Glover returned as a part of the recent animated spin-off Adventure Time: Fionna & Cake, reprising his role from the mainline series.
The Atlanta actor had previously voiced Marshall Lee, a punk rock gender-swapped version of the beloved Marceline the Vampire Queen.
Marceline has been the subject of much speculation over the years with her race coming into question. The character has often been depicted as porcelain white, yet has a Black or brown mom, with fans wondering about the descent of Marceline (and, in turn, Marshall).
Explaining the Donald Glover Adventure Time Race Change
In a conversation with Polygon, Adventure Time showrunner Adam Muto explained the thinking behind the race change of Donald Glover's franchise character.
After appearing as white in the mainline series, Glover's Marshall Lee recently debuted as Black in Fionna & Cake, seemingly confirming years of speculation about the rise of Marshall and his gender-swapped Vampire variant Marceline.
Muto defended the change, admitting that, given Glover is Black himself, it "would have felt harder to rationalize not showing [Marshall Lee] that way."
He said the team "knew this version would have none of the supernatural elements of the previous version," and it was time to ground the character in the real world:
“We knew this version would have none of the supernatural elements of the previous version. He’s kind of a punk but with a rich upbringing from which he’s trying to distance himself. In retrospect, we probably could have added more details and piercings but that’s added line mileage and things to track and he’s moving around a lot in these episodes.”
Muto remarked that despite being depicted as white in Adventure Time, Marshall's cultural heritage outside the Land of Ooo was clear to the team "early in the process" on Fionna & Cake.
"We had already established that Marceline’s mom (played by the amazing Erica Luttrell) was Black during Season 7," so "it felt natural to depict [Marshall Lee] that way," the Adventure Time showrunner lamented:
“We didn’t have a final model before we boarded the first episode. We had already established that Marceline’s mom (played by the amazing Erica Luttrell) was Black during Season 7 and it felt natural to depict [Marshall Lee] that way, especially since he was neither a demon nor a Vampire in Fionna’s world. To me, it would have felt harder to rationalize not showing him that way.”
When asked about audience/network reception to the change, Muto noted, "If the question is more about audience reception" animation takes so long to develop, "[they are] not really in a dialog with the viewers in the same [way] as some other media:"
“I don’t remember getting any network notes along those lines. In terms of depiction, we did stop to consider what characteristics could ring differently if you take a fantasy character in a fantasy world and now show them as a Black musician in a more realistic world. If the question is more about audience reception, animation works so far in advance, usually without preview materials, that we’re not really in a dialog with the viewers in the same [way] as some other media.”
Why Was Marshall Lee's Race Changed in Fionna & Cake?
It is fascinating to hear a breakdown as thorough as Adam Muto's on why Donald Glover's Marshall Lee was ultimately race-swapped for Fionna & Cake.
It almost seems as though there was no real change at all, and he was Black or brown all along.
Muto said that Marshall's real-world race outside the mystical Land of Ooo was clear to the team "early in the process."
That likely means the team knew the character was always going to be Black if he ever was depicted in the real world.
Another factor that likely came into play here is the growing trend in animation of having fewer voice actors depict characters of a different race.
Names like Jenny Slate (who plays the interracial character Missy in Netflix's Big Mouth) have spoken out against the practice, instead asking for more diversity in voice acting.
In 2020, Slate wrote in a statement on Instagram, "Black characters on an animated show should be played by Black people:"
"At the start of the show, I reasoned with myself that it was permissible for me to play Missy because her mom is Jewish and White — as am I," Slate wrote in a statement. "But Missy is also Black, and Black characters on an animated show should be played by Black people...In my playing Missy, I was engaging in an act of erasure of Black people."
Alison Brie, who played an Asian-American character in BoJack Horseman has said she regrets playing the character, wishing the role could have gone to someone of Asian descent instead (via Variety).
Given Donald Glover's African-American heritage, it seems only fitting that his Adventure Time character - despite being animated - culturally reflects the person playing him.
Fionna & Cake is streaming now on Max.