The news that American actor and singer Zendaya Coleman's mystery role in Spider-Man: Homecoming has been revealed as none other than Mary-Jane Watson herself was met with a wide spectrum of emotions last week. Many praised the colorblind casting as the progressive move it is, while some quarters of the internet freaked out over Marvel's decision to cast an African-American in a historically white role.
This weekend, James Gunn, the director of Marvel's forthcoming Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, waded into the Mary Jane furore with a measured and eloquent reaction to those who disapproved of Zendaya's casting. Here's what he had to say:
"People get upset when something they consider intrinsic to a comic book character changes when adapted for a 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."
As Gunn points out, this is not the first time a black actor has been cast in a white role — and in the case of Johnny Storm, nobody batted an eyelid. To take an even more successful example, Will Smith was pretty much the best thing about Suicide Squad in the role of Deadshot, another character originally drawn as white. It's now hard to imagine anybody else as the assassin.
The Guardians director continues:
"I tweeted that if people find themselves complaining about Mary Jane’s ethnicity they have lives that are too good ... 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 [Mary-Jane] 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."
The entire argument about an actor being a physical match for a character is more or less irrelevant, especially when comic books themselves constantly reinvent a character's image. Just look at Aquaman, who has evolved from blond haired twink to beefcake Jason Momoa since he first made a splash in 1941. James Bond lost his dark hair when blonde Daniel Craig was cast, and for five minutes there was outrage — and then the world saw his performance and swiftly shut up.
Finally, Gunn goes on to talk about how Zendaya's casting as Mary-Jane is a major turning point for the MCU:
"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."
It feels almost inevitable that by the time audiences have actually seen Spider-Man: Homecoming, the entire uproar over the casting of a black Mary-Jane will be instantly forgotten. Attention will then turn to the next example of a colorblind casting, which in time will also become a non-issue. That's how the world works.
Also starring in Homecoming are Tom Holland, Donald Glover, Marisa Tomei and Robert Downey Jr. With a cast like that, how could it be anything other than a home run? Welcome to the team, Zendaya. Check our original video mash-up of every Marvel post-credits scene above and get on board that hype train.
Spider-Man: Homecoming hits theaters July 7, 2017.
Do You Think James Gunn Is Right About The Mary-Jane Casting?