Okay my fellow NOCs, there are just a few truths we need to acknowledge when it comes to Spider-Man on the big screen. Out of five films, only one of them, Spider-Man 2, was any good. The rest were bloated messes that robbed Spidey of any and all joy. Tobey Maguire was a decent Peter Parker but not the best Spidey. Andrew Garfield was just the opposite. Spider-Man was done an injustice.
For the handful of minutes that Tom Holland was on screen, as both Peter Parker and Spider-Man in Captain American: Civil War, he was far and away the best who has done it. He had the right combination of angst, youthfulness, humor, and wide-eyed wonder and hero-worship that the budding hero needed. It was a revelation of a performance and I cannot wait to see Spider-Man: Homecoming four or five times.
While Homecoming won’t be out until next year, I’ve been scouring for any news I can find about the production. The casting news has been surprising, but right on. Like most Spidey fans, I’ve been dying to find out who the new Mary Jane Watson would be. When it was announced that it would be the mononymous, Zendaya, I was elated. I also held my breath for the racist fanboy digital tsunami of outrage that was sure to follow this news. I didn’t have to wait long.
I won’t reprint or link to any of the spew — no one needs that on a Friday. Or ever. But it has been really ugly, thus far. I cannot imagine how bad it will get closer to the release of the film.
Out of all the young stars that litter our popscape, I cannot think of a better Mary Jane Watson. Zendaya is smart, smart-alecky, flirty, and has a presence so far outside of her age. There are decade’s seasoned performers who don’t have an ounce of her charisma. Frenemies, KC Undercover, Zapped, and her turn on Dancing with the Stars you can see the kind of powerhouse she is. I remember seeing her dancing with Oakland, CA’s “Future Shock” dance troupe. Even then, you know she was going to be huge.
But there are some more truths we have to acknowledge. Despite Zendaya being a young woman of color, aside from KC Undercover, she’s never really portrayed a person of color. She has, for all intents and purposes, been coded white or ethnically ambiguous enough to be read as white. Even though she admitted that she benefits from light skin privilege, many of the responses to this were less than enthusiastic or supportive. Do you remember the firestorm she endured when it was announced that she would be portraying the loved and revered singer, Aaliyah?
So here is my problem.
I think Zendaya will be a fantastic Mary Jane. I think she and Holland have enough individual charisma and charm to be the couple that young folks will try to emulate. They’ll make us root for them. I also think making Mary Jane a young woman of color speaks to Zendaya’s generation’s views on color/ethnicity, friendship, and inter-ethnic dating. I have cousins her age whose crews look and sound like a United Nations general assembly. This will be a contemporary relationship for our contemporary times.
My concern is what I am most happy about. Having Mary Jane as a young woman of color, especially a black woman, is revolutionary. But if this aspect is glossed over, coded out, or otherwise ignored, it will fall right in line with the erasure of blackness, especially of women who are in any way black. As we’ve seen, superhero flicks have done horribly by women. In particular, they’ve done crappy by women of color. And, no, Halle Berry in Catwoman doesn’t count. It doesn’t even exist.
While it won’t be necessary to emphasize Zendaya as a woman of color, it would be wonderful if this fact were brought up. There is a particular breed of internet idiot who thinks pointing out differences in race leads to more racism. I talked about rain all morning, and not a drop in dry ass Oakland. When did differences become a horrible thing? My wife and I both have one black parent, and we talk and race and ethnicity and culture all the time. It enhances our worlds. Maybe the bland potato salad class is flavorless and may feel a bit jealous of the flavorful people? Who knows?
Any way it plays out, I think we will all be in for a wonderful performance, in a film that is keyed up to be amazing. #TeamZendayAsMaryJane is a necessary update to an old classic.
Because we have to be frank. All Marvel (and DC) properties need to be modernized and brought into our contemporary moment.
Spider-Man first appeared, this month, 54 years ago in 1962. Do we really need to revisit the racial attitudes of the times? We were still four years away from Kirby and Lee’s Black Panther. So of course all the heroes, their love interests, and their archenemies were white. But in the early 21st century, they don’t have to be. If a young, lower-middle class white dude, from Queens, NYC, was to date in his neighborhood or high school (or his first year in undergrad) the chances of his dating a young woman (or young man) of color is pretty damn high. If our fiction, especially our superhero/science fiction is meant to reflect the times — despite taking place in the realm of the phantasmagorical — we need to let it do that and not hold onto our crippling (racism influenced) nostalgia. And what better place to start than with one of the most beloved superheroes of all time?