The latest comic book film comes close to replicating the real world's racial spectrum
I still remember when “The Flash” put out its casting call in the early development of the TV series.
Show creators wanted a black actress to play Iris West, contrary to the comic book canon that had always coded Iris as white. It was striking that not only were they going against the history and expectation of that beloved character, but that they were so public about it. A cynical view would be that they were trying to score identity politics points, but it also spoke to the commitment to the character on a greater level. Candice Patton went on to be cast in the role, and “The Flash” became arguably the most critically revered comic book show on TV.
“Spider-Man: Homecoming” is a triumph in a lot of ways. It features a coming-of-age approach rather than the traditional origin story, tight and efficient storytelling with tons of humor and heart, and, of course, a ton of great-looking Spidey action. It might also be the most racially diverse comic book cast that we've seen.
Make no mistake, the tent poles are still there. The protagonist, villain, mentor and even the handler are all white men, so I don't want to give “Spider-Man” credit for turning the status quo on its head. However, the supporting cast and the environment in general are anything but standard Hollywood fare.
Peter Parker, perfectly captured in an incredible Tom Holland performance, is the only white kid in his circle of friends, and most of the authority figures in the school itself are POC. Both incidences are actually a big deal, since the school itself is framed as prestigious.
But the most radical thing the movie does in regards to the casting is to treat its characters like actual people. One of my (many) beefs with “Wonder Woman” was its clumsy handling of POC. The film felt compelled to tell us why these non-white characters were in this (seemingly) white space. In “Spider-Man,” the characters exist in the world because they exist in the world.
Ned, played by Filipino actor Jacob Batalon, isn't giving long monologues about why his family sent him to this nice school in Queens. Zendaya's hilarious and relatably weird Michelle talks about social justice, but it is not the dominant aspect of her personality. For every “I might stage a protest when we go to DC” quote, there's an “I'm just here to sketch people in crisis” quip that shows the range of her personality. The supporting characters are there to fill out the world in which our protagonist exists — not to gauge the social morality or prop up the “tolerance” of the lead.
It's refreshing to see a world created and populated in a way that makes logistical sense compared to being built for the white gaze. This feels like it's putting other movies on notice. It's not diversity (or just diversity for diversity's sake) that is the key to movie-casting success. It's inclusion. Of personalities, stories and the real people that fit in the world you hope to mimic as a creator.
Besides, we only have about seven months until Black Panther comes out and breaks every casting rule Hollywood has left.