It’s true. The role of Mary Jane Watson in the upcoming Spider-Man: Homecoming will be filled by Zendaya Coleman, a non-white, non-ginger woman.
This news is, pardon the pun, Amazing.
To explain why, we need to step back a few years. Way back to the halcyon days of 2010 when news broke that Mark Webb’s cinematic reboot of Spider-Man was being given the greenlight.
As a casting call went out for young, nerdy dudes to audition for the dual role of Peter Parker/Spider-Man, a small but vocal corner of the internet raised its banner for a specific actor: Donald Glover. A young black man.
Glover, at the time, was a 27-year-old actor-comedian famous for his role as Troy Barnes on the TV show Community, which to this day has a small but rabidly devoted fanbase. Troy was portrayed as a wide-eyed and good-natured naïf yet immature about certain aspects of adulthood and growing up. He’s also a really good rapper/lyricist/musician under the moniker of Childish Gambino.
For anyone who was a Spider-Man fan before jumping into the absurd, yet very empathetic, universe of Community it wasn’t difficult to see the similarities between the character of Peter Parker and Troy Barnes. So much so that on Twitter the hashtag #donald4spiderman appeared shortly after news of the rebooted franchise hit the internet. Thus, the fan campaign began.
However, as could be expected by anyone who follows these things, Sony Pictures (who owns the distribution rights to Spider-Man and is co-producing Homecoming with Marvel Studios, thankfully) didn’t contact Glover or even acknowledge that there was a serious campaign in the first place. That’s politics.
The reason #donald4spiderman became a legitimate fan movement and not another ignored hashtag was due to the fundamental nature of Peter Parker as a character. Unlike other superheroes such as Superman, Batman and Wolverine, there is nothing inherently special about Peter Parker as a person before he gains superpowers.
Superman is the last of his species. Bruce Wayne is the heir to a vast fortune. Logan is a seemingly immortal mutant.
On top of these inherent qualities is that the context of their origin stories necessitates the race of the characters as white and privileged. Otherwise the circumstances of their origins could not exist the same way. If any one of them were black instead of white they would be completely different characters.
Peter Parker isn’t restricted to this issue. He’s a nerdy kid from Queens whose uncle dies as a consequence of his actions. He’s the underdog. These are the fundamental aspects of the character and are devoid of all racial context. Even Spidey’s costume, which Peter designed himself, shows no skin at all and reinforces this “everyman” aspect of his origin.
Which brings us back to the present. While Donald Glover isn’t playing Spider-Man (currently filled by British-born Tom Holland) the producers of Homecoming have made a solid choice in choosing a talented woman of color to portray Mary Jane Watson who has the distinction of being both the object of Peter’s affection and an independent complex character in her own right (when written correctly). Such a choice opens up the Marvel Cinematic Universe casting pool and, most importantly, reflects our evolving modern society.
It’s worth noting that even though Donald Glover won’t be Spider-Man, he does have a role (currently unknown) in Spider-Man: Homecoming. Even more importantly, there is a new Spider-Man in the character of Miles Morales. A teenager of black-hispanic descent, who first appeared in Marvel Comics’ Ultimate Fallout #4 in 2011, Morales was conceptualized by Brian Michael Bendis after seeing Donald Glover wearing a pair of Spider-Man pajamas as a reference to his campaign in Community’s Second Season premiere. In an interview with USA Today Bendis said, “He looked fantastic! I saw him in the costume and thought, ‘I would like to read that book.’ So I was glad I was writing that book.”
The rest is now history, and the future looks bright.