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Stan Lee: Spider-Man Should Be White

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Sorta transcript:

Stan Lee is perhaps best known for starting Marvel Comics and turning it into the powerhouse it is today, and if not for that than for being that old guy who shows up in every superhero movie to make nerds clap their hands with delight as though they’re in on some secret inside joke.

This week he told reporters that he agrees with a Sony pictures memo that mandated that Peter Parker always remain white. “We originally made him white, he said. “I don’t see any reason to change that.”

Lee said he doesn’t see the point of changing an established character when you could just add a new one. “I say create new characters the way you want to,” he said. “Hell, I’ll do it myself.”

I, for one, would love to see Stan Lee have a go at creating a character himself. It would be a first!

He compares it to making Black Panther Swiss, which, okay, first of all black Swiss people do exist but I guess he’s right that the Black Panther movement wasn’t probably a well-known thing in Switzerland, but to compare that to Spider-man would be to suggest that black people in New York City don’t know what spiders are, which I can tell you for a fact is not true.

If he meant to say it would be like making Black Panther white, well, “Black” is in his goddamn name, that’s how important it is to his character. If we were talking about a guy called “Whiter Man” he might have a point.

But being white isn’t important to Spider-man’s character, as we know from the actual creators’ notes and stories — the actual creators being a combination of Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko, with a bit of dialogue thrown in from Stan Lee, none of which, I should tell you, included lines like “Boy I sure am white.” Here are Peter Parker’s characteristics that the creators all seemed to think mattered when building him:

1. That Parker is a teenager, which was important for its wish fulfillment and it’s uniqueness amongst other headlining superheroes at the time.

2. That he’s a science nerd, again, for wish fulfillment. From the start, and even in Kirby’s earlier inspirations for Parker like Chip Hardy, Spider-man has been a story about a nerd turning into someone who can best the jocks.

3. That he has the powers of a spider: super strength, balance, and reflexes.

Wait, you may be thinking, what about the ability to shoot spiderwebs out of his wrists? Well, he wasn’t created that way. Instead, Steve Ditko designed artificial web-slingers for Spidey’s wrists that the character made himself using his previously mentioned characteristic science nerdery.

According to Lee, that should mean that he should always be that way. But instead, one of the initial, most important aspects of Spider-man’s character, changed dramatically. He “mutated” to be able to shoot webbing naturally from his body, though not from his ass like a real spider would. Too bad.

A few years later, in the comics at least, Spidey was reset and ended up losing his organic web-slinging abilities. He also regained his beloved aunt who had been killed off previously and lost his wife. Because that’s how comics work! They change constantly in crazy ways as new artists and writers come in and take them in different directions, sometimes to the point that they jump to parallel universes where everybody is a zombie. Iconic characters changing in interesting ways is half the fun of having a story that never has to end.

So while Lee may have a point that it would be great to see new characters developed that are more than just straight white dudes getting bit by things, he’s also a central part of the industry that keeps pushing characters who were made 40 years ago into new media like film, instead of retiring those characters and promoting new ones. So with that in mind, maybe he should just relax a bit and let Miles Morales have a turn at the web-slinging, so that one day maybe we can get the Spider-man film we’ve always wanted: starring Donald Glover. Shooting webs out his ass.

Rebecca Watson

Rebecca Watson

Rebecca leads a team of skeptical female activists at Skepchick.org. She travels around the world delivering entertaining talks on science, atheism, feminism, and skepticism. There is currently an asteroid orbiting the sun with her name on it. You can follow her every fascinating move on Twitter or on Google+.

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32 Comments

  1. June 29, 2015 at 12:08 pm —

    … I don’t get it? From what I see, the studio had two sets of requirements – one for Spider-Man (which didn’t mandate race) and one for Peter Parker (which did) – and Lee just agreed with them that Peter Parker should stay white.

    You start by saying that *Spider-Man* doesn’t need to be white, but then go through reasons why *Peter Parker* doesn’t need to be white, before ending up saying that Miles Morales should get a turn (i.e. use the existing black character instead of changing the race of the existing white character). The argument just seems disjointed, and I can’t see where the conflict is?

    (Incidentally, I agree about MM – I was hoping that the Spider-Man rights would get resolved by having Parker stay with Sony, while Morales joined the MCU. And yes, of course, Miles should be played by Donald Glover.)

    • June 29, 2015 at 12:59 pm —

      The misunderstanding starts with Stan Lee. You assume he’s only referring to Peter Parker and not “Spider-man,” but he compares the issue to Black Panther, not “T’Challa” or any of the many men who have been Black Panther. So it certainly sounds like he’s arguing for both Peter Parker and Spider-man to be white. That said, I spent the bulk of the video arguing that not even *Peter Parker* needs to be white, since it’s fairly obvious why Spider-man doesn’t need to be.

      • June 29, 2015 at 4:12 pm —

        Sigh.. This is one of those things that.. on one hand, doesn’t bug me much if changed, and on the other hand, can piss me off a lot, depending on context, and how they do it. I have never much been into comics, but even I know you get “alternate universe” versions of them, where stuff can change. Its the core of the character that must remain the same. On the other hand, if it was a book… I would be bloody irritated, because people making movies tend to mangle those thing beyond all recognition, too often, for no good, or logical, reason (and, no, focus groups, being faux edgy, or the long list of other absurd reasons for it, are not good reasons). Doing it to an existing series, or movies, is.. again.. a bit iffy. Imagine them deciding “Blade” should be white, or Chinese, or like a green martian in the next movie… Just WTF?

        With the Spiderman franchise, this… sort of leans that direction. It becomes a question of, “Why, other than because someone asked the question, or decided to condescend to people who where already left out in the first place, are you doing this?” Because, that is the thing – why not create a character, I mean, other than the fact that most of the writers are white, so would end up making a stereo typical “anything else”, when they did it, a new character, instead of gluing, what is basically a mask, over an existing character, and saying, “See, we can do [insert race here] too!!!” What the F is the point, other than to gain the opportunity to do it wrong for the 50th time, while annoying people who can’t comprehend, purely from the perspective of who and what the character was originally, why it was necessary, or even helpful?

  2. June 29, 2015 at 12:13 pm —

    Loved the post, but as one of the nerds who claps at Stan Lee cameos, I’m going to pic a nit.

    Miles Morales is the Spider-man of the Ultimate alternate-Marvel-universe series of comics and inherited, in a way, the name from the maybe-dead Peter Parker. Because comics! The Spider-man in the mainstream Marvel comics was and is still the white Peter Parker. It would not be entirely correct to say that Spider-man in the comics is black.

    Of course, the Ultimate universe is now gone and Miles is in the mainstream Marvel Universe, so now there are two Spider-mans, or something? Again, because comics! The dust hasn’t really settled on whatever it is that just happened.

    It is, however, entirely correct that we want, nay, *need* a movie with Donald Glover as Miles. Butt webs optional.

    • June 29, 2015 at 1:01 pm —

      “It would not be entirely correct to say that Spider-man in the comics is black.”

      Fair enough! I plead guilty due to streamlining things a bit for time, but perhaps was overly glib.

  3. June 29, 2015 at 1:06 pm —

    Note the conflation of “Spider-man” and “Peter Parker” in Lee’s commentary. I think that’s very telling. It gives away his game. This is more about keeping black people out of white people’s roles, costumes, jobs, and power, than it is about changing a character’s race. He’s pretending he wants to be true to the origin of Peter Parker, but he’s really hanging a “Whites Only” sign on the Spider-man costume.

    This is racism in the grand tradition of our ancestors.

    • June 29, 2015 at 6:37 pm —

      Hyperbole does us no good. Just as Salaita not getting hired isn’t the same as slavery or genocide (Seriously, I’ve heard that from some of his supporters.), this isn’t ‘racism in the grand tradition of [the United States]’.

      This is dudebros trifling, and creators being forced to pick whether or not the dudebros are worth it.

      At the same time, my Facebook profile has been changed to Kaoru in celebration of same-sex marriage being legal in all fifty states.

      (I’m also waiting for Magic: Origins for dudebro complaints about Enthralling Victor.)

      • June 29, 2015 at 11:45 pm —

        Running cover for racism because we’re afraid of awkwardness does us no good. Shying away from calling it what it is does us no good. Pretending like we have to run for the hills and weep ourselves to sleep when someone notices racism does us no good. Pick your monocle up off the floor. I think the rich and powerful man will probably survive my blog comment.

        • June 30, 2015 at 5:35 pm —

          I’m just saying that a white Spider-Man isn’t on the same level as slavery or genocide, and quite frankly, since the sterilization of Indian women by IHS only ended in my parents’ lifetime, I’m offended by your equating the two.

          • June 30, 2015 at 6:03 pm

            Where did @delphi_ote say that?

          • July 1, 2015 at 12:40 pm

            “This is racism in the grand tradition of our ancestors.”

            That ‘grand tradition’ includes slavery, genocide, and segregation, does it not?

          • July 1, 2015 at 1:15 pm

            So you have decided to judge him by your definition. I think that is called false attribution or something.

          • July 1, 2015 at 3:18 pm

            @Jon – we’ve talked a lot about microaggressions as a very prevalent form of misogyny and bullying. I think microaggressions are equally prevalent as a form of racism and are very much in the grand tradition of racism. Individually, they might not amount to much, but they add up and they are practiced by a great many people who would never dream of attending a Klan rally or perform Mengele-style medical experiments. For this reason, it is very important to point them out and for people of good will to examine their own actions.

            To put it in a less triggering context, rolling through stop signs at 2AM when there are no other cars in sight isn’t nearly as serious as drag racing at 3PM in a school zone, but both are in the grand tradition of traffic scofflawery. I don’t think calling out delphi_ote for correctly noting that Stan Lee’s comments are in the grand tradition of racism is productive. The grand tradition includes slavery, genocide and segregation, but it also includes mall cops obsessively watching the black kids and people in city clerks’ offices ignoring minority group members waiting in line, and hiring biases, and a million other things.

            I’m sorry that pointing out the association of bad stuff and Bad Stuff with REALLY, REALLY BAD STUFF upsets you so much but you really should be directing your ire at the people who practice bad stuff and Bad Stuff (and REALLY, REALLY BAD STUFF, of course) , not the people who point out the association. If there is some way to discuss the bad stuff without upsetting you, I would be happy to listen to any suggestions you might have. I am far from an expert on this topic.

  4. June 29, 2015 at 2:51 pm —

    They can brainswap Peter Parker with Doctor Octopus, kill Peter off, and let Doctor Octopus take over as Spider-Man for 31 issues, but a black Peter Parker is a bridge too far?

    • June 29, 2015 at 4:07 pm —

      meh. I could see not wanting to change the Peter Parker character too much from the brand already built up around him. If I were Sony, I would be equally hesitant to turn Peter into, say, a middle-aged red-headed Irishman with a strong accent.

      Arguably, Miles *is* a new character. Certainly, he is heavily inspired by Peter, but he is his own character with a different backstory, different support cast (somewhat), a different costume, and even has a few unique powers that Peter didn’t have.

      It is absolutely beyond me why Sony or Marvel Studios would not want to jump all over that and get away from the telling the Peter Parker story for the umpteenth time.

      • July 1, 2015 at 4:15 pm —

        I love this reply. I’d upvote it if I could. I am sick to my socks of, yet another, version of Peter Parkers story.

        Miles Morales is a wholly new character – who also happens to be Spider-Man. So Peter Parker can stay White, if thats what pleases the suits, but arguably, anyone can be in that costume and almost anyone has.

    • June 29, 2015 at 6:38 pm —

      Oh, don’t forget the clone saga.

  5. June 29, 2015 at 4:15 pm —

    “Make new heroes” also ignores the problem of the lack of recognition of non-brand characters. There is corporate value in that trade mark that can boost the visibility of diverse characters.

    This ties into other complaints about Michael B. Jordan as the Human Torch in the new Fantastic Four film. In comics themselves, there are also complaints about the “black Captain America” and a woman as Thor.

    Captain America has been replaced by other men several times over the years, usually by a brand-new (and white) character created specifically for that storyline. This time around, he’s been replaced in the suit by his long-time friend and frequent partner Sam Wilson, the Falcon and the complaints have jumped out.

    Likewise, Thor has been replaced by other mortals, human and even an Alien with a horse-skull head – at one time Thor was even turned into a frog! – but replace him with a woman? Oh, no, that’s just not believable! (And don’t forget the initial furor over Idris Elba playing Heimdall in the Thor films.)

    Once you drill down into the various legacy tropes of comic book superheroes, the complaints about reimagining characters with more diverse casts gets even more ludicrous and obviously based in bigotry (whether overt or casual).

    (And chalk me up as someone who cringes whenever Stan Lee appears on screen. But that’s another can of worms.)

  6. June 29, 2015 at 6:28 pm —

    Um, if you want a new ethnicity for Spider-Man, I’ll just leave this here.

    I still can’t believe people got into a tizzy over Miles Morales. Yeah, Peter Parker died. It’s a comic book; people die and come back more often than I did when playing I Wanna Be The Guy. (For those who haven’t played it, trust me, you’ll need every last one of your infinite lives to finish that game.)

    • June 30, 2015 at 8:43 am —

      The Ultimate universe(the one with Miles as spidey) has a standing promise not to resurrect dead people.

      • June 30, 2015 at 9:44 am —

        I hadn’t heard that, but that promise did not last. They resurrected both Peter Parker and Norman Osborn. Several times.

        • June 30, 2015 at 11:21 am —

          I think I had Miles confused with another replacement.

          The Ultimate Universe apparently ended this year.

      • June 30, 2015 at 5:31 pm —

        It’s not Earth-616 then.

  7. June 29, 2015 at 8:59 pm —

    I remember seeing somewhere an argument that Peter Parker is Jewish…

  8. June 30, 2015 at 4:48 am —

    I posted this on my facebook and I had four of my friends, ahem, four of my white male friends, argue with me about it. They didn’t seem to understand that I wasn’t saying that Peter Parker must be portrayed as a different race, but instead I was arguing that he doesn’t have to be portrayed as white.

    To be honest, I don’t think a single one of them came here and actually watched the video.

  9. June 30, 2015 at 5:59 am —

    I had a comment about how discussions like this show how important even people who consider themselves “above” issues of racism find race really important, but then I realized I don’t really have the data to back that up. I tried googling for arguments along the line of “race isn’t important, so why make him black”, which I have a vague recollection of, but it was too tricky a search.

    • June 30, 2015 at 9:59 am —

      It seems convenient that the people who espouse that the race of a character is unimportant always seems to be of the race with plenty of representation.

      Funny that.

  10. June 30, 2015 at 3:59 pm —

    Um, yeah, about Black Panther’s relationship to the Black Panthers:

  11. June 30, 2015 at 9:32 pm —

    Old Timey Radio Presents: The Amazing Whitey Spidey!

    http://freethoughtblogs.com/carrier/archives/7884

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