Spider-Man Is Coming Home, But Who’s Coming With Him?

So it finally happened: the very first Spider-Man: Homecoming trailer has dropped! And of course I expected to have so many feelings. I was pretty sure I was going to tear up if not straight up cry. I didn’t, which is a testament to my extreme emotional fortitude. That’s a lie; I have no such fortitude.

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So it finally happened: the very first Spider-Man: Homecoming trailer has dropped! And of course I expected to have so many feelings. I was pretty sure I was going to tear up if not straight up cry. I didn’t, which is a testament to my extreme emotional fortitude. That’s a lie; I have no such fortitude.

It was an extremely exciting trailer to be sure. Tom Holland continues to be great at being both Spider-Man and Peter Parker—something neither Tobey Maguire nor Andrew Garfield could quite manage to pull off—and I didn’t hate Tony Stark/Iron Man’s presence. As a matter of fact, the relationship between Spidey and Iron Man seems like it will provide a healthy amount of tension to the film (possibly completing the Spidey/Iron Man falling out from the Civil War comic that was never realized in Captain America: Civil War). There’s even a great scene where Spider-Man tries to hold two halves a ferry from falling into what I presume is the Hudson River with himself suspended by webs between both halves. A nice recalls to the El train scene in Spider-Man 2, which I still regard as the best scene of any superhero film to date.

But where were the tears? Shameless confession: I balled all the way through Holland’s first on-screen appearance in CA:CW. Anytime someone tweets a screen shot or bit of spider-related news with the caption “welcome home” I have to bite my lip and wipe my eyes. Writing this now I feel my eyes welling up.

The truth is, I have a misgiving, and that is something I did not expect. I couldn’t put my finger on it until I watched the trailer a few (six) more times. It hit me when I was trying to figure out who was who. The girl Peter and his friend are ogling in the cafeteria is Liz Allan. Zendaya’s actual character is still a mystery for now, though some sources will say she’s been confirmed as MJ. There were other scenes with Peter and this friend, a chubby boy of color, in which Peter seems to complain about how Stark is treating him like a kid and another when his friend drops and shatters what I’m pretty sure is a Lego Death Star upon seeing Spidey unmasked and crawling across the ceiling. Each time I watched the trailer I was trying to fit this kid into a race bent concept for Harry Osborn. Jon Watts, director of the movie, has said that the multicultural casting of the movie is meant to reflect the actual multicultural-ness of Queens, which is great. Aside from the Zendaya casting rumors, Flash Thompson is cast as a person of color, which is exciting, and Liz is played by young black woman. It just didn’t work in my head though. Peter’s friend was too self-effacing, too nice I guess to be a Harry-type. He does however seem to fit the character of Miles Morales’ best friend, Ganke Lee, perfectly.

And then I got worried. Including Ganke in this movie, even if his name isn’t Ganke and he’s merely an analog to the character from Miles’ comic, well-meaning as it may seem, would be a huge mistake.  The character played by Jacob Batalon is actually named Ned Leeds, who some will remember as one of the original Hobgoblins later revealed to have been brainwashed into villainy by the real Hobgoblin, Roderick Kingsley, which may point to interesting possibilities in the film character’s future, or not. There are some fundamental differences between Batalon’s character and the Leeds of the comic, including his race, age, and his association to Peter. Leeds originally worked for the Daily Bugle when Peter first free-lanced for the paper, and he was Peter’s romantic competition for JJJ’s office assistant Betty Brant (also a named character in the upcoming film).

The only reason any of this matters is because of the specific changes made to Leeds’ character for this movie: a chubby Filipino actor was chosen for the role and the character has been refit into Peter’s (I’m assuming here) best friend…who is presumably the only one to know Spider-Man’s secret identity. This is Ganke’s exact physique and relationship to Miles in the comics.

So what’s wrong with Peter having an Asian American best friend who knows his secret identity? Absolutely nothing, so long as it doesn’t mean borrowing from the essential elements of Miles Morales’ Spider-Man. My fear here is that, because the character is so vital to Miles’ story, transplanting Ganke into Peter’s camp will actually make it more difficult to have a Miles-driven Spidey film down the line. A radioactive spider bite gave Miles his powers, but it was Ganke who pushed him to be a superhero and in many ways taught him how to be Spider-Man. Introducing a character analogous to this in a Peter Parker-driven film will (or should) prevent a rehashing of a similar character in a later film.

The much more grave issue would be the way this move prioritizes the white male hero over the iconic hero being portrayed by a person of color. This is not a “Peter-Parker-should-be-a-person-of-color” argument (but he should be), this actually represents a larger issue of race in comics and comic book adaptations. Cherry-picking Ganke from Miles’ corner of the Marvel U would be a form of appropriation wherein something culturally significant to the experience of a marginalized group (in this case fans who have waited literal decades to see a black/latinx character in such an iconic role) is taken and used to enhance the experience of the historically dominant group (fans of the traditionally white Peter Parker/Spider-Man).

In a nutshell, I’m saying that this way of chopping up and re-apportioning the comic book elements of the Spider-Man universe for the highly visible MCU adaptation serves to reinforce an essentially white narrative: the subordination of people of color and their concerns, as well as relegating them to roles of support and objects of male gaze. The set up here is the white male hero saves the day while his friends and loved ones, people of color all, cheer him on. The considerations for black narratives are historically treated as secondary to white narratives.[1]

I am of course reserving final judgment for the film itself, and I continue to be excited for all the new developments that come down the pipe––from his brief time on screen, I have to say, I already like Batalon’s screen presence a lot. But now that excitement is tinged with nervousness. The visibility of any Spider-Man vehicle is huge, and carries lots of cultural weight. With that incumbent power must also come great responsibility, and one what that responsibility is realized is by taking care not to poach from already marginalized people. The diversity casting is a step in the right direction, but it is very much the bare minimum studios like Marvel can do. It’s well past time to step up the game and cast more diversely for the actual franchise heroes. Even if those characters aren’t “traditionally” people of color.

 

 

[1] I should point out here that I am a white male myself, and as such welcome any and all criticism of or expansion on these ideas by people of color.

 

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