Storytime, kiddies! Back in the dark and primitive time known as the 90s, someone thought of making a new Superman movie. Of course, the people in charge had no way of knowing that they would end up with Superman Returns, so they ran with that. And at one point, the plan was for Kevin Smith to write a Superman movie directed by Tim Burton and starring Nicolas Cage.

No, you can look at that sentence all you like, it still won’t make sense.

Now, beyond the fact that a Peter-principled hairdresser insisted the script have a gay robot sidekick in it, and that Tim Burton thought Superman should look like this–

“This is who I am, Jor-El!”

I think it’s safe to say Nicolas Cage would not be good casting. Burton said he was going for a Superman who was defined by being an outsider and kinda a freak. And apparently the irony and relatability of the world’s most popular superhero feeling alone and unwanted, just like everyone else at times, would be realized by having him just look like he wants to have sex with your cat all goddamn day.

Pretty much every Superman fan in the world said not just no, but fuck no. Even allowing for an alternate take on Superman, dude’s supposed to be a calm, reassuring, benevolent authority figure. If your plane is crashing and he flies in to pick it up saying “Everything’s going to be okay,” you believe him because, well, he’s Superman. He’s like the world’s big brother, if George Orwell hadn’t written that stupid book and totally ruined that turn-of-phrase for everyone.

“Who did you say stole your bicycle?”

If Nicolas Cage flies into your crashing plane and tells you everything’s going to be okay, you don’t believe him because he’s screaming it at you while an iguana he’s holding is licking your left nipple. He has a large-scale, overactive, intense acting style. And when he’s in somber (boring) mode, he’s not really superheroic, just… weird. Even if he got into great shape (and grew a lot more hair), it just wouldn’t work. Superman looks like Superman; Nicolas Cage looks like a subject of the Goblin King Jareth.

Okay, I don’t think I’m going to get any static so far. No one’s going to accuse me of body-policing for saying Nicolas Cage doesn’t look or act a thing like Superman. I don’t feel any compunction about saying dude looks like a goblin. But now let me say that Shailene Woodley isn’t attractive enough to play Mary Jane Watson. I’m not saying she’s bad-looking, just that she looks like she could star in Girls: The Next Generation.

Which will draw criticism for its all-human cast when the New York of the time is majority killer robot.

Gets a little weird now, doesn’t it? A little fuzzy. That back button’s starting to look a little tempting.

Don’t worry, I’m not going to write a whole article on why an twenty-one-year-old girl is going to ruin Spider-Man forever. Whatever was left of Spider-Man that didn’t die with Brand New Day certainly got killed off by a two-hour movie in which 1. Uncle Ben died and motivated Peter Parker to become Spider-Man… again 2. a giant lizard had an evil plot to turn other people into giant lizards so they wouldn’t be lonely. It’s like worrying that Mark Wahlberg is going to make the Transformers franchise a laughingstock. The ship, she has sailed so far she’s made it through the Panama Canal.

But what I am interested in is that funny feeling from earlier. How do we discuss a woman not being suitable to play a part while still being feminist? It’s awkward even saying that Blake Lively and January Jones are horrible actresses who shouldn’t be cast in anything where they have to do more than look pretty. Now I have to go on that even if Shailene Woodley had the talent of Meryl Streep, she wouldn’t do a good job because of her looks? It feels like I’m punching Eleanor Roosevelt in the face just writing that.

(By the way, Meryl Streep would also be a bad Mary Jane Watson.)

First off, let’s do the groundwork. Obviously, although the escapist fantasy nature of most comics means that most characters, male and female, will be sexually attractive, in a world full of alternate takes on most characters, that’s not always a requirement. Black Widow, for instance, has a bit of a seductress aspect to her character, but that isn’t her raison d’etre, despite the name. Would a Black Widow played by, say, stuntwoman Zoe Bell, who can actually do all the stuff Scarlett Johansson did in the Avengers, work? Probably.

Similarly, Natalie Portman’s character in Thor, Jane Foster. In the comics, she’s a nurse, in keeping with Thor’s secret identity as a doctor. In the movie, they dropped the entire Donald Blake plot and made Jane an astrophysicist, so she obviously has to come off as scary-smart. Nowhere in that paragraph is anything saying Jane has to look like a supermodel. So, would it be a valid take if Jane were played by someone less conventionally attractive than Natalie frickin’ Portman? Yes. Of course. You could even do some lame inner beauty plot about how Thor would rather be with someone, I don’t know, who’s his soulmate instead of the bevy of tang he’s getting back in Asgard. Which, ya know, wouldn’t exactly work with Natalie frickin’ Portman.

“Truly, I see now that it is what in a woman’s heart that matters, not whether she is 66 on Maxim’s Hot 100 list instead of 34.”

And this “sexing up” happens on both sides of the fence, because the only thing Hollywood knows about female audiences is that they like studly dudes (I know, I tried to tell them about lesbians, they wouldn’t listen). In the books, Conan is a scarred-up, grizzled, weathered badass. Here’s a make-up test from a would-be adaptation based on the beloved paintings of Frank Frazetta.

“I once killed a dragon. With my face.”

And here’s how the character ended up looking.

“Don’t touch my hair, I just got back from a deep-cleanse and condition.”

And if the bullied losers in your high school looked like Andrew Garfield’s Peter Parker, tell me now, I’m moving there as soon as I have kids. Once I get them married off, the grandkids are going to rule the world with their cheekbones!

Obviously, women get the brunt of it, no argument there. It’s almost a kneejerk response. “We’re casting Mother Theresa? No, don’t call Laura Linney, I hear Megan Fox is available!” And there’s a racial component, where studios would rather cast January Jones in a role rather than a more talented minority actress. Like, you know, anyone. So, nine times out of ten, saying a woman isn’t attractive enough to play a role is bullshit. And I’d be wary of the tenth. “Oh, she has to be hot because she’s a seductress who seeks to snuff out male light with her feminine void? Tell me more!”

However, Mary Jane Watson isn’t one of those characters. From her very first mention, you got these Wilson-from-Home-Improvement panels where people would see her but all the reader saw was a flower in front of her face, and the people would go “Holy shit, she’s gorgeous!” And when she was first seen by Peter (and the audience), she introduces herself “Face it, tiger, you just hit the jackpot.” And she ends up finding work as a supermodel! I’d put her at a solid nine, at least. The only way to really do better is to dress up in skintight leather, make a bunch of sex jokes, and break the law.

And now you understand the appeal of the SpiderCat ship.

“Face it, tiger. You just hit the jackpot.” That’s the character’s defining moment. She was fun, sexy, confident, adventurous. Later, it turned out she exaggerated the party girl aspect of herself to hide an abusive home environment, paralleling Spider-Man’s secret identity, but the depth added to her character was still based on that core personality. As much as she worries, she still loves when Peter takes her web-swinging through the city. But, right from the start, she has to at least as attractive as Emma Stone.

So here’s where we hit the pothole. It just seems downright mean to talk shit about a 21-year-old girl’s appearance, doesn’t it? I mean, it’s not like any of us are Kelly Brook (note: if one of you is Kelly Brook, please contact me immediately. I, uh… I got a package that was meant for you and I’d really like to get that sorted out. Perhaps, over dinner?). But, you know, real talk. Let’s take a moment and look at a picture of Shailene Woodley, age twelve.

The thing is… that isn’t age twelve. That’s age now.

Okay, hopefully that was mild enough that Tumblr won’t burn me in effigy, but you see the problem. That right there is the level of discourse me, and most everyone else, is going for. The internet really isn’t about mature, intellectual discussion. We’re trying to have fun, and part of that is thinking of the cleverest, wittiest, quippiest way to say something. No one wants to read “I disagree with Mitt Romney’s economic policies.” They want to read “BINDERS FULL OF WOMEN MEME MEME MEME!” And that atmosphere drives us to state things in a way that, if you take them out of context, come off as offensive. Cruel, even.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying we need to stop having fun with Tom Cruise’s weird-ass religion or Kristen Stewart’s lip-biting. That’s just karmic balance for them being paid millions upon millions of dollars to do next to nothing.

“Why should I have to smile on the red carpet just because I’m being paid a small fortune to promote a movie? GIRL POWER!”

But there is a line. Like, way to the right you have people sending tweets to non-placing Olympians about how their dead fathers would be ashamed of them, and then over to the left you have someone doing a Mark Wahlberg impression. “Say hi to Optimus Prime for me.” And I don’t know if there’s any hard and fast way to place the line, but I think it’s good for us, as a society, to take a second to think “Wait a tick… how close to the line am I?”

And that brings us back to the question–actually, it doesn’t, but I couldn’t think of a better segue–why does it seem worse to criticize Shailene Woodley’s appearance than it does to criticize Nicolas Cage’s? And I think it’s because with Nic Cage, there are other things people appreciate. His acting ability, his entertaining oddness, the fact that to play Ghost Rider he painted his face like a voodoo skull and put black contact lenses in his eyes and sewed ancient Egyptian artifacts into his clothes and got “some rocks that had alleged frequencies too.” That’s worth way more than a full head of hair in Nic Cage dollars.

But a woman’s attractiveness is so tied to society’s sense of her worth that calling her unattractive means she’s a bad person. And that’s much bigger bullshit than Peter Parker’s supermodel wife being played by a six.

Conan make-up test:

Superman costume test:

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