Thursday, 20 June 2013

Non-music blog - the fanboy backlash over casting Spider-Man's Mary Jane, and why it is wrong

I found myself having this discussion elsewhere on the web this week, and thought I may as well put my whole thoughts down here. I'm not a big comic book fan, in fact I don't regular read any at all, but superhero films are amongst my favourite action movies to see and I do take an interest in the upcoming ones. Sony's rebooted Spider-Man franchise (now The Amazing Spider-Man) has recently been extended to at least four films, and release dates for parts 3 and 4 have been announced for 2016 and 2018 respectively. This means that production under director Mark Webb has reshuffled some story and character elements around a bit even while shooting of The Amazing Spider-Man 2 has already begun. One of those changes is the character of Mary-Jane Watson.

Mary-Jane is probably the best known of Spidey's love interests, especially after her key role in the previous film franchise directed by Sam Raimi in which she was played by Kirsten Dunst. Before the greenlighting of the next two sequels, Mary-Jane was meant to be in the second film of the new franchise. American actress Shailene Woodley (shown above) was cast, and scenes featuring her have been confirmed to have already been shot. However, now Mary-Jane will not be in the second film, probably because the cast of new characters they're introducing to TASM2 is starting to get a bit overcrowded, with at least two villains and another Spider-Man love-interest, Black Cat, being confirmed. Overstuffing the film would risk a repeat of the kind of plot spaghetti that ruined Raimi's Spider-Man 3. It has also been hinted however that Woodley has now been dropped from the sequels too and the role will be recast.

There's no explanation why this is at this point, and I expect it's for availability reasons or something else fairly mundane. However this announcement did bring some of the initial backlash against Woodley's initial casting back to the surface. The single central point of most of that criticism was that "she isn't attractive enough", Mary-Jane being described and depicted as being supermodel hot in the books. I'm sure the reader can make up their own mind about how attractive Woodley is or how hot they think an imaginary comic book character should be, and indeed I think anyone has the right to have an opinion on either of those things. Nevertheless I don't like this angle of attack on Woodley's casting, or the crowing from some corners that she's been dropped because "she's not hot enough" at all.

My overall opinion of the kind of criticism she got when initially announced is that it's undeserved and pretty obnoxious on the part of the naysayers. There are a couple of different reasons for this. One of them is the immediate dislike I have for people just outright saying someone's ugly or "not attractive enough", especially based on several photos that look to me like they were shot candidly. It's very juvenile. I think she's attractive but even if I didn't, it would still rub me the wrong way.But from a filmgoer's perspective I think there are other reasons this backlash is bad. It suggests that Mary Jane's character is entirely defined, in some people's minds, by her looks. Now I don't read Spider-Man and know nothing about his stories that isn't on the big or small screen already. So maybe that's what she is in the comics, but PERHAPS Webb and the writers were planning on making this character less than skin deep and thought she was the right woman for the role. Gwen Stacy, played by Emma Stone, was given some depth and character in TASM (even if I don't like the film that much, I thought they did a decent job with making her more than just a generic love interest) and why Mary Jane should be defined by her looks more than Gwen is a mystery to me.

I understand that most people criticise miscastings based on some physical attributes all the time, and I'm not excluding myself from that either. But usually these flaws that justify that assertion only become apparent when the finished product is shown and they're related to the actor's performance more than their basic features. A good example and from a film in the same genre, too, is the criticism of Kate Bosworth's Lois Lane in Superman Returns. Bosworth was a very young actress, who wasn't able to convince audiences that she was a hard-hitting Pullitzer Prize-winning journalist with a lot of experience and a history with Superman. But although this is partly because of her youthful appearance it's also because her performance couldn't carry the role, Bryan Singer's direction didn't help and the script did nothing to convince of this beyond just telling us that she had this backstory. These things are all apparent when watching that film. But we'd not have been able to guess that based on a few shots of Bosworth before filming had even taken place, it would have been way too early to tell. A stronger performance from her, and good direction, could have made us look beyond her actual age.

So in summary, without knowing what Webb and the writers have planned for MJ, any knowledge of how the script was shaping up, or how Woodley and Webb were planning to interpret the character, a lot of the criticism basically boils down to Woodley not fitting comic book fanboys' unrealistic fantasy image of a character they've largely defined by how hot she is. Giving this kind of concern too much weight would make for a poor character in probably a boring film. Now I don't have that much faith in Webb after TASM 1, or his writers (two of them, Robert Orci and Alex Kurtzman aren't exactly in my good books at the moment after their weak screenplay for Star Trek Into Darkness) and am not holding out much hope for the sequels, so I don't want to give them too much credit. But I think this kind of criticism of an actor's casting based on appearance alone has crossed the line. If comic book and superhero movie fans want to be taken seriously, maybe showing some actual maturity and avoiding playground judgements of an actor's suitability based on their casual appearance in a few on-set photos would be a good path to take. Let MJ be a human being in these films please, they need more life to them if they're going to be more engaging than the lacklustre, joyless slog the first film was and they're not going to fix that by giving the protagonist a hot girlfriend. 

Photo credit: Getty Images via Superherohype

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