Zendaya Caught in Trolls' Spider-Man Web

The hateful online backlash over the reported casting of Zendaya as Peter Parker’s love interest defies the spirit of the superhero franchise

The sage words of Spider-Man’s Uncle Ben – "With great power comes great responsibility" – landed in the comics in 1962, helping kick off the webslinger's storied run on a sober, yet inspiring note.

The explosion of the World Wide Web three decades later bestowed great powers even on those never bitten by a radioactive spider. But the responsibility portion of the Ben Parker covenant doesn’t always stick.

Latest case in point: the venom spewed by online trolls infuriated over a report in The Wrap that actress and singer Zendaya, the daughter of a white mother and an African-American father, has been cast as Mary Jane Watson – Peter Parker's traditionally white, red-headed love interest – in an upcoming "Spider-Man" reboot.

It marks the latest virtual backlash from, little doubt, much of the same crowd who aimed their misplaced outrage at the all-female remake of "Ghostbusters," with racist hate hurled at Leslie Jones,  the victim again this week of a vicious online hacking. More nastiness was spurred by the casting of award-winning actress Nona Dumezweni, who is black, as Hermoine Granger in the London stage play "Harry Potter and the Cursed Child."

To paraphrase Ralph Waldo Emerson, the trolls' foolish consistency is the (green) hobgoblin of little minds.

In the worlds of beloved series, the characters' race or even gender isn't necessarily key – but relatability is crucial. The durability of great franchises also rests in an ability to adjust with the times, which includes offering a more realistic representation of the populous than in years past. Peter Parker, after all, is a product of Queens, New York, one of the most diverse places on Earth, with scores of languages spoken.

The language of hate, even when cloaked in a pop culture debate, can be dangerous – and sad. While the fierceness of some responses are, in a sense, a tribute to the enduring grip of the Spider-Man story, it's pathetic that some supposed fans are threatened by any hint of change to fantasy world denizens. 

Some anger greeted news of the casting of 51-year-old beauty Marisa Tomei as Peter Parker's Aunt May, the frail, white-haired senior citizen of comic book lore. But the reaction didn’t match the abuse heaped upon Zendaya. At 19, the Disney Channel star is an age - appropriate choice – unlike Tobey Maguire, who was a decade older than teenage Peter Parker when he debuted in the first "Spider-Man" movie 14 years ago.

Trolls’ ranks can be difficult to pin down, but raucous voices tend to attract outsized notice. The Mary Jane gang proved loud enough to get the attention of "Guardians of the Galaxy" director James Gunn. “For me, if a character's primary attribute – the thing that makes them iconic – is the color of their skin, or their hair color, frankly, that character is shallow and sucks,” Gunn, who is not involved in 'Spider-Man: Homecoming,' posted on Facebook.

Spider-Man co-creator Stan Lee, who penned Uncle Ben’s famous words, offered some more avuncular wisdom this week in an interview with Postmedia Network: “The (color) of their skin doesn’t matter, their religion doesn’t matter. All that matters is that this is the right person for the role.”

To quote another phrase made famous by Lee: "Nuff said!"

Jere Hester is Director of News Products and Projects at the City University of New York Graduate School of Journalism. He is also the author of "Raising a Beatle Baby: How John, Paul, George and Ringo Helped us Come Together as a Family." Follow him on Twitter.

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