To uplift a group, does one always have to tear down another? I repeatedly hear that representation matters in regards to Miles Morales–a two-fer representing both the black and Latino community, but “Spider-Man: Into the Spider-verse” fails Asians just as surely “Black Panther” does.
At the Golden Globe Awards this year, on accepting “Best Motion Picture, Animated,” Peter Ramsey said, “We were trying to make a movie that spoke to the idea that anybody could be behind the mask. We’re telling the story of Miles Morales, a kid from Brooklyn, African‑American, Puerto Rican. Anybody can be behind the mask. We’re counting on you. You can do it.”
Backstage, Bob Persichetti said his favorite part of the project “was finding a voice for Miles Morales and with Shameik Moore as the actor and creating something that could stand up to Peter Parker but also be unique and separate and different and be more representative of the world we live in today.”
Miles Morales is almost 13 when he becomes Spider-Man. Peni Parker is adopted by May and Ben Parker (now that must be a convoluted story) instead of any relatives in Japan. She is supposedly a high school student, but she has no special powers. She has a robot, SP//dr. Now does this story sound familiar?
In “Big Hero 6,” the protagonist is also Japanese-American, aged 14 and has no special power, but he does have a red robot, Baymax. Hiro is, like his late older brother Tadashi who created Baymax, a robotics prodigy.
In the animated feature, “Spider-Man: Into the Spider-verse,” Peni Parker is infantilized. She doesn’t act or seem like a high school girl. She is represented as a pre-teen girl who eats sweets and is saved by Spider-Ham although she has made technology skills. Asians being computer geeks? Isn’t that a stereotype? Spider-Ham is able to save her at one point.
Spider-Ham is a spider that was bitten by May Porker after she accidentally irradiated herself with an atomic-powered hairdryer. Spider-Ham has super strength must like Miles/Spider-Man and the other two male Spider-Men (Spider-Man Noir and the Spider-Man in a midlife crisis funk). Spider-Gwen also has superhuman strength, speed and agility. In this Spider-verse, the Asian is the one who is child-like and genetically so different she doesn’t get those tingling spider senses or superhuman strength or agility. Does anyone think her outfit in “Spider-Man: Into the Spider-verse” is cool for cosplay or likely to spark some Lolita-like fantasies?
In “Into the Spider-verse,” Miles Morales (voiced by Shameik Moore) and Gwen Stacy (Hailee Steinfeld) are on equal footing. Jaded Spider-Man (Jake Johnson) and Spider-Man Noir (Nicolas Cage) are as well. Spider-Ham (John Mulaney) and Peni Parker are really the sidekicks of this show, but even there Peni Parker (Kimiko Glenn) has less super powers (if any) and she’s not given the same level of attention or storyline as Gwen Stacy. So not everyone can be behind the mask. Asians, or at least East Asians, need a robot.
In the photos used by publications (see below), Peni is cut out, and even when she’s not, she doesn’t look powerful. She looks like a lost child who might need to go to the nearest bathroom. She’s more expendable and less confident and powerful than the other four, including the pig.
In the other black-themed Marvel movie, “Black Panther,” South Korea is background, a location that is exotic, but has no logical reason within the story. The men and women of South Korea are totally neutralized in the big casino fight scene because, surprisingly, in a nation that has a mandatory two-year military service, none of the East Asian casino guests have military training and the casino apparently didn’t have the forethought to hire burly bouncers and a security force.
I get how representation matters, but it doesn’t only matter for African Americans. When African Americans are taking on issues of blinding whiteness, including topics like “OscarsSoWhite,” there is no need to target another ethnic group or race and pull them down as Chris Rock did. Yet “Black Panther” and “Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Man” seem to do just that.