The Amazing[ly Unchanging] Spider-Man: Fans, Grievance, and Grief

When reboots, remakes, or other related adaptations are announced, one of the primary questions that appears again and again (in addition, of course, to why?) is: Who is this for? An unvoiced assumption of claim or ownership lies in this question. If the reboot/remake is “for” a specific group or person, then who has standing to make claims on how the text develops? Recently, there has been great debate within fandoms and more general viewing audiences about the legitimacy of claims made on these reboots in regard to casting and race. Perhaps no franchise has been the site of so many claims of recent as Spider-Man. The film franchise was rebooted in 2016 for the third time since 2002’s Spider-Man, with each reboot accompanied by promises to be more like the original comic book Spider-Man we all know and love. Chief among these concerns are the “relatability” and “everyman” qualities of Peter Parker outside his Spider-Man role (Hayes, 2015; Whitbrook 2015).

Recent fan campaigns regarding the casting of Spider-Man, particularly the main role of Spider-Man/Peter Parker, have attempted to make claims for based not only on “material or quantifiable” grievances – the lack of characters of color in comic book adaptations – but also of grief (Cheng, 2000, p. 6). Anne Anlin Cheng defines racial grief and grievance in The Melancholy of Race, noting that racial grievances have become more legible; appeals to concrete solutions for racial discrimination are understood and at times addressed. However, the intimate, psychological aspects of the never-fulfilled promises of American racial equality – the melancholy of race and its attendant grief – are still seldom articulated or addressed (p. 10). The consistent branding of Peter/Spider-Man as a “relatable” character and the resistance to addressing the character’s whiteness suggest that while fans of color may have claims to be represented, their identities and experiences will never be relatable enough to stand in for a blockbuster film’s “general” audience. For those who are non-white, Spider-Man is not (for) you.

Fans have called for the casting of a non-white Spider-Man in the lead-ups to both The Amazing Spider-Man and Spider-Man: Homecoming. Comic artist Alice Meichi Li presents a case that incorporates both grievance —why should Spider-Man not reflect the “real-world” demographics of Queens, New York? — and grief. As Li explains, “Rather than navigating a world where we are constantly shown as being sidekicks and sidelined, maybe we can be the superhero for once” (Li, 2015). Li also provides a succinct image macro that describes the grief. The issue is not just one of quantities of characters or of “positive” vs. “stereotypical” representations, but of how certain identities are defined as necessarily outside the “relatability” or normalcy of whiteness.

Major comic-book-movie and TV producers (principally DC and Marvel, but also those with rights to their characters, such as Fox and Sony), have demonstrated willingness to acknowledge, if not address, the grievances of activist fan groups regarding race and casting. While Sony ignored fans’ campaign to cast Donald Glover as Spider-Man in the Amazing Spider-Man (2012) franchise reboot, Marvel promoted interviews with Stan Lee wherein the creator said that “anybody” should be allowed to audition for the role (Lamar, 2010). With Spider-Man now being shared by Sony and Marvel, Marvel has been promoting the casting of Zendaya in the upcoming Spider-Man: Homecoming. Although they and Sony have been coy about whether or not she will portray main love interest Mary Jane Watson or a more minor role, they have again appealed to the authority of Stan Lee to legitimize her casting in the film at all. Guardians of the Galaxy director James Gunn has also been quoted defending the casting, proclaiming “I do not believe a character is the color of his or her skin” and that “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.” (Kaufman, 2016).

Lee and Gunn are quick to acknowledge the grievance – that characters of color are underrepresented in comic book adaptations and that actors of color deserve to be cast in these projects – but do not address the grief presented by Li and others that results from never being considered “relatable” or “normal” enough to be the all-American teen hero. Donald Glover can be in Spider-Man – the actor reportedly has a role in Spider-Man: Homecoming – but couldn’t be Spider-Man on the big screen. With each reboot and each subsequent “generation” of fan campaigns, more grievances (characters of color appearing at all, the snubbing of Glover in 2012) are addressed by the studios, but grief remains outside the responses provided by these industries. Recent examples include director responses regarding the replacement of “stereotypical” Asian characters with white actors in Iron Man 3 (Guy Pearce as The Mandarin) or Dr. Strange (Tilda Swinton as the Ancient One).