Spider-Man: In Black and (Betty) White

The Web push for a non-white Webslinger is an amazing idea

By Jere Hester
|  Thursday, Jun 3, 2010  |  Updated 8:45 PM PDT
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The Census results aren't in yet, of course, but it seems likely that Queens, N.Y., will retain its distinction as the nation's most diverse county, an urban melting pot where some 170 languages are spoken.

The New York City borough also is home, at least in the comics and movies, to Peter Parker, better known as the Amazing Spider-Man.

Queens' status as a multi-cultural center seems worth noting as a fascinating debate over the Webslinger's cinematic fate plays out on the Web. Some fans are pushing for producers to consider casting a non-white actor as the star of the planned Spider-Man movie series reboot.

It’s an amazing idea: The appeal of Spider-Man, after all, never rested in his race but in his relatability.

Spidey swung into the popular culture in the mid-1960s, at a time of upheaval in society and in the world of comics. After giving us the bickering Fantastic Four, Stan Lee forever shattered the mold of the near-infallible and invariably noble superhero (think old-school Superman) with the creation of Peter Parker.

Peter was an awkward teenage outcast, plagued by everyday problems and self-doubt that didn't disappear when he slipped on his Spider-Man guise – providing us an anti-hero superhero fans have been rooting for since Amazing Fantasy No. 15.

We're still somewhat miffed and confused by the announcement earlier this year that director Sam Raimi, star Tobey Maguire and the rest of the gang were being dropped after two incredible movies and one pretty good installment.

But the decision to start fresh, with a younger director (Marc Webb of “(500) Days of Summer”) – and a mandate to focus on Peter's high school days – at least represents opportunity for change. If the series is being re-imagined, that spirit of reinvention certainly should extend to casting.

Such a change would not be unprecedented in the Marvel comic-and-movie universe: Nick Fury of S.H.I.E.L.D., who started as a white character in the comics, is embodied in the movies by Samuel L. Jackson, who played the tough-talking spy in the latest “Iron Man” installment and is expected to reprise the role in a slew of upcoming Marvel superhero flicks.

The origin story behind the push for a non-white Spider-Man is a tale to marvel. It started last week with a Hollywood Reporter post revealing five young actors said to be up for the role.

That prompted Marc Bernardin, a writer for the fanboy site io9.com, to ask why only white performers were being considered. One commenter suggested that Donald Glover, who plays goofy former high school jock Troy on NBC’s “Community,” would make a good Spider-Man. Glover tweeted his approval, and a Facebook page was born, quickly attracting more than 10,000 supporters.  

Thus began the latest campaign by a public increasingly using Internet in a bid to impact pop-cultural creative decisions. You can blame – or credit – Betty White, whose many Facebook fans catapulted her to a successful stint hosting “Saturday Night Live” (we can see it now: a Facebook campaign calling for White to play Peter Parker’s Aunt May).

The first three movies were successful, in great part, because Raimi updated the Spider-Man myth while keeping to true to the basic vision of the original comic. A bold casting move could add new levels to the Peter Parker story at a time when his best-known fan resides in the White House.

“I’m actually quite interested to see how far this goes,” Glover wrote on his blog. “If this happens, I’ll buy each and every one of you a mini cooper.”

As much as we like Glover, a notable comedy writer (“30 Rock”) and performer (in addition to “Community,” he’s pumped out some strong videos for “Funny or Die”), he might not be perfect for Spider-Man. Can someone who’s almost 27 effectively play the teenage Peter Parker?

So we’ll put it to you: What young actor – of any race or ethnicity – would you like to see slinging webs on screen? Use the comments section to nominate candidates for the next Friendly Neighborhood Spider-Man.

Hester is founding director of the award-winning, multi-media NY City News Service at the City University of New York Graduate School of Journalism. He is the former City Editor of the New York Daily News, where he started as a reporter in 1992. Follow him on Twitter.

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