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There are times when I feel sorry for Marvel. Right now, the internet is ablaze with rumors that teen sensation Zendaya is playing the part of Mary-Jane Watson in Spider-Man: Homecoming. Unfortunately, the fans' reaction to the news can be summed up in one word: outrage. After all, Mary-Jane is traditionally a white redhead!
This is only the latest example of fans getting furious when a character is race-swapped; Tony Revolori's casting as Flash Thompson underwent similar criticism earlier this year. Meanwhile, #Marvel Entertainment got caught up in an awkward debate when they chose not to do a race-swap with the character of Iron Fist! #IronFist is seen by some as an example of cultural appropriation, and this was felt to be inappropriate.
Why is it that casting for comic book movies causes such strong reactions? How is it that Marvel and DC keep walking into these minefields? Here are four reasons:
Comic Books Are a Visual Medium
A comic book is essentially a visual storytelling device — the narrative is driven by sequential images, with text overlaid on the pictures. Comic book artists put a tremendous amount of effort into designing iconic costumes and appearances, because they know that a strong design can propel the character to superstar status.
We saw this with 2014's "Spider-Verse" arc, where the Edge of Spider-Verse miniseries gave writers a chance to create alternate-reality versions of #SpiderMan. Jason Latour picked up the idea of a reality where Gwen Stacy was the one bitten by the radioactive spider, but it was Robbi Rodriguez's design that set social media ablaze; fans simply loved it. To Marvel's surprise, "Spider-Gwen" (the Twitter hashtag that became associated with the character) was the breakout star of the event, and she's now featured in an ongoing series.
The point is that comic books are visual. Comic book fans tend to be drawn to a character's appearance and design, with the plots often viewed as secondary. If you check any comic book fan-casting, you'll see that the majority of fan-casts are of actors who look like the comic book version of the character. When fans sit down to design their dream cast, they're not thinking about if an actor would be interested in the role, or has a free schedule — they're thinking about how they would look on screen.
The problem is, film studios should never really cast someone just because they look like the comic book version. By necessity, a movie interprets the comic, adapting it to suit another medium, and this sometimes means making changes. Casting the right actor is a matter of identifying someone who can fulfill the script's requirements. As a rule, though, comic book fans will not be happy when the design is changed — and this, not purely racism, is why some fans are reacting badly to the idea of #Zendaya being cast as Mary-Jane.
The point is that the visual appearance of Mary-Jane has been cemented in fans' minds since 1964. What's more, comic book fans of Mary-Jane are actually quite frustrated and protective. Peter Parker and Mary-Jane married in 1987's Amazing Spider-Man Annual #21; Marvel spent most of the late '90s effectively trying to find a way to write themselves out of that corner, right down to having MJ supposedly killed off in a plane-crash! Finally, the 2000s saw the controversial "One More Day" arc, where the marriage was retconned out of existence.
To this day, fans of MJ are furious with Marvel, and highly protective of a character they see as being mishandled. This, I think, has combined with the character's strong visual image to trigger the current fury.
Of course, the irony is that Marvel hasn't officially confirmed Zendaya as Mary-Jane at all. Even in the casting information that leaked over the weekend, she's referred to as playing "Michele." Fans are convinced that's just a red herring, and — to be fair — there's strong evidence their views might be right; but the outrage is still actually only a reaction to a strong rumor, not even to something that Marvel has confirmed!
Every Reader Has Their Own Version
Marvel isn't the only comic book company to have fallen foul of casting debates, of course. The run-up to Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice included a furious reaction to the idea of Ben Affleck being cast as #Batman. Affleck was ultimately seen as one of the highlights of that troubled film, and fans loved his appearances in Suicide Squad as well. It's not uncommon to see the same fans who decried Affleck's casting now proclaiming him to be the definitive Batman!
The issue with some characters is that they've been around for so long, and handled by so many writers and artists, that every fan essentially has their own vision of the character. Every writer and artist interprets a character differently in order to tell their story. Naturally, each fan will gravitate toward the writers and artists who portray the character in a way that appeals to them; most fans, though, believe that theirs is somehow the definitive version, and that writers and artists who don't capture the side of the character they love haven't quite gotten it right.
This is what happened with Ben Affleck's Batman. For many superhero fans, the abiding memory of Ben Affleck was his portrayal of Daredevil — hardly a stellar success. Some fans simply couldn't understand how he could possibly present the vision of Batman they had built up over the years. In reality, of course, he didn't just capture that vision, he exceeded it.
Now, I have to say that I'm sure there are other, darker reasons too. Racism isn't gone, and undoubtedly some of the reaction to Zendaya's casting is influenced by racism. But I do maintain that there are greater issues — including the fact that comics are a visual medium and that every reader has their own version of the character.
I happen to disagree with their concerns — should Zendaya actually be cast as Mary-Jane, then I'm optimistic. At the same time, though, I'm willing to understand, and not just condemn these fans for having their concerns.