Destroy All Monsters: The Ghettoization Of Miles Morales As SPIDER-MAN
I'm going to blow your minds right now: Peter Parker could be played by a black actor.
In fact, Peter Parker could be played by an actor of any race at all.
Allow me to rephrase, Your Honour: The existence of Miles Morales does not mean Peter Parker can only be played by white people for the rest of human history.
Miles Morales, for those who don't know, is the Spider-Man of an alternate universe in the Marvel comics. He takes up the role of Spider-Man after Peter Parker has been killed. Miles is half-black, half-Hispanic.
Miles is a response to a superhero landscape in publishing that tends to be fairly white at the top line. He was a good addition to the universe, not just from a racial representation perspective, but from a basic worldbuilding one: Miles is a new, rich character, with good stories to tell and fresh places to go.
There are too few of these in the frozen-in-amber world of superhero comics, which often seem afraid to invent any new core heroes at all. And Miles' appearance in the comics, which unobtrusively suggests that any kid with a good heart (and a radioactive spider bite) can put on the leotard and become a hero, helps to balance a long-unbalanced playing field of who gets to be a good guy in the pages of Marvel.
The creation of Miles, though, had one unintended side effect, which plays out whenever the casting of Spider-Man for the feature films is up for review: Miles becomes the ghetto into which the entire discussion of representation in these movies can be pushed.
The conversation goes like this:
ME: "Ack, white Spider-Man again!"
HELPFUL INTERNET: "Actually, they announced the character will be Peter Parker this time around, not Miles Morales, so it's going to be a white guy."
ME: "Thanks, internet."
Returning to point #1 above, the existence of Miles Morales does not mean that Peter Parker is now safe to only be played by white people. This is because (another important point here) the comics and the movies are different things.
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.
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.
This isn't surprising: the Marvel Cinematic Universe is doing a lot of things well, but it is still very white - nay, exclusively white - at the top line. Captain America? White. Bruce Banner? White. The Avengers? White. (The Vision, I suppose, is pink.)
The Guardians of the Galaxy who are played by non-white actors are painted other colours - 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.
Next year we'll finally get non-white lead characters, starting with Luke Cage on Netflix, and followed a couple of years later by Black Panther on the big screen.
There are non-white supporting characters in most of the tentpoles. Some of them originated white in the comics and were cast race-blind for the movies (Nick Fury; Heimdall). Some of them are black in the comics and stayed that way (Rhodey; Sam Wilson).
From the looks of things, that's going to be it. And in case it needs to be said, there's an underlying message here, when the only place that the MCU gives us a break from all the whiteness is in secondary, supporting roles.
Back to Peter Parker. Quickly now: ignoring the colour of his skin in the comic books you read when you were growing up, name exactly one element of Peter Parker's storyline that can only take place if Peter is white.
What, exactly, is different about a shy science nerd living in Brooklyn if his parents are white, black, Hispanic, Asian, mixed-race, or secret travellers from the planet Spartax?
(OK, scratch that last one.)
The fact is, the Peter Parker story - in fact, a lot of the lead character stories in a lot of superhero comics and movies - is about as race-agnostic as it's possible to be, anywhere in popular culture.
In his own way, Miles Morales proved this. The richness and resonance of Miles' storyline in Ultimate Spider-Man is not driven by how wildly different his experience is from that of Peter Parker's, but by how much of it is essentially the same. It's a gorgeous piece of storytelling, which - like the whole Ultimate universe itself - recontextualizes and reinforces the core mythology of the original Marvel comic books. It's a creative work to be proud of, in every way but one.
The problem with Miles Morales is that inasmuch as he's a necessary response to representation in comics specifically, everywhere else, he's an excuse. He's a reason we don't have to redress the wider context of representation in these stories; he's the reason an enormous number of people don't even have to think about whether there's a problem with Peter Parker being cast white again.
Actually, scratch that too: let's not even call it a problem. It's not a problem.
What Peter Parker represents at this moment in the Marvel mega-franchise is an opportunity. There was an opportunity here to crush stereotyping and expectations for the gargantuan audience of the MCU, just as Marvel did seven years ago when they (again, taking a page from the Ultimate universe's book) cast Samuel L. Jackson as Nick Fury.
Race-blind casting in supporting roles is easy. Anyone who gets their hackles up because Heimdall doesn't look like a traditional Norseman is going to get over it pretty quickly, because it doesn't really matter.
But it does matter that an entire generation of people of all races and identities are getting unvarnished whiteness thrown their way from every corner of this decades-long project, and that when non-white characters finally turn up, they're either supporting characters, or lead characters whose assumed riskiness is so monumental that they've been saved for the back half of Phase Three - like Black Panther.
On the subject of risk: you know what isn't risky? Spider-Man isn't risky. You make a Spider-Man movie, even one of questionable merits, and a whole bunch of people are going to show up, pretty much no matter what.
Again, it's not a problem: it's an opportunity.
J.J. Abrams figured this out over on the other side of Disney's mega-franchise landscape. Speaking of unexpected side effects, one of the unexpected side effects of the mega-franchise model is that they are more and more bullet-proof, financially. Some pissed-off racist geek is going to skip Star Wars Episode VII because John Boyega is in it? No one's even going to notice.
What's going on, Marvel? What are you afraid of?
Destroy All Monsters is a weekly column on Hollywood and pop culture. Matt Brown is in Toronto and on Twitter.