Earlier this week, Josh Boone, the director of the long-delayed Marvel/X-Men superhero film New Mutants told TooFab that the movie will feature a “beautiful love story” between female characters Rahne Sinclair (a.k.a. Wolfsbane, played by Maisie Williams), and Danielle Moonstar (a.k.a. Mirage, played by Blu Hunt).
In praising his own film’s same-sex couple, Boone took a shot at The Rise of Skywalker for overselling a weak-ass kiss between two minor characters as a monumental queer moment in cinema. Boone rightfully called it “the most embarrassing example” of queer recognition in film.
The thing is, even if New Mutants, based on the cult-classic comic book, features a legitimate queer love story, it can’t hide the fact that it also whitewashes an Afro-Brazilian character and Latinx character whose cultural background are integral to their identities as superheroes by casting two white Brazilian actors to play them.
Specifically, Henry Zaga plays Roberto da Costa (aka Sunspot), who can absorb solar power and transform it into physical energy. His biracial identity is the impetus for his superpowers, first manifesting during a soccer game where a rival team member calls him a “half-breed.” Meanwhile, Alice Braga plays Dr. Cecilia Reyes. Born to Puerto Rican parents in the Bronx, she’s depicted in the comics with dark skin and braids. She becomes a doctor after witnessing her father being gunned down in front of her, unable to save him. Afro-Latinx actress Rosario Dawson was originally cast in the role but was replaced by Braga for unknown reasons.
When asked about the whitewashing, Boone told Gizmodo on Tuesday that he purposefully removed Sunspot’s backstory of being born to a wealthy Afro-Brazilian businessman and white American mother. “I didn’t care so much about the racism I’ve heard about in Brazil, about light-skinned versus dark-skinned,” Boone said, doubling-down from there. “It’s like maybe if Henry [Zaga] didn’t exist, I would have found somebody who was darker skinned who exemplified what I needed.”
All of which is obviously disappointing for Black and Latinx fans of the comic book series. (On top of that, New Mutants is also supposed to be very bad, which is probably why its release has been delayed multiple times over the last three years.) “[In the comic,] I can resonate with Sunspot being perceived as less-than, especially for his skin color, and having to put on a front of confidence to mask a deeper sensitive heart,” says 29-year-old Randy Smith. But given that that’s not the Sunspot he’ll see in the movie, he adds, “There is still such a long way to go for us to overcome the harmful stereotypes and stigmas attached to characters with melanin.”
Unfortunately, this is kind of X-Men tradition. Because while Stan Lee reportedly drew Professor X and his vision of human-mutant coexistence in honor of Martin Luther King and Magento (with his fervent defense of mutantkind) as symbolic of Malcolm X, in both the X-Men comics and films, they’re certainly not Black. In the movies at least, Professor X is born a wealthy, white New Yorker and played by Patrick Stewart; Magento is a German-born Jew played by Ian McKellen.
Even the New Mutants comics changed over time. In the first issue in 1983, Sunspot was depicted as having features associated with Afro-Latinx Brazilians, particularly darker skin and curly hair. “Over the years, however, as Roberto has gone on [to] star in other Marvel comics, his looks have gradually changed in a way that reads to some as if the company is erasing his blackness,” Charles Pulliam-Moore wrote for Gizmodo in 2017.
Kat Overland of Women Write About Comics has always enjoyed Cecilia Reyes for being an X-Men who didn’t actually want to be a superhero and was looking forward to seeing how The New Mutants would incorporate her into the story. “As a Latina who loves comics, I’m obviously always on the lookout for Latine characters, and I guess I feel a little protective of them,” she tells me. But given how Boone has, in fact, incorporated Reyes into the story, Overland now plans to ignore the film version. “To take this diverse group of characters, who exist in part as a metaphor about racism, and then decide that the Black identity of a character isn’t important, it really shows how POC are seen as interchangeable,” she says.
To that point, even in the Oscar-winning animated superhero movie Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, Miles Morales isn’t voiced by an Afro-Latinx actor. He’s voiced by Black actor Shameik Moore. “Hollywood makes them choose: Are you Black, or are you Latino? And if you say Latino, then they wonder why you don’t look like Sofía Vergara or Oscar Isaac,” Latinx film critic Yolanda Machado tells me.
With everything going on in the country right now with racial justice — and with Afro-Brazilian boys like João Pedro also being killed by police — if there was ever a time for an empowering, aspirational Afro-Lantix superhero, it’s now. “The image of a Black person worldwide is something dangerous, no matter what your aspirations are or social status is,” says New Mutants superfan Ethan Alexander. “So true and positive representation is vital.”