Comic Book Resources hit fans across the head with a ton of bricks when they reported that long time Disney star Zendaya Coleman (19) will take on the role of Mary Jane Watson in Spider-Man Homecoming. This news comes as a major surprise and it’s sure to send a jolt through the veins of comic book and Spider-Man fans alike and may cause a bit of an uproar. Guardians of the Galaxy director James Dunn doesn't see why it should though.
Zendaya will be the first African American to take on the role of Mary Jane Watson. For some reason it seems like gingers are consistently being cast by black actors and actresses. Miss Martian will be played by an African American actress and Iris West is also played by an African-American actress — see the pattern here? Anywho, race bending is all too common in Hollywood, but it’s usually the other way around and we call it "whitewashing.” So it kinda feels right for Zendaya to play Mary Jane despite the character historically being white. I’ll take a moment and give Disney/Marvel some props before I dig deeper into the bigger issue.
Reverse Whitewashing Has Happened Before
Fox tried to bring diversity to the Fantastic 4 remake, bless their heats. This isn’t a good example, but the failed Fantastic 4 movie saw Human Torch’s ethnicity go from white in the comics (and the portrayal by Chris Evans back in the 2005 Fantastic Four) to black, as Michael B. Jordan brought him to life once again in the box office disaster reboot. It wasn’t Michael’s lack of trying that made this an epic fail however, it was the movie as a whole. I give them some credit for pushing the boundaries casting-wise.
The powers that be at Marvel have taken some flack over their lack of minority heroes, but with Falcon (Anthony Mackie) and Black Panther (Chadwick Boseman) joining the Avengers, Marvel has shown some improvement. Their work with Black Panther has been especially great and racially empowering. Not only have they inserted Black Panther into the MCU, but they did a wonderful thing in hiring Ryan Coogler, an African-American director to bring the hero to life. Marvel also has Luke Cage set for a September release on Netflix and the rumored White Tiger series in development; for that I salute you.
Disney/Marvel Made The Right Call With Zendaya
It's obvious Disney and Marvel are trying to breathe new life and diversity into their newly acquired Spider-Man franchise with the casting of Zendaya two months after announcing that Donald Glover will join the franchise. Though, I can’t help but feel this was a political move considering the backlash they received in the not-so-distant past for a terrible casting choice they made in Doctor Strange (I’ll get to that later). So, this social and politically savvy move was one that Marvel felt they had to make and I’m not mad at them for making it from a marketing standpoint. I know that Mary Jane is a white, therefore a white actress probably should have been cast. Now before you hit me with “What if Storm were played by a white woman?” let me explain.
First, let's take a look at the lack of characters in comic books and how that has lead to minimal opportunities for minorities in movies and TV. Think about the ratio of white to black heroes not just in the movies, but in the comics as well. I’m not that good at math, but I’m sure it’s not even close.
Look across the landscape of comic book heroes and you’ll see the most notables are white. Lets look at DC: Superman, Batman, Flash (before the New 52), Shazam, Three Green Lanterns, and Green Arrow. Now lets look at Marvel: Captain America, Bruce Banner/Hulk, Spider-Man, Ms. Marvel, and Iron Man — see what I mean. Look, I’m not saying the heroes mentioned should experience a racial transformation, but it’s about time minorities get some love. Give me some Lady Shiva, Miles Morales, White Tiger, Miss America, Colleen Wing and Misty Knight; whew — you get the picture.
On to my second point: Mary Jane’s nationality or race hardly plays a major role in what makes her Mary Jane, unlike characters such as Storm, Black Panther, Luke Cage, or White Tiger. All of those heroes' nationality play a pivotal part in who they are. Mary Jane isn't from another country, never has her parents nationality been written or depicted in any facet as something that defines or even shapes the essence of Mary Jane. So yes, a white actress cast as Storm would be and should be a problem. The roles are limited as it is, let's not take away from what little minorities do have.
Marvel Has To Be More Consistent
For every touchdown Marvel has thrown they have given up two (can you tell I’m in football mode?). Even when given the opportunity to dip into the diversity pool, Marvel has fumbled the ball. Remember that recent backlash I mentioned earlier- well it happened with the casting of Tilda Swinton as The Ancient One. Quite a few people took heat with Marvel over their choice. I can understand why (maybe I’m in the minority), but clearly they’ve opted for an East Asian "look-alike" instead of someone with an authentic East Asian background — tragic. They didn’t even get someone who was in the same continent — Swinton is Scottish for goodness sake. C’mon people. It’s a bit cold blooded if you ask me.
Marvel Doesn't Get It And Neither Does Netflix
It’s not just a comic book problem though it is a Hollywood pandemic. One example is Netflix’s Death Note movie which has been wildly criticized for their inability to cast an East Asian actors or actress.
Outside of Paul Nakauchi and David S. Jung (who play small roles) it looks like they didn’t even try to stay true to Japanese culture. Personally, I think they should have given Asian actors an opportunity by mixing American and Asian actors. Netflix is hardly the first to whitewash an anime. Star Overseas did it with a terrible live-action version of Dragonball back in 2009 with Dragon Evolution. I don't mean to knock the actors' hard work, but that movie was dreadful and no one from the movie seemed to recover from the debacle (by the way, we deserve a do-over). Thanks to Paramount DreamWorks we have a whitewashed version of Ghost in the Shell to look forward to staring Scarlett Johansson. Can someone please help with the lack of equal opportunity?
Marvel Is Dominating DC In All But One Category
DC is just getting their cinematic universe started, so they are a bit behind Marvel, who has absolutely owned comic book cinema as of late. To DC's credit, they have been very proactive and beating Marvel in one-way, racial diversity. I guess you can say in some ways it started with the launch of the New 52 and the racial bending of Wally West. DC has historically featured John Stewart’s Green Lantern on a number of DC animated shows and film, which lead to some disappointment when they opted to go with Hal Jordan's origin story. DC has also given us our first look at an African-American Bat-family member when they introduced Batwing in Batman: Bad Blood.
DC has been truly impressive on the TV landscape. CW’s The Flash gave us our first look at Candice Patton playing Iris West, who in the comics had previously been depicted as a white woman. It was only natural for Wally West to be played by a black actor for the series as well. Not to mention the introduction of Cisco Ramon a.k.a. Vibe, a Latino superhero. Martian Manhunter is also being portrayed by an black actor and so will Miss Martian on CW's Supergirl. Even with Legends of Tomorrow DC opted with the version of Firestorm they used Jefferson Jackson, an African American, as the other half to Martin Stein.
DC stuck to their guns once again with the casting of Kiersey Clemons, who will also play Iris West in The Flash movie. They also opted to add Cyborg to the big screen and change Aquaman by casting Jason Momoa to play the underwater hero. While Marvel has been blowing up the box office and leading the pack I give DC an A+ for taking some imitative.
Minorities have been on the receiving end of whitewashing for years, so anytime a minority gets a role it's cause for celebration. I for one am excited and looking forward to Zendaya’s take on Mary Jane. Congrats to her for getting role and hats off to Marvel for giving her the opportunity to be the new face.
Stan Lee said it best: "If she is as good an actress as I hear she is, I think she'll be absolutely wonderful... The color of their skin doesn't matter, their religion doesn't matter, all that matters is that this is the right person for the role."
For more articles related to and better than this one check out:
Why Did Doctor Strange and Ghost in the Shell Whitewash Their Asian Characters?
Beyond The Whitewashing, The Real Problem With Scarlett Johansson's 'Ghost In The Shell
Is Hollywood Racist? These 10 Ethnic Minority Characters Were Whitewashed by Modern Movies
What do you think of Marvel's casting choice?