
Yesterday, a rumor broke out that the character of Mary Jane was being played by a young black woman, Zendaya, and all hell broke out on the Internet (again). I tweeted that if people find themselves complaining about Mary Jane's ethnicity they have lives that are too good. (For those of you who think this means I'm confirming that Zendaya IS playing MJ, realize that although I've read the Spidey script, and I've met the actress in question, I have no idea what her role is. There's a good chance someone told me at one time or another, but, if so, I can't remember. I'm going to find out when I go into Marvel this afternoon, but I feel free to speak until that time because it's about the concept about a black woman playing Mary Jane, not the actuality or hypothesis of it.)
I got a thousand or so responses to my tweet. Most of them were positive. Some folks disagreed – they thought the character should look like what she looks like in the comics – but were thoughtful. And a handful were flat out racist.
I can't respond to the racists – I'm not ever going to change their minds. But for the thoughtful majority of you out there:
For me, if a character's primary attribute – the thing that makes them iconic – is the color of their skin, or their hair color, frankly, that character is shallow and sucks. For me, what makes MJ MJ is her alpha female playfulness, and if the actress captures that, then she'll work. And, for the record, I think Zendaya even matches what I think of as MJ's primary physical characteristics – she's a tall, thin model – much more so than actresses have in the past.
Whatever the case, if we're going to continue to make movies based on the almost all white heroes and supporting characters from the comics of the last century, we're going to have to get used to them being more reflective of our diverse present world. Perhaps we can be open to the idea that, although someone may not initially match how we personally conceive a character, we can be – and often are – happily surprised.
When this rumor first started circulating last week I asked my Twitter followers to describe Mary Jane without using physical characteristics. I'm more DC than Marvel but what I know of her is she's typically had red hair and worked as a model. Replies I got back were “supportive,” “ambitious,” “independent,” and “heart of gold.” All excellent descriptions of…just about every supporting comic book character. While MJ has had creators who gave her fantastic backstories and fleshed out her character, she's still exists in support of Peter Parker. So when people complain about who's playing her, I have wonder if it's not just because they don't like the color of her skin (or she's not attractive enough for their personal tastes). We didn't see this type of outrage when Amy Adams' Lois Lane didn't have black hair after all.
Gunn went on to respond to fans in his comment section. One fan wrote, “meh..the only thing i dislike is changing races. its poor planning and laziness. you have hundreds of heroes at one's disposal, don't change race, just to have that race in the film. Bring out the other hero's. and no..The Johnny Storm casting was garbage, but then again, that entire film was a fugazi. Again, it is LAZY.” This is what Gunn had to say to that:
I don't mean to be overly offensive, but all of you people assuming that black actors are chosen because the studios want a black person in the role, as opposed to them being the best actor for the role, are kinda missing something. That's how it works sometimes, but not usually. Usually lots of people audition and if the best actor is not white, that's who gets cast.
Gunn also mentioned in another part of the thread that he auditioned Black and Latino actors for the Peter Quill role Chris Pratt finally took in Guardians and “Drax is green in the comics and I made him gray in the movie. Mantis has been both human and green, and I chose the actress's skin color. Things change in adaption from page to screen. That's how this works.”
Another fan responded by saying “I agree on principle, but in practice when an non-white character is played by a white person in the movies…it's white washing? So, I can see why people are upset, I don't agree with them because IT'S FICTION!!! But it can't be both ways.” To which Gunn replied, “I don't always agree with charges of white washing, but there is a difference between changing one of the very few minority characters into yet another white person and changing one of the almost-all white people into a minority.”
He's right. We want MORE representation, not LESS, which is why it is absolutely not the same thing to change a white character as it would be to make a POC character white. And also, sorry to break this to you fellow white people, our character's races aren't actually intrinsically linked to who they are as people. Characters like Black Panther, and countless others, are.
One fan went so far as to suggest she wasn't right for the role because she'd “sold out” already by being in commercials and was a manufactured Disney actor even though it seemed they never watched anything she'd been in. Some people were uncertain about Tom Holland as Spider-Man because he hasn't been in that many projects but as soon as we saw him as Peter in Captain America: Civil War, we were sold. Zendaya's resume is longer than Holland's. What's actually your problem?
As Gunn said, things change in adaptations. That's why they're called adaptations. Things aren't going to be ripped directly from comic book pages and it would be nice if we all adapted with the times instead of trying to keep things the way they were 50+ years ago. Diverse movies make more money. Queens is not populated by all white people. You're being a giant child. Grow up.