At a time when the debate over race and racism is raging in the real world, it is perhaps no shock that the same discussion is also swirling in the alternate universe of comics.
It began on Friday, when leaked Sony Pictures e-mails revealed a strict licensing agreement between the movie studio and Marvel Comics over the iconic superhero Spider-Man.
Unsurprisingly, the agreement stipulates Spidey must be male and that he doesn’t torture, needlessly kill, use foul language, smoke, abuse alcohol or have sex before the age of 16, according to copies of the e-mails published by Gawker.
More controversially, however, the agreement says Spider-Man’s alter ego, Peter Parker, must be “Caucasian and heterosexual.”
On Monday, Stan Lee, Spider-Man’s co-creator and the godfather of the Marvel Comics empire, said that he supported keeping Peter Parker straight and white.
“I wouldn’t mind, if Peter Parker had originally been black, a Latino, an Indian or anything else, that he stay that way,” Lee told the comic industry Web site Newsarama. “But we originally made him white. I don’t see any reason to change that.”
Many media outlets jumped on the leaked e-mails and Lee’s statement as an indication that Spider-Man himself had to remain white and straight.
“Spider-Man Can’t Be Gay or Black,” read a Gawker headline. “Stan Lee: Spider-Man should stay white and straight,” wrote the Guardian.
But the leaked e-mails make it clear that Spider-Man can, in fact, be black or Hispanic or gay — it’s just that Peter Parker can’t.
As if to prove the point, Marvel announced the same day that a half-black, half-Latino character named Miles Morales would take over as Spider-Man, at least in its comics.
Marvel introduced Morales back in 2011 in its “ultimate universe” (in other words, its alternate, alternate universe) spin-off, in which Peter Parker had died and Morales took over as Spider-Man. On Monday, Marvel made Morales the main Spider-Man, with a still-living Parker as his mentor.
Lee’s comments were less straightforward, however. On the one hand, he seemed to be saying the same thing as the leaked e-mails: that while Peter Parker should remain a straight white guy, Spider-Man could be inhabited by other, very different characters.
“What I like about the costume is that anybody reading Spider-Man in any part of the world can imagine that they themselves are under the costume,” Lee told Newsarama. “And that’s a good thing.”
On the other hand, at times his comments seem to suggest that Spider-Man himself should be straight and white and that if we want black, Latino or gay superheroes, we should stick to the ones we already have or invent new ones.
“I think the world has a place for gay superheroes, certainly,” he said. “But again, I don’t see any reason to change the sexual proclivities of a character once they’ve already been established. I have no problem with creating new, homosexual superheroes.”
“It has nothing to do with being anti-gay, or anti-black, or anti-Latino, or anything like that,” Lee said. “Latino characters should stay Latino. The Black Panther should certainly not be Swiss. I just see no reason to change that which has already been established when it’s so easy to add new characters. I say create new characters the way you want to. Hell, I’ll do it myself.”
Lee’s comments come at a time of debate over race and sexual orientation in the comic industry.
Although a few black superheroes like Storm from the X-Men, Black Panther and the second Green Lantern were introduced in the 1970s, their numbers remain relatively few.
In some cases, originally white characters have been played by black actors in Marvel films, such as Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) and Heimdall (the “Thor” character played by Idris Elba). There have been growing calls for black actors to represent the biggest superheroes, as well, such as Superman, Batman and Spider-Man (and the non-superhero James Bond).
But there has also been a pushback against changing characters’ identities. When the bisexual Latina actress Michelle Rodriguez was recently asked about playing Green Lantern — who was originally white before briefly being recast as black — she scoffed.
“That’s the dumbest thing I’ve ever heard,” Rodriguez said. “I think it’s so stupid … because of this whole, like, ‘minorities in Hollywood’ thing. … It’s so stupid, it’s like, stop stealing all the white people’s superheroes. Make up your own, you know what I’m saying? What’s up with that?”
She later apologized and ended up saying something very similar to Lee.
“I think that there are many cultures in Hollywood that are not white that can come up with their own mythology,” she said in a YouTube video. “I’m just saying, instead of trying to turn a girl character into a guy or instead of turning a white character into a black character or Latin character, I think that people should stop being lazy and people should actually make an effort to develop their own mythology.”
Many Marvel fans apparently agree with Rodriguez and Lee.
“Changing an established character to make things more PC feels disingenuous,” one wrote on a sub-reddit devoted to the controversy, which had racked up nearly 700 comments in less than a day. “I don’t empathize [with] a character based on race, gender or orientation, I empathize based on character.”
But some critics say that idea is backwards.
In a post written before Lee’s comments titled “The Ghettoization Of Miles Morales As SPIDER-MAN,” film columnist Matt Brown argued that the multi-racial character was being used as a cover to allow Marvel to continue casting white men in its blockbuster films.
“The existence of Miles Morales does not mean Peter Parker can only be played by white people for the rest of human history,” he wrote. A more progressive array of comic characters means little if those diverse faces aren’t making it to the silver screen, Brown wrote.
“If racial representation in Marvel comics is a problem with a few really good responses lately (Miles, Kamala Khan, the current run of Captain America), race in the Marvel Cinematic Universe is, right now, an outright disaster,” he wrote on April 30. “The field is narrowing on who will be the third actor in under a decade to play Spider-Man. As of this writing, we’re only down to the finalists stage, but guess what: they’re white.”
(On Tuesday, Marvel announced that Peter Parker would, in fact, be played by Tom Holland, a white actor from Britain.)
Despite an increasing number of minority supporting actors in Marvel films, the main men — and women — remain almost exclusively white, Brown said.
“Captain America? White. Bruce Banner? White. The Avengers? White,” he wrote. “The Guardians of the Galaxy who are played by non-white actors are painted other colors — because there can be green, grey or pink people in space, or talking trees if you like, but precious few black people, and none of them among the heroes. … [T]he only place that the [Marvel Cinematic Universe] gives us a break from all the whiteness is in secondary, supporting roles.”
Writing several months before the current controversies over the leaked e-mails and Lee’s comments, Brown was already challenging the idea that Peter Parker had to be white, or straight, or anything.
“Ignoring the color of his skin in the comic books you read when you were growing up, name exactly one element of Peter Parker’s story-line that can only take place if Peter is white,” he wrote. “What, exactly, is different about a shy science nerd living in Brooklyn if his parents are white, black, Hispanic, Asian, mixed-race, or secret travelers from the planet Spartax?”
After 53 years as Spider-Man’s alter ego, Peter Parker is pretty much synonymous with the superhero (at least to us in-the-know comic readers or movie watchers, maybe not to his enemies).
Making Miles Morales the new Spider-Man on the page may be progress, but putting a black (or Latino, or gay) Peter Parker on the silver screen would be something truly marvelous.