Could an Asian actor succeed Robert Downey Jr. as Tony Stark?
To reflect the real New York, Spider-Man: Homecoming director Jon Wattsracebended several characters from the comics, casting young actors from ethnic minorities as ones originally created as White Anglo-Saxon Protestants in the 1960s: these include Filipino-American Jacob Batalon as Ned Leeds, Guatemalan-American Tony Revolori as Flash Thompson, and African-American Laura Harrier as Liz Allan (incidentally, The Spectacular Spider-Mancartoon portrayed Liz as Hispanic and Ned as Korean-American).
It leaves the door open of whether other characters in the Marvel Cinematic Universe can be recast with actors of different races. There was much debate over whether Netflix’s Iron Fist should’ve cast an Asian-American actor in the title role: it’s possible Marvel decided to cast Finn Jones, a British actor bearing a strong resemblance to the blonde comic book version of Danny Rand, because they felt they could go with an Asian-American actor “next time”. They had seemingly employed this logic when casting French-Cambodian actress Élodie Yung as Elektra on Daredevil, after Jennifer Garner had played the character in the films Daredevil (2003) and Elektra (2005). Watts certainly had leeway on Homecoming, given the two previous film versions of Spider-Man had featured faithful versions of the original characters, casting white actors like Joe Manganiello and Chris Zylka as Flash Thompson. It’s probable if Ned and Liz had been in the previous films they would have been played by white actors too.
The comic book approach to diversifying superheroes has been to phase out older versions in favour of successors. In 2000, Marvel introduced the African-American version of Nick Fury in their Ultimate line-up of comics, and that version has become the default across Marvel media: the older, Italian-American version was later revealed as the father of the one resembling Samuel L. Jackson.
Similarly, Bruce Banner’s Korean-American sidekick Amadeus Cho has become the Hulk, after absorbing Banner’s gamma radiation to save his life when he threatened to go into a nuclear meltdown. Casting an Asian-American actor as Banner when Mark Ruffalo steps down from the role is worth pondering, and Wikipedia’s Hulk page does mention thoughts on the character’s appeal to Asians in particular:
Jeff Yang, writing for the San Francisco Chronicle, extended this self-identification to Asian American culture, arguing that “the passive-aggressive streak runs deep among Asian Americans — especially those who have entered creative careers, often against their parents’ wishes.”
However, diversifying older characters can lead to accusations of erasing more recent ones. Some fans objected to Homecoming Ned’s resemblance to Ganke, the sidekick of Miles Morales, the Black Hispanic Spider-Man. Watts notably avoided casting an African-American actor as Peter Parker, presumably to leave the door open for introducing Miles in a sequel (the film subtly references him living near Peter), yet the film version of Ned is not only Asian like Ganke, but also portly and knows Spider-Man’s secret identity. Brian Michael Bendis, co-creator of Miles and Ganke, acknowledged on a podcast that “it’s weird only because Ganke wasn’t part of Peter’s story — he was part of Miles’ story.”
It’s understandable: imagine if the Captain Marvel in the forthcoming 2019 film were not USAF Major Carol Danvers, but a genderbent version of her alien mentor Mar-Vell/Walter Lawson. Perhaps it would strike a false note if a Latino or Iranian actor were to succeed Robert Downey Jr. as Tony Stark, and that the comic book route of having another character (like Riri Williams or Nathaniel Richards) as the protagonist of Iron Man 4 would be preferable instead. There may come a time when the Marvel Cinematic Universe reboots — it’s not unlikely, even the James Bond films rebooted with Casino Royale — when every character’s ethnicity goes up for grabs. Until such a time, Marvel should respect the chosen ethnicity of every character, and not let a filmmaker a couple of decades from now recast roles like Ned or Flash with white actors.
Author: Christopher Chiu-Tabet
Editor: Meleika Gesa-Fatafehi
Keshav Kant, aka Mx. KantEven, is a neuroscience nerd turned Creative Consultant and Executive Director of Off Colour!
You’ve probably seen her on TikTok or caught her work on Off Colour's many channels. From consulting on films & shows, manuscript review, conducting interviews, or hosting podcasts & panels, if there is some way to bring sensitivity and authenticity to diversity, inclusion and equity conversations, Keshav will be there.