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James Gunn Addresses the Spider-Man: Homecoming Casting Backlash

"If you’re complaining about the ethnicity of Mary Jane your life is too good."

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Every emerging detail about the cast of Spider-Man: Homecoming has been cause for celebration–from the actors who will be playing some of Peter Parker’s classmates to the announcement of the Tinkerer as one of the film’s villains. When actress and singer Zendaya was initially cast, all we knew was that she’d be playing a “key role” in the film, a character by the name of “Michelle.”

However, now it’s heavily rumored that she’ll in fact be portraying the iconic character of Mary Jane Watson. While we’re still waiting on official confirmation from Sony, Marvel or Zendaya herself, it didn’t stop fans from going into a frenzy when the news first broke–a frenzy which, as it turns out, was made up of those who were excited about the potential versus those who… were decidedly not.

It’s not the first time an actor of color would be cast in a role that has been canonically white; Michael B. Jordan took on the role of Johnny Storm in the recent Fantastic Four movie, and before that Samuel L. Jackson portrayed Nick Fury (who had previously been white in the comics). On the DC side of things, Will Smith was cast as Deadshot in Suicide Squad–also originally a white man. The backlash from a certain subsection of the internet in response to this promising rumor about MJ, however, has been particularly vocal–and it even prompted Guardians of the Galaxy director James Gunn to address the issue:

Following his initial tweet on the subject, Gunn later wrote a longer Facebook post on the Spider-Man: Homecoming casting dissenters. While he isn’t confirming whether the rumor is true (mostly because he doesn’t know for certain), he makes the point that even the idea, the mere concept of casting a black woman as Mary Jane Watson should be more about what she can bring to the character:

For me, if a character’s primary attribute–the thing that makes them iconic–is the color of their skin, or their hair color, frankly, that character is shallow and sucks. For me, what makes MJ MJ is her alpha female playfulness, and if the actress captures that, then she’ll work. And, for the record, I think Zendaya even matches what I think of as MJ’s primary physical characteristics–she’s a tall, thin model–much more so than actresses have in the past.

Whatever the case, if we’re going to continue to make movies based on the almost all white heroes and supporting characters from the comics of the last century, we’re going to have to get used to them being more reflective of our diverse present world. Perhaps we can be open to the idea that, although someone may not initially match how we personally conceive a character, we can be–and often are–happily surprised.

Mary Jane is much more than the color of her skin; she’s fierce, independent, strong and keeps our hero Peter Parker in his toes. She’s also evolved over time since her first appearance in 1966 to something beyond a mere love interest; in her most recent incarnation, she’s accepted a job working for Tony Stark and even teamed up with Peter and Tony in battle while wearing Peter’s Iron Spider suit.

I’ve written about this before, but one glaring fact about the majority of comic book character portrayals over the past 75 years is that they’ve been predominantly white. While one fan’s personal vision of a character may differ from another, part of making and adapting superhero stories involves updating them and making them more of a reflection of our world today, as Gunn says. Current incarnations of characters like Iris West on The Flash (who is being played by a black woman in both the TV show and the upcoming movie) are a sign that we’re moving in a good direction. Ultimately, when it comes to seeing characters who look like you on screen, it’s an experience that can’t be understated–and it’s something that every fan deserves.

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