Diversity and inclusion have been a long issue of the comic and cinematic industry, and especially so when it comes to superhero films. Historically, all the lead superheroes like Iron Man, Superman, Spider-Man were predominantly white males. Only in recent years have marginalized people been getting representation on big screens. But is it enough?
While the comics are a reflection of the changing political climate, the recent inclusion of a more diverse cast on-screen portrays a cultural shift in those conversations surrounding inclusion and diversity from the real world to the fictional world. The good news is that the inclusion feels authentic, rather than simply having a diverse cast to get higher viewership.
If you have seen the recent popular Disney+ series The Falcon and the Winter Soldier, you must have noticed the introduction of complex themes like systemic racism, which also play a big role in the plot of the series.
— The Falcon and The Winter Soldier (@falconandwinter) April 26, 2021
The show’s writers tried to revolve the conversation on screen around systemic racism and the discrimination against Black people. In the last episode, we see Sam Wilson assuming Steve Rogers’ Captain America mantle. But before he did, the showrunner managed to give us a glimpse of the inner turmoils of the superhero as a Black man. The monologue seems to capture the essence of this feeling beautifully.
“I’m a Black man, carrying the stars and stripes,” he says. “What don’t I understand? Every time I pick this thing up, I know there are millions of people out there who are going To hate me for it. Even now, here. I feel it. The stares, the judgment, and there’s nothing I can do to change it. No blonde hair or blue eyes. The only power I have is that I believe we can do better.”
But Sam isn’t the first Black superhero to take center stage on a high-budget cinematic production. Before The Falcon and the Winter Soldier, Marvel Cinematic Universe blessed us with a moment releasing the movie Black Panther. With an all-Black cast, the movie champions African and African-American culture on screen. The movie was revolutionary, to say the least.
Even three years after its release, the movie grows its significance. The world saw a Black superhero in the lead for the first time.
Moreover, talking about diversity in superhero films, Marvel’s production of Shang-Chi, the first Asian superhero, is a huge leap towards Asian representation on big screens. Especially with Marvel’s previous history of stereotypically portraying Asians on-screen as villains or cannon fodder, this new superhero film looks promising.
Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings in all his glory!!! I am so proud of everyone who worked on this film. As an Asian-American myself it was such a special film for me to work on. #shangchi #shangchiandthelegendofthetenrings @MarvelStudios pic.twitter.com/Bc5KKUvVT7
— Andy Park (@andyparkart) April 19, 2021
We have come a long way since the days of portraying white people on screen in lead superhero roles starting from Superman, Batman, and Iron Man — all significant superheroes across DC and Marvel. Although most of these cinematic universes only recently started including a diverse POC cast, the comic universe had a few diverse lead characters created in the 60s and 70s going against the norms of the comic industry.
Stan Lee, Marvel’s primary creative leader for two decades, gave us Spider-Man, X-Men, Iron Man in collaboration with Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko. But what most people are unaware of is Stan’s contribution in creating mainstream superheroes like ‘Black Panther’ at a time when segregation was prevalent.
We have John Stewart aka Green Lantern, the first Black DC superhero making an appearance in comics in the year 1971. Then we have Luke Cage, Marvel’s first Black title character with its own comic series making an appearance in the year 1972. Although this handful of Black superheroes were created decades ago in comic books, the film industry slowly and steadily started to pick them up in recent years to portray them on the big screen.
— Thorne_Identity (@GeoffThorne) April 24, 2021
Diversity in superhero roles matters since it has a significant influence on society. For example, the Civil Rights Movement hugely influenced Stan Lee and his co-creators to come up with ‘Black Panther’. However, although the industry has taken great steps towards achieving a greater representation, it still has a lot of work to do, especially when it comes to the hypersexualization of female superheroes.
The comic books usually have female superheroes, but most of the comic characters lacked any depth. Mary Jane, Lois Lane, Jane Foster—all these female characters were just shown to be a love interest and weren’t characters in their own right.
In recent times, DC introduced Wonder Woman and Harley Quinn. Although Wonder Woman created some commotion, it failed to truly deliver to the audience. The execution of the movie was mediocre. However, Marvel has recently introduced pretty strong female characters to its cast.
Marvel Phase One barely included any female superheroes. The few appearances by Scarlett Johansson’s character Natasha Romanoff were, needless to say, very sexualized. Her character got very little screen time during that phase and whatever screen time she got—it lacked depth. But things have gotten much better for female superheroes since then in the later phases. Pepper Potts wasn’t just limited to being Tony’s love interest and the showrunners redeemed themselves by giving her more depth and clarity.
Unfortunately, Marvel did the Black Widow dirty. Her character deserved a better ending for being a part of the original Avengers cast. She was the only female superhero from Marvel’s initial phases and her character deserved better handling. Not to mention the Black Widow movie should have gotten released way sooner.
— Black Widow (@theblackwidow) April 3, 2021
But, the new Marvel phase four looks promising – with Captain Marvel, Shuri, Ayo, Okoye, Wanda, Monica Rambeau, and other strong female characters taking lead with their own unique merits. It is all about female power and we are loving the representation – it’s long overdue. A test of what’s in store can be seen in the recently released WandaVision. It’s commendable to see a female superhero not being sexualized and to have Wanda get the backstory she deserves.
Historically, all these mega-blockbuster films were for the predominantly white male cast and its gains were to be enjoyed by them as well and they reinforced cultural and moral norms within our society. There was no room for inclusive and diverse representation.
Seeing a more diverse representation on screen is important because it gives a cultural understanding of the heroes, breaking away from the usual white, male and straight superhero mold. These new and diverse superhero films expose audiences to a range of powerful messages about our society hidden behind fictional characters.
This World Superhero Day, let’s take a step back to reflect on how far we have come since the predominantly white male superhero representation we are used to seeing on screen.
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