Marvel’s “Captain America: Civil War” opened in movie theaters this weekend, and I believe it’s deserved the rave reviews and tremendous box office receipts it’s earned. Rather than adding another voice of praise, I want to analyze one of the minor moments of the film, and its implied comment about geek culture. (Mild spoilers ahead; if you’re planning to see the movie but haven’t gotten around to it yet, you might want to check back here later.)
As a confrontation with Captain America and his allies becomes evident, Tony Stark/Iron Man decides to recruit an “enhanced human” he has recently discovered — sixteen-year-old Peter Parker, who apparently had been bitten that radioactive-or-whatever spider six months ago and has been captured on YouTube videos swinging through the streets of New York in a hilariously crude homemade costume. (Why Stark would recruit a kid who’s only fought burglars and car thieves into a superhero battle is a question for another time.) The lad comes home from school one day to find Stark sitting in the living room of his apartment — but Parker’s surprise isn’t as big as the surprise generated by the actress sitting next to Robert Downey Jr.Aunt May is arguably the most important supporting character in the Spider-Man story. Typically portrayed in the comics as a frail septuagenarian, May has been a major influence on the nephew she’s raised since childhood. (Peter’s biological parents, along with the how-when-why of their deaths, have never been adequately detailed.) While frequently used for comic relief, May also has a strong moral code, and is never afraid to admonish her nephew when he fails to live up to his obligations; her guidance early in a Spider-Man story arc often directly influences Spider-Man’s decisions later in that same narrative. May’s presence since Amazing Fantasy 15 has reinforced the notion that Spider-Man’s power comes as much from within as from his wall-crawling abilities. Prior to “Civil War”, Aunt May’s casting in Spider-Man movies has been largely consistent with her portrayal in the comics, with Rosemary Harris portraying her in the three Tobey Maguire films, and Sally Field playing a younger yet still visibly aged version of the character in the two Andrew Garfield movies. Both of these wonderful actresses portrayed Aunt May’s inner strength along with her charming cluelessness, and delivered memorable performances with limited screen time. But neither of these Aunt Mays are recognizable in the woman waiting with Tony Stark for Peter’s arrival.
For the record, I’ve been a huge fan of Marisa Tomei since “My Cousin Vinny”, for which she deservedly won an Academy award. I also believe she can bring an energy and charm to Aunt May that neither Harris nor Field could match. Her appearance in “Civil War” is brief but engaging, and I’m actually looking forward to what she’ll do with the character given a larger role in next year’s “Spider-Man: Homecoming.”But as much as I admire Tomei as an actress, I’m one of many who have misgivings about this casting. I’ll let this tweet speak for one of those misgivings:
I simply can’t help feeling this casting in large part represents Marvel’s cynical exploitation of the juvenile ideal of feminine beauty that’s an unfortunate part of geek culture. It’s part of a larger ambivalence I see regarding elderly characters in fantasy, sci-fi, and superhero fiction; you see the occasional geriatric male, but they mostly comply with the Gandalf/Obi-Wan/Dumbledore “wizened wizard” stereotype, and the few elderly women who appear are often met with caustic derision from fans, as demonstrated in the response to General Leia Organa in last year’s “Star Wars: The Force Awakens.” As much as I appreciate Tomei, and look forward to seeing her portray Aunt May in the years to come, I can’t help regret losing one of few (if not the only) strong elderly women in superhero films, and the opportunity to address an enduring ambivalence in geek culture.
In the past few years, the comics industry has placed an emphasis on diversity, with several minority characters taking the mantle of established superheroes; most notably, proto-WASP Peter Parker has been replaced as Spider-Man by Miles Morales, a Hispanic African-American. (They’re all fictional characters; if Marvel wants a trans-gender Spidey, or to have Aunt May played by a knockout, they have every right to do so.) I just hope this emphasis on diversity also extends to characters over the age of 40.