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Posts Tagged ‘Miles Morales’

Which weighs more, a ton of oranges or a ton of feathers? It’s a trick question, of course: they are, in one respect at least, equal. But not identical: I know which one I’d prefer to nibble on – and which one I’d choose to nap upon, for that matter. I think this distinction between the ideas of identity and equality is an important one, too often overlooked.

This has been brought to mind by, of all things, the fall-out from the Sony hacking scandal, one of the consequences of which has been Sony relinquishing its death grip on the Spider-Man movie rights license and agreeing upon a sort of time-share agreement with the people at Marvel Studios itself. And one of the consequences of this looks like being the sacking of Andrew Garfield as Spider-Man’s on-screen embodiment, with open season being declared on recasting the character.

The internet has reacted to all of this with its usual restraint and objectivity. (Apologies, by the way, to any of the friends who’ve already seen me articulating some of the impending opinions in a different venue, and indeed to anyone who feels I misrepresent views which I disagree with.) One of the issues is – I am tempted to say ‘inevitably’ – that of diversity, and the possibility of casting a non-Caucasian performer as Spider-Man’s alter ego.

bwspidey

There is a wrinkle here. The casual movie-goer may be very aware of Spider-Man’s best known secret identity, Peter Parker, who has been a fairly middle-class straight white dude since 1962 – said movie-goer may indeed be sick to death of him, given there have been five Spider-Man movies since 2002. Rather less familiar, however, may be Miles Morales, a parallel-universe version of Spider-Man who’s been around since 2011. The key difference is that Morales is, ethnically speaking, black-Hispanic.

So it’s not just a question of whether the new Spidey should be white or not, but whether they go with the Parker or Morales character. There are, I would say, sound reasons for going with both versions: Peter Parker is almost as famous a character as Bruce Wayne or Clark Kent, with the kind of audience investment that goes with this. On the other hand, using Miles Morales could spare us yet another instance of Uncle Ben taking a bullet, in addition to inevitably garnering some publicity for the change of character, and, yes, increasing diversity in the on-screen superhero community.

(I should say I am generally pro-diversity, but not militantly or dogmatically so, quite simply because I am dubious about using mainstream entertainment as an instrument of top-down cultural engineering.)

Having found the Webb-Garfield Spidey films rather dull, certainly compared to the Raimi-Maguire ones from ten years ago, I’d personally be more interested in seeing a Miles Morales Spider-Man film than yet another incarnation of Peter Parker. But I wouldn’t be surprised if famously-cautious movie moguls opted to go with Parker again.

What does bemuse me a bit are suggestions that they go with Peter Parker again but change his ethnicity. This might make a bit more sense if Miles Morales didn’t exist as a popular alternative version of the character, but given a diversity-friendly alternate exists, why make fundamental changes to a 50-year-old and much-loved character? I can’t figure it out.

It’s not as if the movie is going to be called Peter Parker, after all: the name with marquee value is Spider-Man. There’s no reason why people wouldn’t go to see a Miles Morales movie that wouldn’t equally apply to one with an ethnically-transformed Peter Parker. If people aren’t going to go and watch a movie with a black superhero, it doesn’t make any difference what his civilian name is, and if they’re only going to see a movie featuring the Spider-Man they grew up reading, then they’re not going to go and see one with a black Peter Parker because the comics character has a five decade history of being white.

‘Peter Parker is not fundamentally white’ runs the counter-argument here, but I am not even completely sure what this is supposed to mean. It reminded me of a similar discussion – possibly I am gilding the lily here, because at the time it felt like an argument – about whether a particular character had any ‘essentially male traits’. The suggestion in both cases seems to be that being white, or being male, is not a trait – is meaningless in and of itself, and contributes nothing to a person’s essential identity.

If you discard things like gender, race, orientation, and so on, I wonder what is left as a basis of personal identity: memories and experiences, I suppose, but aren’t those fundamentally informed by all the elements I just mentioned? These things are not just cosmetic labels you can pull off and move around without it impacting every aspect of an individual – I said as much when articulating my misgivings about DC’s decision to make a character with seven decades of history as a straight guy suddenly gay. Changing any of these things basically means you’re creating a new version of the character, if you ask me, and to claim otherwise is a bit silly.

Championing the idea of a non-white Peter Parker seems to me to be an attempt at having your cake and eating it: you want to hang on to the name recognition and audience investment that a character has accumulated over decades of publishing history, while simultaneously making fundamental changes to that character in the name of diversity. It completely disregards the fact that characters as popular as Peter Parker have lasted so long precisely because people have invested so much in them: dedicated fans of Spider-Man, which I will freely confess to not being among, really care about Peter Parker, and think of him almost as a real person, complaining when he’s presented inconsistently, and so on. The one thing guaranteed to annoy this kind of fanbase is to make arbitrary, glaring changes.

It almost feels as though there is some kind of secondary agenda at work, one which is trying to suggest that notions of race, gender, and orientation are not just equal but actually meaningless, in the sense of expressing any real difference. I don’t see any problem with accepting that people of different ethnicities or genders or orientations are fundamentally of equal value as human beings. I believe that myself; you would be some kind of medievalist not to, I think. But that doesn’t mean there are not deep and fundamental differences between men and women, or between the cultural histories of different ethnic groups. Equivalency does not equate to identity.

I can’t help but see a parallel with another issue which has caused me some vexation and indeed heartache recently. Not long ago the BBC broadcast a series called Atlantis, about the adventures of a straight white guy. This was the replacement for a series called Merlin, about the adventures of a straight white guy. This in turn followed Robin Hood, about the adventures of a straight white guy. Now, there are arguably sound reasons for making Robin Hood a straight white guy, and also to some extent Merlin the wizard. But the main character in Atlantis was an original creation, and the BBC had a blank slate to do whatever they liked. Did they get any stick at all for not being even a tiny bit more adventurous? Not that I ever noticed.

Yet the voices clamouring for a more diverse recasting in Doctor Who are sort of relentless, once again despite the long history of the character operating in certain terms and the accumulated weight of fifty years of unequivocal masculinity. The demand is once again for absolute continuity and fundamental change at one and the same moment.

Just as the militant pro-diversity movement seems much more interested in interfering with the Doctor’s identity than in persuading the BBC to lead a less high-profile fantasy show with a non-white or non-male character, so there seems to be rather less interest in using the already-existing, diversity-friendly Miles Morales character than in bringing about arbitrary change in the much better-known Peter Parker. And I can’t help but wonder why. You want a non-white Spider-Man? Use the non-white Spider-Man who’s been appearing in books for years. Insisting on turning an established white character black when a viable alternative exists only suggests that this isn’t simply just about diversity.

 

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