Spider-Man: Homecoming has a lot of heavy lifting to do for one movie. It has to continue the Marvel Cinematic Universe, be a good Spider-Man movie after three straight critical flops and introduce Marvel’s new phase of casting “diversity.” Does it succeed?
Spider-Man: Homecoming is a fun movie, and a decent continuation of the series, but it lacks heart and is an utter fail for Marvel diversity. It’s nice that Spider-Man comes home to a nongentrified neighborhood, but the movie goes out of its way to let you know that white guys are still running things.
I think that in the movies we’ve already made, and certainly in the movies that are coming up, it will be as inclusive a group of characters as one could want.
That is a quote from Marvel Studios grand poobah Kevin Feige to (ironically) Vulture magazine last year. Marvel has been under fire for some time from critics and, most importantly, fans for the lack of diversity in its cinematic universe. Racebending an 80-year-old World War II character like Nick Fury from a cigar-smoking white guy to a take-no-shit black guy in 2008 was a great move. In the subsequent eight years, though, Marvel went through almost 10 straight movies without a black woman having more than two lines, hardly had any Asian-American or Latino actors on-screen, and had a real bad case of “whitewashing.” This despite the increasing dribbles of diversity that are occurring in core Marvel Comics.
Spider-Man was supposed to be different.
For the last year, producers and directors were literally doing yoga stretches to pat themselves on the back about how “diverse” the new Spider-Man would be, and how Peter Parker’s world would look like the real world. Unfortunately, Homecoming only gives you that self-congratulatory, “Hey, we put a Black History Month flyer in the break room. What else do you want?” diversity that’s become a hallmark of Hollywood in the #OscarsSoWhite era.
On the positive side, the depiction of Queens, N.Y., in general and Peter’s high school are great. Peter comfortably speaks Spanish, and the hallways of his high school look like the United Nations. Most of Spider-Man’s secondary villains, like the Shocker and the soon-to-be Scorpion, are played by well-known or at least recognizable actors of color. Moreover, even bit parts like the school principal and gym teacher are people of color, which helps flesh out the feeling that you are actually in a living, breathing, modern-day New York City. Nevertheless, as the characters get closer to Peter, the diversity becomes less impressive and more like window dressing.
While most of the Vulture’s henchmen are black and brown, Adrian Toomes himself (played with smoldering fury by Michael Keaton) is most definitely a “regular blue-collar” white guy, who the film makes a point of showing “isn’t very PC.” Peter’s high school tormentor Flash Thompson, played by Latino actor Tony Revolori, is good as a modern-day bully, a rich and smart jock who is more interested in putting Peter down than in putting his face in a locker, but he also doesn’t play much of a role in this rebooted version of Peter’s life.
Ned, Peter’s best friend, played by Filipino actor Jacob Batalon, gets a lot of screen time, but his character is straight out of the Asian-Minority Sidekick to a White Hero handbook. Spit some funny lines, look amazed, live vicariously, and your greatest aspiration is to be the backup tech guy for the white hero. We literally saw this same role in Green Lantern.
What makes Ned even more frustrating on the diversity front is that he’s essentially lifted from Ganke, the best friend of Miles Morales, the black-Latino Spider-Man who is the main friendly neighborhood Spider-Man in the comics now. Even more frustrating, Donald Glover, who campaigned for the lead in Spider-Man: Homecoming, and who many fans thought would make a great Peter Parker or Miles Morales, steals the show in the few scenes he’s in. He plays a character named Aaron Davis, who, in the comics, is actually Miles Morales’ techno-thief uncle the Prowler.
So Spider-Man: Homecoming can use elements from Miles’ life and even make reference to him with a huge star, but for some reason it just somehow couldn’t find a way to cast the black guy as a Spider-Man lead. It’s the movie equivalent of looking through a restaurant window and seeing the waiter gesticulate wildly that they’re closed, but you damn well see that people are still walking in and ordering food: You can serve me; you just don’t want to.
Arguably the biggest fail in Spider-Man: Homecoming are the two female leads: Laura Harrier as love interest Liz, and Zendaya playing red-headed Daria-esque “Michelle”—who comic fans think might be you-know-who from the Spider-Man canon. While some people praise the casting of two women of color in Peter’s life, it’s actually still faux diversity and re-enforcing the status quo.
In Hollywood, comic book films’ diversity still means giving white guys their choice of mixed-race or light-skinned, Hollywood-approved women of color as love interests. We see it in The Flash, Legends of Tomorrow, the upcoming Thor: Ragnarok with Tessa Thompson, etc. Change a white-girl comic character to a hot black woman? Barely a peep from fans. Consider casting a man or woman of color as the action or romantic lead? Utter chaos.
This isn’t a critique of WOC getting jobs; that’s a good thing. However, it just highlights the fact that hipster progressive-Hollywood racism allows for every sidekick, schoolteacher and love interest to be turned from white to minority in the name of “diversity,” so long as it’s always a straight white guy as the romantic lead driving the story—even the villains. It also doesn’t help that in Spider-Man: Homecoming, the relationship between Peter Parker and Liz (whose last name is “Allen” in the comics but who has no last name in the movie, for plot purposes) is absolutely, 100 percent chemistry-free.
Spider-Man: Homecoming is a fun movie, but not one that will stick with you for long. It’s significantly better on the diversity front than whitewashed Doctor Strange, or the minority-as-comedy-relief-sidekick-brigade antics of Ant-Man; and the references to race, history and culture by a group of smart high school kids are organic and believable in the film. But it falls way short of the fully integrated POC in Captain America: Civil War. It feels more like a mashup of a 1980s high school teen flick and Agent Cody Banks, with a few talking minority extras who are still revolving around the white-guy hero and villain.
I get that we’re still a year away from Black Panther (lines already forming for the step and repeat with Barack, Michelle and DeRay), but Marvel can still do much better. Spider-Man’s neighborhood may be more friendly, but as long as Marvel keeps centering white guys, he’s still got the proportionate strength of a gentrifier.