Monday, June 22, 2015

Miles Morales as the New Spider-Man for Marvel Comics Exposes the Diversity Problems with Marvel Studios


Marvel Comics is continuing to outshine Marvel Studios when it comes to diversity in it characters. New York Daily News is reporting that when the Spider-Man comic book series gets relaunched in the fall that the person under the mask will be half African American and half Puerto Rican Miles Morales. Morales was Spider-Man in the Ultimate series, which was set in an alternate world where Peter Parker had died. The Ultimate universe is now being amalgamated into the "real" Marvel Universe this summer in the "Secret Wars" storyline. This now means an upgrade for Morales who will be the actual Spider-Man while an older Peter Parker will play an Obi-Wan role.

Brian Bendis, the writer of the series and along with artist Sara Pichelli created Morales, understands the huge significance of turning one of the biggest and iconic Marvel characters into a minority. He tells a story about how many Black kids wouldn't be allowed by their friends to play Batman or Superman because they didn't look like those characters but they could be Spider-Man since anybody could be under that mask. Now, the modern Spider-Man is someone many kids can actively identify.

Identification is a crucial element in entertainment when trying to connect with a diverse audience. For too long Black and Asian characters have been subjugated to roles of the comedic sidekick. There is rarely a character that many young children could see themselves in. Something a white male like me never ever had a problem, as almost every hero was easy for me to imagine could represent me but with muscles and athletic skills.

We seem to have stumbled upon a period when certain entertainment groups have suddenly recognized the value of creating a diverse array of characters that can resonate with a rather large portion of the audience that isn't white males. Fox landed a massive hit with the largely Black starring Empire, a series about a hip hop record company, and ABC's new hits came from shows like Black-ish and How to Get Away with Murder (the second has the double whammy of a Black female lead).

Marvel Comics in the last year has probably showcased the greatest amount of progression towards diversity. Along with Morales as Spider-Man, there is now a female Thor, a black Captain America, and female Muslim as Ms. Marvel.  Lo and behold, none of these additions have led to rock-bottom book sales. If anything, Morales was so popular that the demand for him to get the main role was likely a big step towards Marvel making this change.

It is these shifts that make things at Marvel Studios look so archaic. The movie industry as a whole is clearly behind as is apparent with their big tentpoles that almost always have while male leads with females left with damsel-in-distress roles and minorities playing the trusty friend for a scene or two (in the case of Jurassic World then disturbingly forgotten after he served his purpose). The fear is likely that a minority or female can't be a major box office draw for a big budget spectacle. Though Maleficent and Lucy would inconveniently contradict that belief and television is proving audiences are starving for diversity. Despite what some huffy and puffy types grasping to the "nothing needs to change" lie may spout, there are Blacks or Asians or Indians or First Nations or woman that want to see themselves represented and be able to have their own fictional hero that they can cheer.

Marvel Studios is doing some token playing in the diversity game. A Black Panther picture starring the fantastic Chadwick Boseman is on the way and we'll be getting the Carol Danvers' version of Captain Marvel (a comic book series that has proven to be really successful and have an incredibly loyal audience, which means the picture will be one of those "huge surprise hits"). But these movies just feel like a tossing of the bone that sadly makes them secondary in the same way that Ant-Man isn't the real Marvel event of 2015.

The tone deafness from the movie studios is proven by the blocking out of fans cries for the next cinematic Spider-Man to be Miles Morales. Both Sony and Marvel studios have confirmed that yet again it will be Peter Parker. All the names tossed around to play Parker have been white males. I have a sneaky feeling that both studios have it set in their minds that if they're going to get a hit out of the Spider-Man franchise then the lead must be white.

It is a huge misstep not only because it would allow Marvel Studios to make a really giant push towards diversity and please a large group of movie goers that get shortchanged in representation during the big summer movie season, but it is also a lost opportunity at a real fresh start for a franchise that has become a little rusty and corroded.

In 18 years, we're now coming upon three reboots for the Spider-Man movie franchise. This is absolutely ridiculous. There was already a lot of backlash the second time around that they essentially served up the same characters and stories. Now, we're supposed to get excited by yet another reset button pushed Parker, just because Marvel Studios is sharing the controller. It is hard to escape the deja vu or the urge to reach for the Gravol, when we're stuck on a spinning wheel. We've been here and it was fun, but what it really needs is a major redesign.

Putting Miles Morales on the big screen and casting a fresh face to play him would be a gigantic symbol that Sony and Marvel Studios really are going to try something new. It would open up some fresh stories and allow us to avoid getting the exact same origin story disguised as the first movie. There has been an argument that Black actors don't draw well overseas, but I think most of the time it is a self-fulfilling prophecy as they are not given movies and stories that are big draws overseas. The constant reboots have become a bad joke, and abandoning Andrew Garfield's Spider-Man was a real chance to create something intriguing and different. It's time for Peter Parker to stop losing his Uncle Ben and avoid any nasty radioactive bites for a change.

We're left with a Marvel Comics that is flowing with diversity but a Marvel Studios failing to measure up. The big over-arching Marvel Universe story that is connected in every movie is set to wrap up when the next two Avengers are released in a few years. When the whole universe hits that reboot, will Marvel Studios then have a female Thor or an African American Captain America? Will people even care by that time? Will superhero movies still even be draws at the box office?

Marvel Studios won't be the powerhouse forever. A new action sub-genre will emerge in the summer eventually and despite movie studios' current obsession, the super hero craze will fade. Hopefully, before that time comes Marvel Studios recognizes that times have changed. They need to embrace diversity and try to appease all the different types of movie goers, the same way they are actively doing in comics. The time for a different Spider-Man on the big screen is now. Since casting of that character still hasn't been announced, the clock hasn't struck on that change of direction. I don't see that happening, but hopefully, movie studios start paying attention to what is actually happening in comic books and television.

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