Spider-Man: Across The Spider-Verse & The Little Mermaid take Hollywood inclusivity to next level
Pavitr Prabhakar, or Spider-Man India, and Ariel as a mermaid of colour add originality to known stories
Spider-Man: Across The Spider-Verse is still some days away from its date with the global box office on June 2, though fans in India are already excited having watched the initial teaser. The trailer introduces to big screen the character of Pavitr Prabhakar, or Spider-Man India, who lives in Mumbattan city in an alternate universe. While the animated film’s core plot will concentrate on Miles Morales, the Black Spider-Man, and his new adventure across the multiverse, Pavitr’s funny jab in the trailer at Miles over ‘chai’ and at Mumbai’s famed traffic woes are winning desi fans over.
A Brown Spider-Man from another universe playing a cameo in a film that stars Spider-Man as a Black teenager takes Hollywood inclusivity to the next level. This is, after all, the second time Miles gets into the Spider suit, after 2018’s Spider-Man: Into The Spider-Verse. The new sequel, however, raises the stakes a lot higher. The film’s director trio of Joaquim Dos Santos, Kemp Powers and Justin K. Thompson has substantially widened the scope and challenge for their Black superhero this time, taking the new adventure across several parallel universes, as Miles along with Gwen Stacy as Spider-Woman comes across a new team of Spider-People known as the Spider-Society.
In India, the film has generated ample buzz with news of cricket superstar Shubman Gill dubbing the lines of Pavitr Prabhakar in the film’s Hindi and Punjabi versions. Clearly, integrating such an effort towards inclusivity with a mass addiction as cricket — that too at the peak of an ongoing IPL season — shows that producers Columbia Pictures, Sony Pictures Animation and Marvel Entertainment are serious about making big money in the Indian market, as they were two decades ago when Spider-Man first created a bang at the domestic box office here with Tobey Maguire’s White male protagonist, Peter Parker.
Peter Parker to Miles Morales marks a significant shift in popular mood and mindset, over audience acceptance of heroes in the mainstream entertainment space. The racial transition, however, is not always smooth. When Disney dropped early teasers of The Little Mermaid, featuring Black pop star Halle Bailey as the voice of the protagonist, Ariel the mermaid, social media was not too happy. Ariel in the original fairytale has always been imagined as White and the film imagined her as a mermaid of colour. Detractors felt the racial makeover was unnecessary. Arguments pointed out how Danish author Hans Christian Andersen originally described Ariel the mermaid with the lines: “Her skin was as clear and delicate as a rose leaf, and her eyes as blue as the deepest sea.” The hashtag #NotMyAriel started trending, outright discarding the new animated version.
Bailey, however, had praise coming her way from Jodi Benson, the White actress who had voiced Ariel in the 1989 version of The Little Mermaid that had imagined the protagonist as White. “The spirit of a character is what really matters,” Benson said.
Interestingly, Spider-Man: Across The Spider-Verse will open worldwide within a month of The Little Mermaid but without fending against social media trolls over the ethnic identity of its lead character. Perhaps fans are more accepting of Miles Morales because the Black teenager as Spider-Man already existed in the comicbooks. Or perhaps The Little Mermaid as a film has somewhat underwhelmed fans. While Disney’s new attempt has been commended for its novel approach at reimagining a classic through inclusivity, many felt the fun factor was somewhat blunted owing to the film’s overt effort to keep it politically correct.
Despite The Little Mermaid controversy, Hollywood diversity is a happy reality right now. It is evidently happening and moving in the right direction, rendering course correction to storylines and characters that reflect real life. The advent of streaming platforms has helped, allowing exposure to coloured artistes on a global scale. The new Spider-Man film opens in June and The Little Mermaid continues its box office run, even as Citadel unfolds on OTT and Priyanka Chopra takes centerstage in wild action mode.
Among Hollywood studios that have consistently pitched inclusivity efforts, though mostly on the small screen, is the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU). Last year Iman Vellani as Kamala Khan, the 16-year-old fan of the Avengers who acquires superpowers of her own, was an instant winner in OTT space, in the hit show Ms Marvel. Another recent Marvel-based series, The Falcon And The Winter Soldier, stars Anthony Mackie as Sam Wilson, who is given Captain America’s shield by Steve Rogers as Avengers: Endgame ends, and the series explores the idea of a Black Captain America.
Spider-Man: Across The Spider-Verse and The Little Mermaid, though, stand out, beyond OTT attempts because these are feature films for the global mass market touting coloured heroes. Mass-market films centred on coloured protagonists are normally still a rarity in Hollywood unless the stories they tell belong to a specific community. An example would be Chadwick Boseman as Black Panther, who led us into the enchanting world of Wakanda. MCU’s Black Panther films were winners all the way. The series hit an unfortunate roadblock with Boseman’s untimely death.
With comicbook cinema, the advantage is there’s always a rich library to choose from. Creators of comicbooks have left a legacy in print that runs into thousands of volumes for each superhero, and then giving each character multiple universes and avatars for the sake of variety. The idea has wholly worked for the Marvel characters, especially in the post Avengers: Endgame phase, as the makers look to explore a new streak about already popular characters as Spider-Man or Captain America. The numbers among current generations of fans who actually read comicbooks is steadily on the wane, which suits the studio bosses.
(Vinayak Chakravorty is a critic, columnist and journalist who loves to write on popular culture.)
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