A big leap forward is coming soon in the genre of comic book movies: Heroes of a diverse background will finally be headlining their own projects on the silver screen. The old joke about Marvel employing three headliners who are white guys named Chris (Hemsworth, Evans, and now Pratt) was starting to make people feel as uncomfortable as a corrupt government last Wednesday. DC was the first to make this very necessary step toward the evolution of the genre. With their stellar slate of upcoming movies, they announced a solo Wonder Woman film (with two more solos to follow should the first succeed), Jason Mamoa (pacific islander) playing Aquaman, and a Cyborg movie. This doesn’t include the potential for John Stewart (not our contributor who does cool weekly NFL posts, this guy) as Green Lantern. Shortly thereafter, Marvel released their bombshell slate as well, which featured the introduction of leading characters Black Panther and the Carol Danvers rendition of Captain Marvel.
I had not closely examined the state of diversity in the super hero genre before, and I didn’t have to look at the cast of the first Avengers movie to see how whitewashed the testosterone filled cast was. I knew there were plenty of complaints, but I, the ever-jealous fan worried about other things like, “How much longer will I have to wait until the Daredevil catastrophe of 2003 is finally rectified!?!?” However, after seeing this very obvious step in the right direction, I read an article that did not quite sit well with me. The author was taking a serious look at the role of diversity, and particularly women, in the superhero film genre. The article was particularly damning of the studios that have waited this long to make solo movie opportunities for characters like Wonder Woman or Captain Marvel. Perhaps this article is more a frustrated response to that piece of literature that is floating around the interwebs, but I also wanted to take an honest look at the state of diversity in the superhero genre, what it has achieved, and how it should progress.
Our story begins with a look at what has led to the superhero craze in the first place: the comics. All of the superheroes being represented in movies today, with one big exception, were generally created during the time of character creation in the early 60’s. This is the time when Marvel and DC began their war of escalation. Much like the way today’s superhero movies are being treated, once comics began to become successful again on a small scale, the entire industry boomed. These are the characters that have become enshrined within superhero lore and therefore are the obvious fodder for a movie studio trying to attract a massive audience. If you want to count on one thing from the early 60’s, awareness of fair ethnic and gender representation – especially within a medium geared toward white males ranging from kids to young adults – is definitely not on the list. And to be fair, that should not be our expectation. Comics were recovering from the brink of irrelevance in this time period, and attacking a focused and committed demographic might not have been the worst idea. However, the growth of a diverse cast of heroes was never paralleled by the industry’s boom. This problem is one that has an immediate impact today.
IGN has a comprehensive list of the top 100 superheroes judged on the criteria of “cultural impact, character development, social relevance, general cool factor, [and] importance of storylines.” On this list are ten women, nine people of color, and nine people (all men) of some alien race that doesn’t seem to count for the whole diversity argument. Three of the women are also people of color, meaning that an overwhelming 75 members of this list are white males. Now, this obviously makes it a little tough on production studios to make a team that is proportionately accurate. However, this is only half the story. The average placement for women on the IGN list is 53.1. The top rated woman is Wonder Woman at #5, followed by Jean Grey at #13, and Barbara Gordon at #17. The average rating for people of color is far more unfortunate. They average a 70.7 placement, with the highest rated member being Storm at #42, then Black Panther at #51. First, my question is “Why is Black Panther so far down on that list?” Second, however, is these average ratings give another glimpse as to why diversity has been so hard to accomplish within the superhero genre. The average placement for characters who have headlined a solo movie since 2008 (post-the first Iron-Man) has been 15.9. If we exclude the Punisher and Ghost Rider, because we can all agree those are some serious outliers, the average drops to 6.4. Only Wonder Woman ranks higher than this average.
This calls us to examine the state of the superhero movie industry as it has evolved. Since the early 2000’s, we have seen many attempts at making superhero movies, but it was not until the Dark Knight and Avengers revolution that they have become viable means of mainstream entertainment. Projects that used to be viewed as big risks have become the tent poles for summer blockbuster season, keeping the cinematic industry afloat amidst the obligatory romcoms, Sandler family vacations caught on film, and Michael Bay explosion symphonies. But long before we were able to see Guardians of the Galaxy, which has been rightfully heralded as perhaps the most risky superhero movie ever made, the industry had to be very self-aware. Draw a crowd with name recognition. This compulsive need to create a story centered around characters with cultural relevance was a necessity to bring this genre to the existence in which it currently sits but has left us with a cast of the biggest heroes that Marvel and DC has to offer — and big shocker here, they are all white guys.
Many franchises have attempted to move away from this norm of monoculturalism, with the most successful of such being the X-Men movie series. Potentially spurred by the social relevance of the X-Men story, this franchise has always seemed to lead the charge for diversity, despite having Hugh Jackman as Wolverine (which is undoubtedly the greatest casting choice for any superhero of all time). One of the many unfair complaints made by the author of the aforementioned article was that despite having a fantastic ensemble of female mutants, the X-Men movies had become far too focused on Wolverine. Ignoring the fact that Wolverine is one of the best heroes that Marvel has to offer, I feel like the early movies did an excellent job at highlighting other characters, particularly characters that did not conform to the established stereotype. The first X-Men tells the story of the mutants’ struggle to fit in primarily by focusing on Rogue. X2 focuses on Logan/Wolverine and his origins. X-Men 3: The Last Stand almost exclusively portrays the story of Jean Grey. First Class focuses on Mystique, and Days of Future Past on Charles. X-Men’s ability to create compelling stories that center around their female characters is uncanny and is a large reason for Fox’s success and their getting away with a lot of the superhero crap they put on camera. In Days of Future Past, Director Bryan Singer continued to move down the path of a diversified cast by introducing six new characters to the franchise: Quiksilver (White Male), Bolivar Trask (White Male and little person), Bishop (black male), Blink (asian female), Sunspot (hispanic male), and Warpath (native american male). Aside from Quiksilver, each of these represent a very underrepresented group in the genre, proving that X-Men continues to be cutting edge when forming a cast.
Also, Marvel’s recent willingness to pull material from other sources that don’t focus on events occurring in America has been a very huge step. Wolverine took place almost entirely in Japan and was a brilliant and fresh take on Logan’s character. Not only did this film receive box office praise, it also blended a superhero and a samurai movie, two genres that were very risky maneuvers only a decade ago. Also, Disney has just released Big Hero 6. This animated kids movie is based off of a miniseries of comics created by Marvel in 2008 to bridge the gap between traditional manga readers and comic book readers. The events occur in Japan and emulate an Japanese style of storytelling that has been expertly translated into film. The willingness to make bold moves such as this is a reminder that Disney is developing their platform to include a more diversified front.
Is diversity where it should be in this genre? Absolutely not. The ensemble that participates in these movies is skewed in a very major way. However, they are making steps to rectify this issue. Both Marvel and DC feature higher diversity than the IGN top 100 list. The List is comprised of 10% women and 9% people of color. Marvel utilizes a cast of 25% women and 22.6% people of color, while DC has 19% and 30%, respectively. This shows that the movies have done a better job of presenting a diverse cast of heroes. So, give them a break, article author. This is a genre that is staring into a wide horizon of unexplored frontier. Heroes can now be put on film that never would have made a Peter Parker conspiracy board of potential headliners a few years ago. I urge the studios to delve into some characters that can provide a new social relevance to a superhero movie, and I hope that we can begin to have more productive conversations surrounding this important issue.