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'Spider-Man' Casting Controversy Revives Racial Tensions

In the iconic words of the "Dark Knight" Joker: Why so serious?
Image: Zendaya
Zendaya arrives at the 2016 Kids' Choice Sports Awards held at UCLA?s Pauley Pavilion on Thursday, July 14, 2016, in Los Angeles.Richard Shotwell / AP

When Marvel revealed that biracial actress and singer Zendaya would be cast as Mary Jane Watson, the love interest in an upcoming iteration of the "Spider-Man" franchise, there were the all-too-familiar reports of a bigoted backlash.

It was the same sort of criticism that greeted the nontraditional castings of Idris Elba in the historically white role of Heimdall in "Thor" and Michael B. Jordan as The Human Torch, the inclusion of a black actress in "The Hunger Games" and the choice of four women to headline "Ghostbusters."

Racially-insensitive trolls are no strangers to most Internet sites, but when it comes to the third of iteration of a very old (and routinely re-imagined) property like "Spider-Man," the extreme reaction of comic book fans in particular to Zendaya's casting seems curious.

In the iconic words of the "Dark Knight" Joker: Why so serious?

Related: Zendaya Will Play Mary Jane in Newest Spider-Man

"Modern comics began by the rebooting of characters and the scrapping of continuity, it's a cherished tradition," cartoonist and “Understanding Comics: The Invisible Art” author Scott McCloud told NBC News.

"When it comes to gender switching and racial switching [of characters] ... there's a sense of empowerment for fans and pros alike in taking things that they love and just switching them up to see what they like," McCloud said.

McCloud attributes the pushback to change in some corners of the comic book community to broader societal trends. While he believes that "like in every creative community" most genre fans are progressive, there is a "retrograde faction" that is steadfastly opposed to diversity, even if the marketplace calls for it.

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Zendaya, a 19-year-old pop star produced by the Disney machine, has become an unlikely lightening rod over the past year. From having her hairstyle mocked by E! host Giuliana Rancic at the 2015 Academy Awards to just last month when she was forced to clap back at a Twitter user who mused that she was one of several celebrities they would rape if it were legal, Zendaya has had to deal with offensive commentary.

While Zendaya has been very outspoken on behalf of Black Lives Matter, she has stayed above the fray when it comes to the "Spider-Man" fracas—even when a "Good Morning America" co-host used the term "colored people" when describing the reaction to her casting.

Despite the controversy, legendary "Spider-Man" creator Stan Lee has given the casting of Zendaya his blessing, as has "Guardians of the Galaxy" director James Gunn, tweeting last week: "If you’re complaining about the ethnicity of Mary Jane your life is too good."

"If we're going to continue to make movies based on the almost all white heroes and supporting characters from the comics of the last century, we're going to have to get used to them being more reflective of our diverse present world," Gunn added in a Facebook post.

It's the authenticity of the diverse casting that some fair-weather comic fans are overlooking, according to Daryle Lockhart, the vice president of the African-American Critics Association and a self-proclaimed comic book aficionado. As a black fan of the genre, he's spent the better part of childhood projecting himself into the stories and onto the characters, regardless of what they looked like.

The "Spider-Man" character was conceived and portrayed as living in the real-life world of Queens, New York. While in the early 1960s, Mary Jane might have plausibly been a red-headed, Irish-Catholic girl, Zendaya may be a more accurate representation of the modern-day borough.

"Zendaya totally looks like people waiting on the 7 train," Lockhart told NBC News.

"Marvel's cinematic universe is anchored in New York City, these are supposed to be stories about New Yorkers and this multi-ethnic cast is reflective of Queens," Lockhart added. "Peter Parker (Spider-Man's alter ego) and Mary Jane are working class people, and today, this is what working class people look like."

Hollywood has certainly been feeling the pressure to step up its efforts at female and minority representation. Ever since the Academy Awards failed to recognize a single actor of color for the second year in a row this January, the industry has been held to account by critics and research, which has not only shown that non-white, non-male characters are woefully under-represented in blockbuster films, but that more diverse movies actually fare better at the box office internationally.

Audiences need look no further than the "Star Wars" franchise to see the effect this new "woke" period has had on the movies. Not only have women occupied lead roles in the two newest installments, but the upcoming "Rogue One" has prominent Asian, Latino and African-American characters as well.

Related: Zendaya accepts Giuliana Rancic's apology over Oscars hair comments

Meanwhile, in the last few years the comic book universe has introduced a black Captain America, a mixed race Spider-Man, a bisexual Catwoman, and a brand new Native America hero.

Long before Hollywood and the comics started heeding the call for diversity, black and brown comic book fans had taken matters into their own hands, with so-called "blerds" re-imagining legendary characters in their own image. Still, that hasn't stopped the haters from coming out in full force.

Lynne Marie Rosenberg, an actress who also curates Cast and Loose—a Tumblr page that features real-life, offensive and culturally insensitive casting notices—believes that Zendaya's casting shouldn't be a controversy in 2016, but when most roles for black women label them "angry or sassy," it can be viewed as a positive step towards opening up a dialogue.

While she agrees with writers like The Root's Jason Johnson, who have argued that Zendaya's casting as Mary Jane isn't necessarily a breakthrough, she does believe it's important to re-imagine fictional characters from a multicultural standpoint, if for not other reason than to give voice to the relatively voiceless.

Image: Miles Morales
Miles Morales, who is half African American, half Puerto Rican, is the new Spider-Man.Marvel Comics

"I think eight years of the Obama presidency has show us that we are not even a little bit post-racial," Rosenberg told NBC News. "This conversation has to happen, it's just that when it happens you realize how dark the conversation can be."

For Lockhart, the decision of Disney and Marvel to cast Zendaya in such a famous role is a big deal, because it is yet another sign that comic book fans of color are no longer being marginalized.

"People have been waiting for this their whole lives," he said. "These are stories that say 'you can be a leader,' a crazy thing can happen to you and you can turn around do good. That's why we are hooked on these comics."

Even though he is white, McCloud fell into love with comic books in part because of the diversity on display in the late-70s re-emergence of the X-Men. That was when Storm, a now iconic black female superhero who has the ability to control the weather, was introduced. Needless to say, it was a far cry from the once all-blonde and male Avengers he had been used to.

"It was like someone had just thrown the windows open," McCloud said. "She was my favorite character in those days."