On Monday, February 9, the official word began to spread.
The news that Marvel’s parent company Disney and Sony Pictures had agreed to share custody of Spider-Man on the big screen appeared everywhere.
Many details have surfaced since the official announcement, in regards to rights and release dates and the frequency and cinematic ground zero points for Spider-Man’s film appearances, practically into the next decade.
What has not changed is the debate over whether Marvel Studios and Sony will cast a Caucasian teenager as Spider-Man, or a Black teenager to represent the Ultimate Comics version of the characters, specifically Miles Morales, a Black/Latino male co-created by writer Brian Michael Bendis.
There are legions of fans on either side of the argument, and it makes me wonder not what makes sense for the fans, but what makes sense for Disney and Sony.
So let’s say we get a bi-racial Spider-Man on screen.
Marvel Comics has certainly invested a lot in Miles Morales by having their most popular writer shepherd him through adolescence, universes, and into the world of Marvel’s profitable X-Men line of books, thereby helping to maximize the character’s chance of success and acceptance among the fans.
Sales are healthy where the bi-racial Spider-Man is concerned, and the amount of positive publicity that Disney would get from casting a person of color as Spider-Man would be significant.
Related marketable product featuring the bi-racial Spiderman would be expanded and repurposed to meet the galvanized demand.
Looking at the casting of comic book-derived television shows, we see a lot of people of color brought into the mix, to the point where it’s highly connected to race-switching on characters and in some cases, seen as a gimmick to capitalize on a trend.
The previously-Caucasian Jimmy Olsen from DC Comics’ Superman mythos is going to be played by African-American actor Mehcad Brooks on the upcoming “Supergirl” television show from CBS.
The previously-Caucasian Deena Pilgrim from the Icon/Marvel Comics series “Powers” is going to be played by African-American actress Susan Heyward on the upcoming “Powers” television show from the PlayStation Network.
Quite recently, it was announced that AMC, the network home of “The Walking Dead,” is looking to cast an African-American actress to play the previously-Caucasian character Tulip O’Hare on their upcoming “Preacher” television show, based on the DC Comics/Vertigo series of comic books and graphic novels.
I don’t even have to get into the CW Network’s “Arrow” and “The Flash.” You know the score.
So we have a pattern of recent casting of Black actors and actresses in superhero small-screen fare, and more often than not for characters that were not originally Black.
Lots of fans of color from Millennials to Generation X would be as happy as it gets for pop culture fans, to get Miles Morales to share the screen with Downey Jr.’s Tony Stark and Chris Evans’ Steve Rogers.
There are also lots of fans of color who couldn’t care less if they get a bi-racial Spider-Man or a Caucasian Spider-Man.
Disney knows this, Marvel Studios knows this, and Sony Corp. knows this.
They know that between 2012 and 2013, approximate 41% of moviegoers were people of color, and accounted for the successful box office receipts of Marvel Studios’ Phase One films, inclusive of “The Avengers,” the billion dollar-plus success which activated Phase Two and catapulted Marvel Studios into their present status as a global influencer.
According to 2013 numbers from the United States Census Bureau, at least 39.4% of the American population was comprised of people of color.
These sales do not seem to be, in any way, connected to ethnic representation within the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and exist in spite of a relatively disproportionate amount of heroes of color in said universe.
From a geek continuity standpoint, which Marvel Studios seems to be quite cognizant of in their approach to worldbuilding, the point at which the confluence of Spider-Man and The Avengers could yield the most bang for its buck would be the cinematic adaptation of the Marvel Comics’ series “Civil War,” in which Spider-Man reveals his secret identity to the world and is caught in a philosophical and geopolitical war between Iron Man and Captain America, and the superheroes on either side of the conflict about civil rights and personal freedoms in an increasingly-dangerous world.
The Spider-Man of “Civil War” is Caucasian, not Miles Morales, the bi-racial Spider-Man.
Peter Parker, the original Spider-Man, the one created in 1962, the one Sony has chosen to portray in five films and two incarnations.
Fans of color aren’t upset with Sony for having the Caucasian Spider-Man continue to be the iconic representation of this intellectual property.
Their discontentment comes from their opinions of quality or the lack thereof in almost every immediately-known creative category of filmmaking, but not because, despite the presence of a bi-racial Spider-Man in the comic books, they have chosen to maintain the usage of the Caucasian character.
So really, neither Disney nor Sony has any financially-supported business reason whatsoever to give the world a bi-racial Spider-Man in the upcoming film slate.
They can give us the Caucasian Peter Parker and we’ll take it and like it, because with Marvel Studios on board we can expect a level of quality and representation of mythos that shows the best of the comic book continuity with the best visuals available.
Statistics imply to a great degree that Black consumers, by and large, will not reject entertainment if they are not significantly represented in the product.
Even with the uptick of viewership on cinematic material showing people of color, FOX’s “Empire” being the prime example and the poster child for a new sea change, there is no reason to believe that any consequences will be felt by Disney or Sony with the maintenance of a Caucasian Spider-Man.
No geek cred reason.
No money reason.
No demographic-based reason.
Talk is cheap.
Actions have costs.
All of us, we all already know what we’re going to do when these films come out, support or not for reasons which are already locked into our present philosophies.
Disney knows, Marvel Studios knows, and Sony Corp. knows, too.
See you in line to all of the upcoming films, no matter what the Amazing Spider-Man’s ethnic background turns out to be.
Joseph Phillip Illidge is a public speaker on the subjects of race, comics, and the corporate politics of diversity. In addition to his coverage by the BBC and Publishers Weekly, Joseph has been a speaker at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, Digital Book World’s forum, Digitize Your Career: Marketing and Editing 2.0, Skidmore College, Purdue University, on the panel “Diversity in Comics: Race, Ethnicity, Gender and Sexual Orientation in American Comic Books,” and at the Soho Gallery for Digital Art in New York City.
Joseph is the Head Writer for Verge Entertainment (www.verge.tv), a production company co-founded with Shawn Martinbrough, artist for the graphic novel series “Thief of Thieves” by “The Walking Dead” creator Robert Kirkman, and video game developer Milo Stone. Verge has developed an extensive library of intellectual properties for transmedia development. Live-action and animated television and film, video games, graphic novels, and web-based entertainment.
His latest project is “The Ren,” a 200-page graphic novel about the romance between a young musician from the South and a Harlem-born dancer in 1925, set against the backdrop of a crime war and spotlighting the relationship between art and the underworld. “The Ren” will be published by First Second Books, a division of Macmillan.
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