There’s something obvious that’s been under our noses this entire time: Spider-Man as a Korean American named Peter Park, played by The Walking Dead’s Steven Yeun.
‘Nuff said, as Stan Lee would say.
Not ’nuff? Okay.
When Donald Glover’s offhanded tweet brought the idea of a black Spider-Man into the world, we were met with Miles Morales taking up the mantle of the Ultimate Universe’s Spider-Man. I was a huge supporter initially, reading every issue from the beginning. But I quickly began to feel that Miles was just living in Peter Parker’s shadow.
“Why couldn’t Peter Parker himself be a person of color?” I thought. And then it came to me — remove the last two letters of his surname, and Spider-Man instantly becomes Korean. It was so eloquent in its simplicity, really. Not much else needed to change to preserve the essential facets of Peter Parker.
Many young Asian Americans could relate to a Korean American Peter Park who was a working-class science nerd and photography buff by day, and a quirky wise-cracking superhero by night. His struggle to support himself and his first-generation immigrant Aunt Mae in their humble Queens-based lives — while trying doing the right thing — would ring true to so many of us with similar immigrant backgrounds.
Also, anyone acquainted with the Yellow Peril propaganda that historically plagued the Asian American community will find the yellow journalism of the Daily Bugle’s anti-Spidey crusade highly familiar. Seeing as contemporary American concerns with North Korea and China are stirring a new wave of anti-Asian sentiment, the cultural climate needs a likable and sympathetic Asian American hero for the public to relate to. Empathy is our greatest weapon against intolerance, after all.
Not to mention, the changing demographics of Spidey’s hometown informs the changing demographics of the United States. When Spider-Man was first created in 1962, Queens was 91% white. Now 53 years later, Queens is home to the most diverse neighborhoods in America; including the largest Asian American population on the East Coast. It would only make sense for a Spider-Man of today, from Queens, to be Asian American.
With the recent announcement that the Marvel Cinematic Universe will be taking Spidey back into the fold and rebooting the franchise, it seems like perfect timing to explore a fresh take on Peter Parker — one that embraces inclusiveness, representation, and the rapidly evolving demographics of both New York City and America overall.
This not only falls in line with the diversity initiative that Marvel has been spearheading in the comics industry, but also comes with cinematic precedent. Previously-white characters have been recast as people of color with a fair frequency lately, especially with Marvel properties. From the now-ubiquitous Samuel L. Jackson as Nick Fury to Idris “Why-Can’t-We-Cast-Him-As-Everything” Elba as Heimdall (Thor), and even non-MCU Marvel characters like Michael B. Jordan’s Human Torch (Fantastic Four) and Jamie Foxx’s Electro (The Amazing Spider-Man 2).
Though there are not yet any Asian American heroes in the Marvel Cinematic Universe proper, last year’s release of Big Hero 6 brings us a step closer. The natural progression of this proliferation would be to use this upcoming Spider-Man reboot as an opportunity to both represent a wider audience and to do something other than showing us the same old origin story again. Besides, isn’t it about time we had a combo-breaker in terms of leading men in Marvel movies?
Though there are plenty of Asian American actors out there who are talented enough to don the web-shooters, Steven Yeun proves to be a natural choice. Perfectly embodying The Walking Dead’s Glenn Rhee, Yeun has quietly revolutionized the characterization of Asian men in television. For decades, the typical portrayal of an Asian man has been one that’s sexless, stoic, and static. In other words: lacking in the character development that audiences can project themselves into.
Yet in defiant contrast, Yeun’s Glenn demonstrates immense growth, action-hero aptitude, and a full range of emotion — including romantic potential. Glenn’s relationship with Maggie is arguably the most well-developed and dynamic relationship on The Walking Dead, demonstrating the swoon-worthiness of Steven Yeun for any Gwen Staceys or Mary Jane Watsons that may come his way.
Also, you can’t discount how ridiculously nerd-gasmic it would be for Steven Yeun to star in multiple huge comic franchises. Hey, if Chris Evans and Ryan Reynolds can do it, why can’t he? Granted, there are currently rumors that MCU Spidey will be going in a far younger direction than Yeun or any of the previous actors, but there’s no reason Korean American Peter Park couldn’t be a teenaged newcomer either.
Now that we’ve seen that it’s both possible and compelling to finally portray Asian American men as being fully realized characters on screen, the next step is to bring them out of the sidekick status and into a protagonist role. Like Miles Morales, there’s still something othering about being a Spider-Man variant. Yes, there is an Asian American Spider-lady variant, who’s shaping up to become a more of a romantic interest for Peter Parker. (Something I’d have to save for a feminist rant another time). I’d also be remiss in not throwing a mention to the cheese-tacular Japanese super-sentai style version either. But none of these variants carry the same weight of primacy as being the Spider-Man does.
Spider-Man has always represented the underdog “little guy.” In modern American society, people of color and immigrants serve as perpetual outsiders and underdogs. To people like us, Spider-Man is important because he shows that it’s not just the proportional strength of a spider that allows the “little guy” to do big things. Rather than navigating a world where we are constantly shown as being sidekicks and sidelined, maybe we can be the superhero for once.
The time is right for Peter Park.
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