ByTom Bacon, writer at
I'm a film-and-TV fan who grew up with a deep love of superhero comics! Follow me on Twitter @TomABacon or on Facebook @tombaconsuperheroes!
Tom Bacon

With strong rumors that Zendaya is playing none other than Mary-Jane Watson, the internet is currently ablaze with controversy. Whether you're talking Ben Affleck's Batman or Michael B. Jordan's Human Torch, comic book fans take their casting seriously, and the result can be a Twitter storm. There's nothing more controversial than a race swap, raising the odd question: Why do the studios do race-swaps anyway? Here are the reasons.

Comics Traditionally Aren't Diverse

The reality is that the majority of iconic superheroes were designed in a different era. As Dan Slott — long-term writer of Amazing Spider-Man — has pointed out, Spider-Man was created two years before the US abandoned segregated water fountains. Back then, the idea of "diversity" was pretty much unthought of.

This led to some serious cases of what's sometimes called "cultural appropriation." This is the process by which a dominant culture absorbs aspects of another culture into itself. For the minority group affected, this feels like a theft, a denigration of their culture. The classic comic book example is Iron Fist, where a white American absorbs the martial arts and mythology of Asian culture.

Superhero movies and TV shows have to reinvent the characters for the present day — specifically, for an infinitely more diverse era. This leads to a really difficult situation.

On the one hand, some fans will expect you to correct the mistakes of the past. Two years before Finn Jones's casting as Iron Fist, Keith Chow had kicked off a campaign to have an Asian-American cast in the role. He explained:

"For me, the whole idea of an Asian-American Iron Fist has been less about the character specifically but the trope more broadly. Like you have a ton of these stories already. If you need that story told, go watch The Last Samurai! Go watch The Karate Kid 2! Instead of a white man appropriating the qualities of Asian mysticism, it could have been a story of an Asian-American going back to his parents'€™ homeland as a way of reconnecting with them -€” a feeling that many second-generation Asian-Americans can relate to.

There aren't yet plot details from the show, so it's possible that the series would skip Rand's origin story entirely as a way to avoid its icky implications — but the fact that he's a white guy powered by Asian magic would remain."

On the other hand, we've yet to see Iron Fist — it's due out next year — so I'm reserving judgement. Meanwhile, though, many superhero films have added diversity by race-swapping characters. This is usually done by changing the ethnicity of a traditionally white character — think Samuel L. Jackson's Nick Fury, Michael B. Jordan's Human Torch, or, if the rumors are true, Zendaya's Mary-Jane. Before you argue that Nick Fury doesn't count, because he was black in Marvel's "Ultimate" universe, I can only agree with Dan Slott:

The common counter is to argue, how would you feel if someone turned a black character, like Black Panther, white? The best response I've seen is on the Time Machine blog. Imagine that this is a jar full of major characters.

Image: Time Machine
Image: Time Machine

Now take two bowls, and fill one to the brim with characters, while giving the other just a handful.

Image: Time Machine
Image: Time Machine

You can surely see where this is going. The bowl on the left is full of white characters. The bowl on the right is full of more diverse characters. You can move some characters from left to right without making any appreciable difference to the fact the bowl on the left is full. On the other hand, if you move even one character from right to left, it has a visible and significant impact on the bowl's contents.

The blogger goes on to imagine that a white child is going to be given the bowl on the left, and a black child is going to be given the bowl on the right.

But before you hand them out you look right into the little black girls’s eyes and take two of her seven raisins and put them in the little white girl€'s bowl.
I think she'€™d be totally justified in crying or leaving and yelling at you. Because how could you do that to a little girl? You were already giving the white girl so much more, and her so little, why would you do that? How could you justify yourself?
But on the other hand if you took two raisins from the white girl's bowl and moved them over to the black girl'€™s bowl and the white girl looked at her bowl still full to the brim and decided your moving those raisins was unfair and she stomped and cried and yelled, well then she is a spoiled and entitled brat."

The argument seems harsh, but it's a strong one. If studios followed the comic book designs completely, then we'd essentially have near-all-white superheroes, with absolutely no diversity. Race-swapping is an effective way of incorporating a much-loved character, while improving a film's diversity. What's more, there are precious few characters for whom their "whiteness" is an integral part of their character, so this kind of race-swapping is actually pretty harmless. Of course, that doesn't mean fans like it; as has already been noted, going away from the traditional design almost always causes a reaction.

Sometimes Politics Intrudes

Tilda Swinton shocked the world! Images: Marvel Studios, Fox
Tilda Swinton shocked the world! Images: Marvel Studios, Fox

Now let me really stir the pot, though. Marvel Studios shocked the world when Tilda Swinton was cast as the male mystic known as the Ancient One, to appear in Doctor Strange. Writer C. Robert Cargill reacted to the outrage with real anger, explaining the decision in terms of politics:

"The Ancient One was a racist stereotype who comes from a region of the world that is in a very weird political place. He originates from Tibet, so if you acknowledge that Tibet is a place and that he'€™s Tibetan, you risk alienating one billion people who think that that's bulls**t and risk the Chinese government going, '€˜Hey, you know one of the biggest film-watching countries in the world? We'™re not going to show your movie because you decided to get political.'€™
"If we decide to go the other way and cater to China in particular and have him be in Tibet - if you think it€'s a good idea to cast a Chinese actress as a Tibetan character, you are out of your damn fool mind and have no idea what the f**k you'€™re talking about."€

The reality is that movies are a business, and sometimes businesses have to make difficult decisions in order to make a profit. The Chinese market is expected to become the biggest movie market in the world by 2020 (yes, even exceeding the US in importance). Marvel decided that they couldn't risk getting their film banned; and what's more, the Chinese government is known for strong censorship. Casting the Ancient One as Tibetan risked potentially getting Marvel — perhaps even Disney — banned from China. Instead, the studio completely reinvented the character, and walked into a whole different controversy! It's worth noting that Marvel head Kevin Feige denied this rationale, but frankly I believe the writer.

This is still the exception rather than the norm, but — given the increasing importance of the Chinese market — I suspect we'll see this kind of decision made again soon.

But Is This REAL Diversity?

Will Tiffany Espensen be Silk? Images: Instagram, Marvel Comics
Will Tiffany Espensen be Silk? Images: Instagram, Marvel Comics

Might as well keep stirring the pot: For all the flak Marvel's getting, the company is actually being really conservative over who they race-swap. As Jason Johnson has pointed out:

"Race bending is fine so long as it’s for girlfriends and sidekicks, but the movies are still white-boy fantasy adventures in which the lead remains a straight white male no matter what. And that unfortunate fact can’t be separated from the choice to cast Zendaya as Mary Jane."

It's taken 14 Marvel movies — and just shy of a decade of MCU films — for us to see a black woman in a speaking role. Viewed like that, Spider-Man: Homecoming is a step forward, but nothing more than that.

Now, it's worth noting that criticism might not be entirely fair. Last year, a major reorganization over at Disney resolved long-term problems over at Marvel Studios, giving Kevin Feige a reporting line straight to Disney, and removing the influence of Marvel CEO Ike Perlmutter and the Marvel Creative Committee. Captain America: Civil War and Doctor Strange are essentially the last films commissioned under the old structure, and it's notable that both Spider-Man: Homecoming and Thor: Ragnarok are looking far more diverse than previous Marvel movies. For Thor: Ragnarok, Tessa Thompson has been cast as the traditionally white skinned and blonde Valkyrie.

The traditional Valkyrie! Image: Marvel Comics
The traditional Valkyrie! Image: Marvel Comics

I personally suspect that Spider-Man: Homecoming is going to be a very different beast. Every casting announcement — from Mary-Jane to Jason Revolori's Flash Thompson — seems to be designed to create a very diverse environment for Spider-Man. What's more, Marvel and Sony are dedicated to building up a wider Spider-centric corner of the MCU, and that likely includes Chinese-born American Tiffany Espensen as Silk.

For now, though, Marvel Studios has set a precedent for generating diversity by race-swapping secondary characters. I can't help seeing that as little more than paying lip-service to the concept. For me, the casting of Zendaya as Mary-Jane would be a step in the right direction, but little more.

See also:

My hope is that this article has helped you understand why the studios change the race of some characters. The sad truth is that, with most iconic superheroes dating back to a time when the issue of diversity wasn't even on the radar, it's frankly necessary. That said, I'm not satisfied; changing the race of secondary characters is pretty much only a token gesture. My hope is that Marvel and DC will go on to do far better than that.

Do you support the race-swapping of characters like Mary-Jane? Let me know in the comments!