Spider-Man Homecoming

New York is Finally a Melting Pot

Representation — the buzzword of the day, but serious business for viewers and studios alike — is both praiseworthy and thought-provoking in this film.

Let’s start with the positives. What’s great is that most of the cast are people of color — Zendaya plays a charmingly weird Michelle (who, surprise surprise, goes by “MJ”), Revolori and Harrier lead the cast of secondary kid characters (which includes none other than Beasts of No Nation’s Abraham Attah), and the faculty of Peter’s school include comedian Hannibal Burress as the school coach, Orange is the New Black’s Selenis Leyva as one of Peter’s teachers, and Kenneth Choi as the principal. Even Adrian’s wife and Liz’s mom, Doris, is played by Garcelle Beauvais. Peter’s best friend, Ned (Jacob Batalon), is one of the few major Asian film characters in the MCU, and his presence gives the film even more levity and fun. Donald Glover, who originally rallied fans in a campaign for the role of Peter Parker in a future Spider-Man film, shows off his comedic chops in a few key scenes. Marvel’s goal was to showcase Queens’ diversity, and they most certainly did with this film. Even a cameo of a girl in a hijab goes far with audience members who are tired of seeing themselves painted as terrorists in the media.

Secondly, the fact that Peter is in love with a Liz — a biracial black girl in this film — and is set to be in love with Michelle/MJ in future films (if the MCU holds to the canon in that regard, despite totally doing away with the original Mary Jane character in the franchise), is a major milestone for Marvel’s film franchise, which is currently up to its eyeballs with white female love interests. Am I saying white girls can’t be love interests? Of course not. But the rest of us need to see ourselves as viable too, and black girls (and girls of color in general) often go underrepresented. It’s very gratifying to see that Peter’s love interests also reflect the diversity found in Queens.

Spider-Man Homecoming

However, no film is perfect, and neither is Spider-Man: Homecoming. While the cast is very much diverse, there are still some old Marvel-isms at play. The main point of criticism is that it’s still a story centered around a white male protagonist. Marvel’s got a glut of films that focus on white men, and while Peter Parker is an endearing boy, he still falls in the same line-up of the other white Marvel heroes.

This point is underscored by the fact that quite a lot of this film features cues and material lifted from the story of Miles Morales, the “Ultimate” Spider-Man from the Marvel comics and a biracial teenager superhero. The comics featuring Morales as the main character features a diverse cast of characters including Miles’ best friend, an Asian boy named Genke. Genke looks and acts suspiciously like Ned, which leads some, such as The Root’s Jason Johnson, to ask why this wasn’t Miles’ movie in the first place. Some might say, Miles is referenced in this film, since Glover’s low-rate criminal character Aaron Davis is actually Miles’ uncle and, indeed, Aaron does mention that he has a nephew he wants to keep safe. But now the question is how does Miles fit into this new story that, some might argue, is retrofitted around Miles’ existing comic book story?

Lastly, the film’s POC characters are still secondary. Yes, they have lines and are allowed to emote, but they could still be viewed as glorified set decoration. Even Ned, who gets the most screentime out of the high school kids, is still in an “ethnic sidekick” capacity, much like how Marvel treats Cap’s relationship with Falcon, Iron Man’s relationship with War Machine, or Ant-Man’s relationship with every ethnic and racial stereotype that made up his rag-tag gang of criminals-turned-heroes.

With that being said, though, Marvel could have very easily made the Queens presented in Spider-Man: Homecoming the same Queens that has been presented in other Spider-Man films before — a Queens where only one or two people of color exist, instead of being the actual convergence of cultures and races that it is. The film could have had Attah, Revelori, Batalon, and Harrier’s characters all be white, and then we would be condemning the movie for that reason as well.

Spider-Man Homecoming

To that end, I’m sure some of you reading this might be like, “Well WTF?! You’re damned if you do, damned if you don’t.” That’s what comes with the territory of telling a story. Your strengths and your biases will always come out, even in the most earnest and well-meaning of films. All a storyteller can do is learn what they can from the plusses and minuses of their story and apply it in the future.

Marvel has taken a beating in recent months due to Iron Fist, Doctor Strange, and allegations of whitewashing. Even before then, fans were berating Marvel to put a Black Panther film into motion. To its credit, Marvel seems to be taking these concerns as seriously as it knows how given its biases, what with Black Panther less than a year away from its theatrical release and with the effort that was put into Spider-Man: Homecoming to create a realistic Queens. To that end, I say that Marvel successfully put their foot into showcasing diversity and inclusion in this film and for that, it should be lauded.

However, Marvel’s learning curve with diversity and representation is far from over, and there will be many more instances in which Marvel will learn something new in regards to how it approaches representing the world more thoughtfully. But for right now, I’m willing to give Marvel its much-deserved clap on the back for its efforts in Spider-Man: Homecoming. 

Spider-Man Homecoming

Can Marvel Keep Going in This Direction, Please?

Despite some food for thought representation-wise, Spider-Man: Homecoming does represent a turning point in Marvel’s storytelling ability and focus. Sure, Thor: Ragnarok is coming out after this movie, which might make progress a stop-and-start affair depending on how good Thor: Ragnarok is. But it seems like Spider-Man: Homecoming has much more in common with its blacker cousins Luke Cage and the soon-to-be-released Black Panther. Like those projects, Spider-Man: Homecoming takes a fair amount of consideration as to how it’s going to portray its world and relate to its audience. The film is also much more about developing depth of character than it is about big action sequences, and when there are big action sequences, they continue to drive the story instead of act merely as a paint-by-numbers set piece. Overall, the film is a great addition to the MCU and if you’re a Marvel fan or a fan of fun movies in general, it would serve you right to take in a viewing.

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About the Author

Monique Jones runs JUST ADD COLOR, a site focusing on race and culture in entertainment. She has written for Ebony, Tor, Black Girl Nerds, The Nerds of Color.