We Gon’ Be All-White: The Lack of Meaningful Diversity in Superhero Films

 SPOILER ALERT (minor plot details from Avengers: Age of Ultron)


For context, I’m a huge superhero movie fan. I have been since the first X-Men film came out in 2000. I was seven then and I immersed myself within these fantastic worlds where my favorite comic book characters would fighting their never-ending war against evil. I only became more immersed in superhero cinema, especially with the releases of Sam Raimi’s SpiderMan series, Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight Trilogy, and the introduction of the larger Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU).

I have particularly enjoyed the Marvel Cinematic Universe because of how it brings to life a larger shared world of interwoven characters and storylines across separate films. For the first time in its history, superhero movies utilized an important concept within comic books of having a shared universe where characters, events, and objects can crossover and interact. Therefore, we could see Nick Fury interact with Iron Man, Thor, and Captain America in their own films before all eventually crossing over in the critically acclaimed box office smash hit, The Avengers (2012).

However, as many commentators have pointed out, superhero films (like most cinema) are incredibly lacking in diversity and this trend has shown no signs of reversing. However, I’ll extend this argument even further: superhero films are lacking in meaningful diversity.

So what distinguishes meaningful diversity from just diversity? Associate Professor of Radio-Television-Film at the University of Texas-Austin Mary Beltran coined the term meaningful diversity in her article for Flow: “Meaningful Diversity: Exploring Questions of Equitable Representation on Diverse Ensemble Cast Shows.” Dr. Beltran describes meaningful diversity as being the process in which writers provide fictional characters of color complex characterization (to the same level of their White counterparts) as well as the inclusion of natural diverse settings (i.e., racially segregated neighborhoods, school settings). In addition, television and film have to feature characters of color in leading roles as opposed to strictly supporting and/or minor roles to White characters.


Big Hero 6. Prod. Walt Disney Animation
Big Hero 6. Prod. Walt Disney Animation

There are very few superhero films that show non-stereotyped leading characters of color who are afforded some level of characterization. The most prominent of all these films is critically acclaimed animated movie Disney’s Big Hero 6 (2014), which featured a multi-ethnic (Asian, Black, Latina, and White) coalition of young superheroes in the futuristic multicultural hybrid metropolis known as San Fransokyo. The protagonist, Hiro Hamada, who (like his voice actor) is half-Japanese/half-white, is a complex hero who deals with the hardship of being a prodigy, the emotional toll of multiple family tragedies, and the moral quandary of the revenge/justice dichotomy – all while forming the titular superhero group with other geniuses and his robot sidekick, Beta Max. While the racial, cultural, gendered, and socioeconomic differences are more or less embraced by the characters in the film, these differences are never referred too nor are they a source of any conflict in San Fransokyo.

Whereas Big Hero 6 is the most notable example of a meaningfully diverse animated superhero film, Blade (1998) and its subsequent sequels, is the most prominent live-action example. While not as received as well as later superhero films, Blade is the most significant Black superhero ever to grace the big screen as he was given an entire trilogy to lead, which is unprecedented for Black actors in any genre. In a reversal of most superhero movies, Blade is led by a Black super-powered vigilante with both Black and White supporting characters. The titular character both harbors immense vengeance and enacts extreme violence towards vampires for plaguing society, destroying his family, and cursing him with dhampirism (half-human/half-vampire physiology). The film also established parallels between the fictional Vampires and the real-life White-Supremacist-Capitalist-Patriarchy (a term coined by bell hooks) while situating Blade as a rebel against this exploitative and corrosive system. Thus, unlike, Big Hero 6, racial and socioeconomic tension create the crux of the conflict within the film, albeit in allegorical examples in the form of Vampires vs. Blade and company.

Other examples of movies with black superheroes as main characters include Spawn (1997), Steel (1997), Catwoman (2004), and Hancock (2008). All of these films were poorly received because of terrible special effects, poor writing, and bad casting. There are also very few projects, if any, featuring Latin@, Asian-American, and Native American superhero leads and virtually none of LGBT main characters.


MCU-heroes

As of 2015, the Marvel Cinematic Universe, the most popular superhero cinema franchise today, have failed to introduce any aspect of meaningful diversity to any of its projects. Unlike Blade and Big Hero 6, people of color and women in the MCU are strictly relegated to supporting sideline roles while LGBT characters (heroes, villains, or otherwise) are completely non-existent, or in Loki’s case, “straightened out.” All the lead characters of these superhero movies, for the most part, are White heterosexual men. In other words, people from marginalized groups only exist to support these all-powerful White saviors as a sidekick and a moral conscience for the hero. As people of color, we cannot exist as agents of our own nor can we battle evil in a much larger capacity.

The Avengers films have the most paltry representation of characters of color in all the Marvel Universe. For all the valid ire directed towards Joss Whedon’s direction of Black Widow, what has been lost in conversations is his terrible track record in representing people of color in all his projects. Joss Whedon and Kevin Feige have been abysmal in their (non) efforts to include Black Panther, Falcon, Luke Cage, Wasp, and many other characters within the lineup. Samuel L. Jackson’s Nick Fury is neither an official Avenger nor is he engaged in the action as the other heroes are. We only see two Black superheroes briefly throughout Avengers: Age of Ultron, both War Machine and Falcon are only made members at the end of the film. Despite the references to fictional African nation of Wakanda and the appearance of Klaw, there was not even a mention or a cameo of Black Panther.

If you want to watch a Marvel movie without a White male protagonist, you’ll have to wait until 2018 and 2019 for Black Panther and Captain Marvel, respectively. Originally, Black Panther and Captain Marvel would’ve been released in 2017 and 2018, respectively, until Marvel got back the rights for Spider-Man, in which they will feature (for the millionth time) Peter Parker as opposed to the similarly popular Afro-Latino version Miles Morales.

Now, Guardians of the Galaxy featured supporting actors of color, Zoe Saldaña, Dave Bautista, and Vin Diesel, which is more than the Avengers movies. However, they were painted (or CGI’d) as aliens characters in stark contrast Chris Pratt’s Star-Lord, the only main human character in the film. Intentional or not, Guardians of the Galaxy essentially assured audiences that the “default-human being,” thus the norm, is a cisgender heterosexual White male.

Large parts of Marvel’s fandom will rationalize reasons why Wasp, Black Panther, and Falcon weren’t included within the Avengers films. Reasons other than race and gender. They respond, “be patient with Marvel” or “wait your turn.” Statements that largely dismiss Marvel’s problems with race and gender are indeed indicative White male privilege within nerd communities and larger fandom. Case and point: the creators/debaters/guests for Youtube channel Screen Junkies are exclusively white men (and on rare occasion WHITE women who ONLY refer to gender). As such, it is difficult to have these conversations with fandom about racial and gender diversity when the loudest voices are white men who fail to recognize their own privilege.

Now, there may be a light at the end of the tunnel…in the form of darkness.


Suicide Squad Cast

Whereas the MCU is failing to introduce meaningful diversity, DC films is taking initiative to do the opposite (40 years of not doing so). Upcoming film Suicide Squad (2016) features Will Smith in a leading role as Deadshot amongst the titular team with more people of color and women than the lily White Avengers have today. With the presence of Amanda Waller (Viola Davis), Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie), Katana (Karen Fukuhara), and Enchantress (Cara Delevingne), Suicide Squad will have surpassed Marvel in terms of representing women (both of color and white) in significant roles who aren’t aliens and possess different personalities. With the presence of First Nation’s Adam Beach as Slipknot, Latino Jay Hernandez as El Diablo, and Nigerian Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje as Killer Croc (the only mutated POC in the movie), in addition to Deadshot, Waller, and Katana, the film looks to be the most ethnically diverse live action comic book movie ever done.

In addition, Shazam (2019) will feature Black and Samoan superstar Dwayne “the Rock” Johnson as the antagonist/anti-hero Teth-Adam a.k.a. Black Adam. While many might cringe at the notion that a person of color would play a villain, fearing the racist demonization of Black people, I argue that this was excellent casting. Aside from his persona, the Rock’s presence and skin color will visibly remind audiences that Ancient Egyptian Teth-Adam is Black (unlike most Hollywood interpretations of Kemet). Also, it would be one of the rare instances we see a dynamic supervillain of color who can be afforded complex characterizations (such as MCU’s Loki or Kingpin) that would allow for meaningful diversity to foster. Therefore, he wouldn’t be a simple bad guy, but instead, like the comics, Black Adam could be portrayed dynamically while still being the threat against Shazam.

However, the potential for meaningful diversity is not going to be segregated to only a couple of films within the DC Shared Universe. Hawaiian Islander Jason Momoa (of the Game of Thrones and Stargate: Atlantis fame) will portray Aquaman in the upcoming Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice (2016), his own solo movie scheduled for 2018, and both the Justice League films. Wonder Woman, played by Israeli actress Gal Gadot, will have her own solo film in 2017 (about damn time!) long before the MCU introduces Captain Marvel in her own solo. And then there’s Cyborg, who will cameo in Batman v. Superman before being featured in both Justice League movies and his own solo project in 2020.

There are also rumors that the Green Lantern in the Justice League may be the John Stewart version due to his fame from the DC Animated Universe cartoons Justice League and Justice League Unlimited. Rumors are swirling that Common, who was cast in an unknown role in Suicide Squad, or Tyrese Gibson may be the front-runners for the role.

However, as of today, we can confirm that the Justice League movies will have at least two heroes of color on the main roster in Cyborg and Aquaman. With or without a third in Green Lantern, the Justice League is already poised to do more to include people of color (Black and Polynesian) than the Avengers have in their two films! Also, the upcoming Flash is played by  Queer actor Ezra Miller, although, more than likely, his sexuality will not be part of the character he portrays. It would be monumental, however, if they adjusted his character’s sexuality to match Miller’s own, even if it were just a small reference or a hint to Barry’s love life.

Of course, the challenge remains as to how  Zach Snyder, the director of the upcoming Justice League films, utilizes these characters. Does he overemphasize their diversity as a sort of “rainbow coalition” or does he just ignore it? Regarding caharacter development, does he problematically sideline and limit the potential of what the heroes of color do throughout the film? Does he oversexualize Wonder Woman and undermine the power of her character? Or, does he allow these heroes to shine and afford them complexity and three dimensionality traditionally written to White males?

Or does it just devolve into a bunch of mindless explosions, without the fun action, like the Transformers series?

DC and Warner Bros didn’t get off the best start with Man of Steel (2013) and the tone of the entire DC universe may be off-putting to certain audiences. But they have the potential to foster racial and gendered diversity within their movies. The display of multiculturalism allowed for the Fast and Furious franchise to take in over $3.8 billion worldwide (with Furious 7 pulling in $1.4 billion, the highest gross of 2015). This same multi-ethnic casting of leads of color furthered excitement for the upcoming Star Wars (with a Black man, Latino, and White woman as the trio of leads).

Superhero films are the topic of conversation as they are the biggest blockbusters Hollywood has to offer. But we need less of the same cisgender heterosexual White male dominated storylines that the genre has inebriated us (and bored us to death) with. We need more stories were POC, women, and Queer people are leading and playing significant roles in team-up films. DC promises to do so with the first two of the aforementioned identities.

But until then: we gon’ be all-white, if you hear me if you feel me, we gon’ be all-white…

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One thought on “We Gon’ Be All-White: The Lack of Meaningful Diversity in Superhero Films

  1. Pino! I love this blog! I liked Jessica Jones and I am looking forward to the netflix-Marvel version of a Luke Cage series. But I cannot wait for the day that I finally get to see a queer-woman of color as the superhero lead in a comic/TV show/movie. I might just have to write it.

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