Depending on your level of nerdery, you may have seen the race to be cast as the new Spiderman in the wake of Tobey Maguire vacating the role. The obvious contenders aside, it’s been relatively lacking in anything of note until Donald Glover threw his hat into the ring, reasoning not unreasonably that Spider-man is a character that does not necessarily have to be white. As expected, the hardcore fans have reacted with typical aplomb, stating that No, Really, Peter must be a White Boy because that’s what he is in the comics and it would be racist to change him. Some of the more clever members of this camp have even referred to the matter of the white-washing of the cast of The Last Airbender, painting anyone who disagrees with them as hypocrites. All of which begs the question: does Peter Parker have to be white?

No. No, he really doesn’t. Let’s compare the two, and for the moment I will strip out any racial elements.

Peter Parker is a nerdy outsider who is empowered by chance, becomes arrogant and that arrogance results in the death of his beloved Uncle Ben. Swearing to never again allow his failing to act responsibly hurt someone, he dons his costume and fights crime fore’er more…

Aang lives a tranquil life learning mystic arts of Air Bending, until he discovers that he is next in line to be the Avatar, a rare human that can embody not one but all four elements. Panicked, Aang runs away, chance strikes and he is left frozen in the ocean for one hundred years. Upon being awoken by two children, he finds that in his absence, the Fire Lords have undone the balance of the world and taken brutal control. Aang must now work to set the world right…

So far, so good – you could cast in any direction. But the difference comes in the specific matters of the worlds we’re looking at. Spider-man is meant to be representative of the world as it is – he doesn’t live in a fictional city like Superman, or an analogous city like Batman, he lives in New York. Our New York. He is meant to be an everyman that represents all of us – that’s the point of the costume that covers him entirely and renders him effectively without race or distinction. It’s the costume that matters, not the skin tone it hides. When Peter dons the costume, he sublimates his nebbish identity into the courageous, wise-cracking persona of Spider-man, and so vicariously through him does the audience. Does he need to be white to be covered head to toe? Are all black people by default cooler than white, thus negating the necessary nerdishness that defines Peter initially? Is it that white people can’t project onto black?

This line of thinking says more about the audience than I think they would like, were this to prove true.

“But Brian!” some decry, “Peter as you know lives in Queens! This is a primarily causcasian area with approximately 45.8% holding, in comparison to the black population holding a 20.3% share. He would stick out like a sore thumb, thus undoing his secret identity!” Well that’s nice, but 20% of 800,000 people is still quite a number to get lost in. And in any case, why would Peter have to live in Queens? Nothing in the character requires it – it actually limits the idea because one of Spider-man’s key characteristics is web-swinging, an act you cannot do much of in the
lower rises of Queens. Heck, the movies had to get him out of there ASAP. The presence of New York itself is of greater importance to the mythos than Peter’s flesh – how many other places could you web-swing?

“But Brian, if you change Peter’s ethnicity, you have to change the whole cast – Ben, May, Mary Jane, Gwen, Flash… everyone!” I don’t see this, myself: being generous to the argument I would say yes to Uncle Ben, maybe – he is the blood relative, but May? Have there been no mixed marriages in the world? The age would make it tricky, but it would tie into the idea of May as a progressive person who married a man of colour at a time when it was not often done. MJ and Gwen? Do girls date only people of the same ethnicity? “What about Flash Thompson? If he was white and picking on Peter, well that’s plumb racist and Flash isn’t racist!” This is motivated by the idea that all cross-ethnic bullying is by default racist racist, but who says that’s the case? Motivation is what defines the relationship: Flash can be bullying him because he is a nerd, irrespective of skin tone. Even then, so what if the movies made Flash a racist in this regard – it’s not like racism doesn’t happen today. A part of me really likes this because it does add an interesting new undertone to the dynamic, and frankly, if you’re worried about altering the nature of a C-list character like Eugene “Flash” Thompson, you really are missing the point.

Now then, to Avatar (which is how I think of it – The Last Airbender is a terrible name). Does it have to be Asiatic? What requires it to have an Asian cast when there are so many talented white people out there (and in the movie – ba-dum-TSCH!)? If you can amend ol’ Spidey to make him more representative of an ethnicity heavily under-represented in American cinema, why not allow whitey into Tibet? When put like that, the question answers itself, doesn’t it? There is a severe disparity between the representation of whites and everyone else in Hollywood movies. Outside of Will Smith, who is an outlier and not a trend, how often do you see black actors headlining big Summer blockbusters? Or an Asian actor? Or Hispanic? Or, let’s rile things up that extra notch, a woman?

Rom-coms don’t count – we’re talking about big, exploding crazy movies, not cheap and cheerful nightmares that are the bane of dates everywhere.

More to the point, how many stories originating from non-Caucasian shores have already been white-washed? Dragonball was a notable feature, as was my beloved Speed Racer. Was my enjoyment of Speed Racer tarnished any? Let’s think on this further: was Speed Racer quintessentially about race (oh ho!) or racing? The answer is the latter – it was heavily adapted, true, but it was made entirely with the spectacle in mind. How then is Avatar different?

Well, because it’s meant to be Asian. The series is based around Asian history, based on Asian religions and traditions and spirituality. This is no small part of the series to fool about with – it’s the very world and basis for the story. The series was consciously designed to give viewers a world atypical to everything else on offer to kids on television. It’s purpose is to be multi-ethnic. It’s giving under-represented demographics a hero of their very own – there are hundreds, even thousands of white heroes. Who is an Asian American kid supposed to look up to? You can offer them Captain America, but all you’re doing then is forcing them to accept another group as dominant.

Does this preclude any white characters? No. Does this preclude the key characters of Aang (Tibetan), Katara and Sokka (Inuits) being recast as white? Yes. Aang may be designed with fewer racial traits in the cartoon to allow for audience projection, but as with any Japanese anime, the character may look white but he isn’t. Katara and Sokka are even more specific – they live in Arctic regions which are not known for your average North American teenagers. The Firebenders are directly comparable with 16th Century Japan. Even the conceit of the Avatar is from Sanskrit. The cultural and ethnic background is a necessity to the story.

This is of course staying away from the Avatar casting calls, which specifically requested white actors. That said, casting Jesse McCarthy as the Japanese antagonist Zuko did lead to the hilariously misconceived quote that he would have to work on his tan…

But does any of this really matter if the movies are any good? Yes, it does. When the only visible black people in the Lord of the Rings movies were the guys riding oliphaunts and working for Sauron, it sends a semiotic message to the audience. You could at first put this down to the source material – the books have flashes of racism as a product of their time, Middle Earth is meant to be Europe, blah blah blah. But when the same directors next movie is King Kong and displays the same level of racial sensitivity (the only black people being devolving savages and the Noble Black who sacrifices himself for the Clever and Deep White Boy), you’re looking at something closer to a trend. Where are the non-white superheroes? Storm? Underwritten and a secondary character for the most part; Hancock? A lazy bum who spends more time in the public eye (in the movie and in the marketing) as a problem than a hero; Blade? 18+ only, I’m afraid. Now you want to amend one of the few non-white heroes because…? Did no white kid watch the TV show? Did they say “Oh man, wouldn’t it have been awesome if Aang looked more like us?” Or did they just enjoy a well-written, thoughtful and inventive show that excited their imaginations?

Most importantly, did the kids notice the damn races, or did they enjoy the show colourblind?

Maybe the kid playing Aang is the best fit for the role. Who knows? The trailers did not give any such indication however; unfortunately, it gave the opposite impression – when you cast kids in a kung fu movie, it helps to cast kids who actually have martial arts experience (the first trailer demonstrated a complete absence of such a skillset, with poor posture and grasp making what could be a cool shot floppy and imprecise). Will kids notice? Maybe, maybe not, but why should that be an excuse? It’s not like it would cost much more when you’re almost certainly introducing unknown actors, rather than paying the higher fee of someone established. Frankly, my greater worry is that I have yet to enjoy one of M. Night Shalmayan’s po-faced, dull movies, each one of which seem intent on draining the giddy joy out of the concepts (imagine if superheroes were boring! Imagine if triffids could make you mad, only they were boring! Etc!)

It goes much the same for the Spider-man movies. A bad actor will kill the role, but the advantage here is that you can cast anybody. Critically, Donald Glover is a funny actor. One of the major flaws of the Raimi movies was the absence of Spider-man trash-talking and generally being funny. Of the actors supposedly in the running, none have to my knowledge actually shown any comedic ability. That’s not to say they can’t, but I am not the one who needs to provide evidence of same.

For all the fanboy outrage, there are some critical errors in their ire they need to consider. First, they are rubbish at casting – these are the same people that bitched about Heath Ledger being cast as the Joker. They are the same people who whined about Hugh Jackman as Wolverine. They will always whine and should be ignored. Possibly they should also be spayed for good measure. Unfortunately, they also seem to be forgetting that it’s not likely they will cast anyone other than a white actor as Spider-man. Studios are conservative at best, and unwilling to change something if it has proven successful historically. With the slowdown on cinema attendance, they are just not likely to cast in a way that could be perceived as too much, seeing their cinema-going audience as being similarly conservative. Audience behaviour has in recent years borne this thinking out.

More is the pity.