New Spider-Man Film Pulled from Cinema Programs in Arab World, Possibly over Transgender Flag

Sony Pictures Animation via AP
This image released by Sony Pictures Animation shows Miles Morales as Spider-Man, voiced by Shameik Moore, left, and and Spider-Gwen, voiced by Hailee Steinfeld, in a scene from Columbia Pictures and Sony Pictures Animation’s “Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse.”

DUBAI, United Arab Emirates (AP) — The new blockbuster movie “Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse” was abruptly removed from cinema listings in more than a dozen Muslim-majority countries without explanation, apparently over the inclusion of a blink-and-you-miss-it transgender poster in the background of one frame.

Empire Entertainment, the Middle East distributor for the computer-animated Sony Pictures film, did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

No explicit bans of the film were announced, but there were indications that it will not reach screens.

For example, there is no expectation that “Across the Spider-Verse” will be shown in the United Arab Emirates, said a source close to the film who was not authorized to speak publicly. The source cited rigorous censorship of movies for children and younger viewers.

On the official Saudi Cinema twitter page, a statement with a poster of the film attached said the organization will not approve any film that contradicts the nation’s media content regulations and whose “production companies do not commit to implementing the required amendments.”

The superhero film featuring the Marvel Comics character Miles Morales as Spider-Man debuted in U.S. cinemas at the beginning of June, tripling the domestic opening weekend revenue of its Oscar-winning prequel.

Initially, it was scheduled to open in the Mideast on June 22, ahead of the Muslim holiday of Eid al-Adha. The film was listed in cinema programs as recently as last week in countries such as Kuwait, the UAE, Oman, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Bahrain, Lebanon, and Egypt, but was abruptly and quietly pulled.

No reasons were given, but the brief transgender reference might have caused offense in Arab countries where Muslim majorities, guided by Islamic law, or Sharia, often consider homosexuality and transgender identity as sinful and contrary to their religious beliefs and societal norms.

The film includes a scene where a transgender flag printed with the words “Protect Trans Kids” is hanging in the room of Gwen Stacy, a spider superhero and character voiced by actress Hailee Steinfeld.

The UAE, home to the futuristic city of Dubai and the world’s tallest skyscraper, has not officially banned the movie. The federation of seven sheikhdoms once reported an end to its censorship of cinematic releases in an effort to boost its brand as a liberal hub attractive to foreigners, but it has continued to pull some movies from its theatres.

Emaar Entertainment, a state-owned entity and parent company of major UAE cinema company Reel Cinemas, confirmed to The Associated Press that it won’t be screening “Across the Spider-Verse”. The company attributed the decision to Empire Entertainment, the exclusive theatrical distributor for Sony Pictures movies in the Middle East.

Empire Entertainment, the UAE Ministry of Youth and Culture and the Saudi Ministry of Communications and Information Technology could not be reached for comment.

In a similar incident last year, Disney’s “Lightyear” was banned in 13 Muslim-majority nations for featuring a scene with a lesbian kiss. The moment had been earlier cut from the film but was restored after Pixar employees protested Disney’s response to Florida legislation that opponents dubbed as the “Don’t Say Gay” bill.

“Into the Spider-Verse,” the prequel to “Across the Spider-Verse,” had a successful run in the region when it premiered in 2018. Children in Lebanon sport backpacks featuring Miles Morales, the main character of the franchise and the first Black Spider-Man, while malls across the UAE sell action figures of the movie’s superheroes.

“Across the Spider-Verse” is part two in a trilogy that will conclude with a third chapter scheduled to hit regional cinemas next year.