Now that I have a kid, there are certain things that are once again socially acceptable for me, like ordering a Happy Meal at McDonald’s. I admit I’m a kid at heart and really enjoy doing kid stuff like that again. Right now, everything is Toy Story 4 branded, but prior to that I was happy to pick up some Avengers figures! Yet my excitement soon turned to confusion…you’ll see why.
First, we have Captain America, a perfectly acceptable Happy Meal-quality toy. When you push a button, he moves his shield arm. Cool, right?
But then we have…well, I don’t even know what this is. The bag said it was Hawkeye, but…?
He has a Tony Stark goatee, generic hair, and a squinty eye. He does not have a bow or a mohawk, and is not wearing any costume that Hawkeye or Ronin wears in any movie. His superpower: he lights up. He LIGHTS UP. WHAT? Why?
Had they just made a generic superhero figure and didn’t want to waste it, so they labeled it Hawkeye because no one cares about Hawkeye? Of course not, but that idea makes me laugh. This is apparently the “Team Suit” version, though it barely resembles the team suits they wear in the movie.
So, of course my kid doesn’t care at all and loves the Light-Up Generic Superhero. And my husband refers to it as “Hawk Guy.” Poor Clint.
Here’s my Captain Marvel review, only slightly late. My brief, spoiler-free assessment: it was a solid movie, but slightly disappointing to my high expectations. I would put it in the middle of the MCU in terms of quality, around Doctor Strange or Ant-Man. Captain Marvel as a character was pretty satisfying, but some of the execution of the movie was lacking.
The Internet has come as close to agreement as it probably ever will over one point: it’s 2015 and we’re ready for more diversity in our fiction. No more will we accept straight white males as the default character lens through which to view our movies, comics, video games, and novels.
What no one can agree on now is how to accomplish this.
Don’t let my click-bait title fool you; I don’t have any answers. How to best reflect our culture’s many facets is an issue that itself is multifaceted.
For example, as comic books are being turned into movies, studios must walk a line between staying “true” to the source material and giving modern audiences the diversity they want. The only superheroes that have achieved any kind of permanence in mainstream popular culture include a couple of white guys (Batman, Captain America, etc.) and one white woman (Wonder Woman). So comic books, and the movies based on them, have started adding diversity to their line-ups in two basic ways.
Straight-up changing an established character’s racial/gender/sexual identity is sometimes called “bending,” as in, here are pictures of gender-bent Disney princesses. For comic book properties, race bending is most common. Both Johnny Storm (the Human Torch) and Nick Fury were originally drawn as white men, but their most recent movie incarnations are both black. The new DC Justice League movies have cast an Israeli woman as Wonder Woman and a man of native Hawaiian descent as Aquaman, both of whom generally appear very “Northern European” white in most of their iterations.
Why can’t we do this for all the famous superheroes? Sometimes, certain (some would say all) aspects of a superhero’s identity are essential to his or her character. Changing Wonder Woman to a man, for example, would negate the entire idea of her coming from the island of Themyscira, home of the Amazons where men are not allowed. But portraying her as more Mediterranean in complexion makes sense with that traditional, Greek myth-related backstory. As another example, Captain America’s Aryan features made an interesting statement at the time he was created, considering that he was fighting Nazis in WWII.
But is this statement still culturally relevant? American society has changed in many ways since WWII. When Batman was created in 1939, it would have been quite rare for an “old money” family like the Waynes to be anything but white. But nowadays, the idea of upper-class minorities is not so crazy, and I don’t think an African- or Asian-American Batman would be either. For Bruce Wayne, I feel his social/economic class is the defining characteristic, more than his race.
Another issue is whether these kind of changes would be too confusing for a large audience. People who read superhero comic books generally get pretty good at not getting too hung up on continuity. So Nick Fury was white in the last series, and now he’s black. Ok. It’s the same way that Rogue can sometimes fly, and Jubilee is now a vampire. But for the general public, it might be confusing as to why Bobby “Iceman” Drake was into Rogue and Kitty for 4 movies but now likes boys.
In any case, the corporations who stand to make lots of money from superhero movies are going to be extremely hesitant to make even “superficial” changes to cultural icons, no matter how good it makes the story. Instead we could try…
Making new diverse characters
So, if we can’t mess with cultural icons, whether because we like their stories as-is or because they’re super profitable, then we’ll just have to make some new superhero characters that are not straight white males.
Comic books have been doing this for decades. Some of these characters are now being brought into the cinematic universes, such as Falcon, who was the first African-American superhero in mainstream comics when he was created in 1969. We’ve also seen Warpath, Blink, Bishop, and Sunspot, with varying ethnic backgrounds, appear in X-men: Days of Future Past, and Skye/Daisy, who is arguably the main character of Agents of SHIELD, is a mixed-race woman. Cyborg, another African-American, will be included in the Justice League movies, despite never having been considered a founding member of the League prior to the New 52.
Carol Danvers (formerly Ms. Marvel, now Captain Marvel) will be getting her own movie in a few years, the first of the MCU to feature a solo female superhero. Though she’s been around under various aliases since the late 70s, Carol has really been leading the way for female superheros recently with a new (fully-clothed) look and very popular comic series as Captain Marvel. We can see why Kamala Khan, the new Ms. Marvel, looks up to her.
But the truth is, no matter how many Captain Marvel movies they make, I don’t really believe that Captain Marvel will ever be as popular or well-known as Superman. I guess time will tell.
Door Number 3: A little bit of both
The strategy that DC and Marvel have both been using quite successfully lately combines these first two ideas: having a new character take up the mantle of a famous superhero. (It doesn’t seem too crazy considering the frequency with which comic book heroes get killed off.) Marvel’s new Avengers line-up includes Sam Wilson (Falcon) as Captain America, Jane Foster as Thor, Kamala Khan as Ms. Marvel, and Miles Morales as Spider-man. Kamala and Miles specifically have been a huge hit, being brand new characters featured in well-received solo series titles who are now being incorporated into Marvel’s headliner team.
Although Ms. Marvel is not a particularly well-known superhero persona in the general public, Kamala has received huge amounts of press for being a Pakistani-American Muslim girl who deals with typical teenage problems (like strict parents) as well as dealing with criminals and saving citizens of Jersey City. Her solo series has been selling very well. Having just read the first collected volume of Ms. Marvel, I liked the way Kamala’s religion was represented: it is an essential part of her life (she would be a slightly different person if she hadn’t been raised Muslim), but at the same time it is only one part of her character, and neither the plot nor her superpowers revolve around it.
Miles has even more visibility, as Spider-man is one of Marvel’s signature heroes and was ranked 3rd behind Batman and Superman on IGN’s Top 100 Comic Book Heros of All Time. In fact, many fans have suggested that Miles be the Spider-man of the MCU (because, do we really need a 3rd teenage Peter Parker rendition?), but the actors rumored to be in contention for the role look decidedly like young Peter Parker, so the powers-that-be at least feel that the general public is not ready for Miles as Spider-man.
In the DC universe, the Green Lantern Corps is a perfect opportunity to introduce various characters and still call them “Green Lantern,” including an African-American (John Stewart), a gay man (Alan Scott), and several women. I was very happy with the choice to use John Stewart as the Green Lantern of the DCAU Justice League cartoon (despite the fact that Kyle Rayner had already been introduced to the DCAU in Superman:TAS). Why they made the (terrible) Green Lantern feature film about Hal Jordan instead, I’ll never know, but I still hold out hope for John Stewart to be the Green Lantern of the new Justice League movies.
In conclusion, it’s clear that the only “right” way to increase diversity in comic book fiction is in a way that tells an interesting story with compelling characters. Character traits shouldn’t be simply boxes checked on a list; they should be used to tell a story that reflects the experiences of audience members. As both creators and consumers of fiction, we must think carefully about character diversity both on an individual level and as a whole. The answers are not simple, but we continue to work towards a goal of inclusiveness.
Here are a few more thoughtful discussions on this and related topics; feel free to add your own suggested links in the comments below:
*Spoilers for Daredevil and Avengers: Age of Ultron*
In a city that I drive through on my commute, there’s a man named Wilson who’s running for city council. I see lots of navy signs in yards with “Wilson” in big classic white letters, and every time my heart does a little jump of panic, until I remember that “Wilson” is his last name, not his first, and his last name is not Fisk.
I started watching Daredevil the day it came out on Netflix; I got through 3 episodes that night. The first was good, the second had that beautiful hallway fight scene, and by the third I knew I was hooked because I was talking to the TV and calling the main character “Matty.”
I wasn’t quite sure what to expect beforehand, but what I saw was a better version of Arrow, which is itself a good Batman TV show. This is the story not of a superhero, but of a vigilante. I was surprised by the level of graphic violence (and my cats hated the sudden yelling and gunfire every 20 min). The characters (and the Catholicism) feel real. The acting was engaging. It passes the Mako Mori test with flying colors.
Yet even as Daredevil pulls you into despair with copious glasses of alcohol, serious bodily injury, and investigative journalism paranoia, it gives you an odious character named Marci and then scolds you for hating her, because people can choose to do good as well as evil, and people can change. I still hope Foggy dumps her.
My few complaints: needs more Stick et al., and Rosario Dawson’s character Claire kinda got dropped in the middle. The sound mixing on the fight scenes was weird, but I liked it because it gave the illusion of heightened senses.
There will be a second season, and I foresee Vanessa becoming very, very scary.
Avengers: Age of Ultron was only my 2nd most anticipated movie this year. (But that’s not saying much as the 1st is Star Wars.) In short, it neither exceeded nor fell short of my expectations. It was pretty much exactly what I expected: a big story that was highly entertaining.
I found this movie darker than the first Avengers because villain is actually coming from within (specifically from within Tony Stark). I loved Ultron’s quips, but he suffers slightly compared to Loki, because Loki already had a whole movie of character development before Avengers, and Ultron isn’t even “alive” when Avengers 2 starts.
The dialogue was sufficiently witty to keep me smiling the whole way. (“Language!” is the new “On your left!” in our house.) In only time I felt this work against the movie was Ultron’s “Oh, man” as he falls from the jet at the end; it’s right after Quicksilver’s death, and we’ve barely had time to process that before we’re having smart-ass remarks thrown in our face again. The movie in general could have used some more to breathe; I daresay we’re all awaiting the director’s cut on Blu-ray.
My highlight: this was the best Scarlet Witch I could have asked for in the MCU. Loved her look, her character arc, and her accent wasn’t even atrocious.
This movie had a lot of work to do with setting up future movies for Phase 3 of the MCU, and honestly it did a great job of it; I am excited for CA3: Civil War and Black Panther especially.
My lingering question: where the f was Nick Fury hiding a goddamn hellicarrier?