On Tuesday 23rd June, Marvel and Sony announced that the latest man to take on the role of Spider-Man would be nineteen year old Tom Holland, in the upcoming collaboration between the two studios, and also presumably in Captain America: Civil War. This decision is one which I am resoundingly disappointed with.
This is not an article arguing that Tom Holland was the wrong young white male for the role – I don’t have any strong feelings about him as an actor. I’ve yet to see him perform in anything so I really don’t have anything to judge him on. The problem is that the powers that be chose to cast another young white male in the role. This is a fault on the part of the studios who fail to see that the main problem that faces the franchise is audience fatigue.
Spider-Man swung onto cinema screens with Tobey Maguire in the titular role in 2002. The Amazing Spider-Man was released in 2012 with Andrew Garfield as the teenage web slinger. Both took a fairly similar approach to the character – telling his origin story, albeit with different antagonists chosen for the film. While there were nuances in the two characterisations, the character was played as the awkward/quirky white young adolescent who doesn’t fit in. In casting another actor who fits into the same kind of mould, Sony and Marvel risk the feeling that audiences will be watching the same film for the third time in fifteen years when Tom Holland takes to the screen in 2017. It feels like poor Peter Parker is stuck in an infinite loop – as a teenager he will be bitten by a radioactive spider, have one or two other adventures, then be reset only to go through the same thing again.
Thus, the Spider-Man franchise needs a complete shake-up, and what better way to do this than by casting an African American actor in the role of Peter Parker, or by featuring an alternative character in the guise of Spider-Man: Miles Morales, the son of an African American father and a Puerto Rican mother? Marvel Comics have recently taken the step in moving Miles Morales from their off-shoot Ultimates series into their mainstream Marvel universe – so why not take him into it on the big screen as well?
It would be an understatement to say that race is a volatile issue today, and the representation of African American individuals on the big screen is still woefully lacking. Looking at superhero films specifically there has yet to be a film centred around an African American hero – the upcoming Black Panther film was to be the first, and that has been pushed back in favour of this Spider-Man film. Film is a representation of the world around us, and the absence of African American heroes is a reminder of the alarmingly racist world that we still live in.
Of course, casting an African American Spider-Man, whether it is as Peter Parker or Miles Morales, would only be half the solution. Storytelling is something which also needs careful consideration, as would the choice of villain, particularly with this franchise which has suffered from too many villains crammed into one story (Spider-Man 3 and The Amazing Spider-Man 2). However, a completely fresh take on the character’s origin story could transform it from one with constant reboots, to a consistent seller at the Box Office. Can you imagine the impact of watching Uncle Ben, played by an African American man, killed in an attempt to stop a crime, perhaps caught in the cross-fire with the police? Or if the film makers took the brave step and had him as the direct victim of police brutality? We have moved to the point where superhero films can, and more importantly should, make astute social commentary, and this would be the perfect opportunity to comment on the many troubles faced by African Americans in America today. Peter Parker was originally envisioned as an outcast, as the young geek who likes science and photography. You can hardly say today that someone with those characteristics is an outsider, particularly when he is being played by a conventionally attractive young, white male. I want to see a superhero triumph against adversity, and being a teenage geek does not compare to the fear that you might be shot and killed because of the colour of your skin.
Sony and Marvel had a great opportunity to make a film which could have made people think, which could have represented a minority group, which could have commented on the position of minorities in America. Instead they went with the same old, same old. Yawn.