On -isms: Who Is Spider-Man?

By | Thursday, February 12, 2015 Leave a Comment
Peter Parker: Spider-Man #35
Donald Glover as Spider-Man
With the recent announcement that Sony and Marvel were able to strike a deal so that Spider-Man could appear in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, many people started jumping at the possibilities of who might be the next person to portray the famed web-slinger. One of the early names to get thrown out was Donald Glover, who was the subject of a campaign to get him to play the character back in 2010. That influenced the look of the Miles Morales version of Spider-Man, and a nod to it was given in Community where Glover briefly dressed like the character.

The idea of a Black Spider-Man goes back further than that though. Back in 2001, Paul Jenkins wrote a fantastic story in Peter Parker: Spider-Man #35 where a young African-American boy with a very bad home life imagines that he's good friends with Spider-Man, even becoming his "secret sidekick." The story shows how young Lafronce is trying to deal with the chaos around him, and Spider-Man only appears as an imaginary mentor/father figure. The story ends with Lafronce's mother dying, and him being taken in by his aunt and uncle. As he leaves his old room, though, Spider-Man stops by one last time to tell Lafronce that he has to grow up now. But rather than hug him good-bye, they should shake hands like men. To show his respect, Spidey removes his mask and glove on the last page to reveal how Lafronce sees the hero: as a handsome Black man.

(It really is a powerful and moving story. I'd put it up there right next to "The Kid Who Collects Spider-Man.")

Honestly, though, the idea Jenkins presented wasn't new. Part of the appeal of Spider-Man as a character has always been that he was covered head-to-toe. He could be literally anybody behind that mask. It was so much easier for someone who's Black or Asian or Indian or whatever to step into the character because the hero was effectively a blank slate. When you look at Superman or Captain America, you see a white man staring back at you. But when you look at Spider-Man, the notion of race is eliminated.

Interesting Thought Number One. You ever see those old Electric Company skits that featured Spider-Man? Or the Spidey Super Stories comic book that was spun off from them? Granted, they weren't literary gems, but they also completely eliminated the Peter Parker secret identity. Spider-Man was simply Spider-Man all the time. Or at least, all the time that we saw him. So what if the next round of movies did something similar? What if a Spider-Man story was crafted around Spider-Man and not Peter Parker? That might make for an interesting meta-textual marketing campaign -- if part of the movie's story was J. Jonah Jameson (or someone) trying to discover Spidey's secret identity, but if the actor's name was never revealed either, all of the marketing materials could play up the same angle.

Interesting Thought Number Two. People have, as noted above, suggested actors who might play the Miles Morales version of Spider-Man instead of the Peter Parker version. But what in Peter Parker's history/background says he should be a white guy? Beyond the fact that Stan Goldberg colored him that way in Amazing Fantasy #15 and everyone's followed that same pattern since then. There's nothing in the character's background that is uniquely tied to any one race. In fact, one could argue that his historically just-scraping-by lifestyle would be more appropriate for a Black man or Latino since the poverty rates of Blacks and Hispanics is nearly three times that of whites in New York.

I'm not an especially big Spider-Man fan. Even less so when it comes to the movies; I haven't seen any of the Spider-Man films since Spider-Man 2 back in 2004. Is Glover the right guy for the role? I don't know. Some have claimed that at 31, he's too old, but Tobey Maguire was 27 when he started the role and 32 when he finished. Andrew Garfield was 29 for his first Spidey movie and 31 for his second.

I've been pleasantly surprised that a lot of the "Top 10 Actors Who Should Play Spider-Man" type lists have a decidedly more color-blind bent to them than I've ever seen in the past. I suspect that's in large part because of the introduction (and resultant popularity) of Miles Morales. But going back through the history of the character, the breadth of his appeal can at least partially be attributed to the complete lack of racial characteristics visible through the costume. It's been reflected in comics to various degrees already, so maybe it's time that Hollywood start to run with this idea as well.
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