Ten years ago, Marvel Comics created the Ultimate Universe, a parallel mythology to its main reality (dubbed by fans the 616 Universe) to enable its writers to tell stories about their beloved characters without the strings of decades long continuity to hamper their creativity. Comic books run a perpetual sleight of hand; featuring change of situation while never really changing the actual status quo of its ever-loving heroes. People die and return in 616. Not so in the Ultimate line. Last month, Marvel said good-bye to the center of its Ultimate Universe as Peter Parker, costumed hero Spider-Man died in a finale battle with arch nemesis, the Green Goblin. The issue was poly-bagged and heralded, and while his loss brings ramifications in the funny pages, the next person to pick up the mask may have ramifications in our universe *Real life silly. *****SPOILER ALERT****
Wednesday, with the release of Ultimate Fallout #4, Marvel leaked the identity of the new Spider-man: Half Black, Half Latino adolescent with alliterative name, Miles Morales. Also today, DC comics announced that Lawrence Fishburne will play the role of Perry White, Editor-In-Chief of The Daily Planet newspaper of Superman mythos. Are these legitimate ideas, or just throwing things against the wall, hoping it sticks, for the sake of diversity in a predominantly white male world of comic characters.
The device of a minority protagonist as Peter Parker could very well fit the idea of a Spider-Man in todays society, much like the colorization of Nick Fury was done at the outset of the creation of the Ultimate Universe. Nick Fury was all spy and the height of 70s cool, a la James Bond and Steve McQueen. The face of new-millenium cool had shifted that paradigm 180 degrees, hence the basing of Ultimate Fury on the totally cool Samuel L. Jackson.
Spider-Man reflected the teen angst of the 60s and the social tumult that began to bubble in the outset of the Cold War and the wildfire growth of Rock & Roll culture shaping the lives of those on both sides of acceptance. Parker was an orphan, raised by grandparents trying to find his way in a world where his sense of responsibility always made him the guy on the outside looking in. Perhaps no one fits that paradigm these days more than urban youth, with budgets being cut and societal issues abounding that almost systematically leaves them on the outside of a society that doesn’t seem to value their contributions and demonizes them. At least in theory, the casting of Miles makes total sense.
Marvel doesn’t always get it right. While he turned in an impressive performance as Heimdall, guardian of the rainbow bridge, in the movie Thor, Heimdall is traditionally white, and is even referred to in mythology as the white god. Many (mostly white supremacists) were up in arms over that casting. Truth to tell, there was really no reason for it except to put a Black person in the film. 1989s Batman featured an even larger faux pax, casting the very Black (minus the perm) Billy Dee Williams as District Attorney Harvey Dent, a.k.a Bat-Man nemesis Two-Face. A couple of movies later and that snafu was forgotten as Tommy Lee Jones was recast as the lawyer-turned-criminal. The Perry White casting seems to be of the same mold.
Choosing a black kid to replace a flagship character to reflect the current tenor of America is more than a token gesture. It’s a startling risk that could have incredible rewards or bring backlash. You have to be careful when changing peoples mythology. Most people have no idea what a 616 is. They just grew up with a Peter Parker as the Amazing Spider-Man. This ain’t Superstar Will Smith serving as Jim West 2.0 from an obscure television show. This is Macy’s parade-flying, friendly neighborhood Spider-Man. It will be interesting to see how this plays out.
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