It was, all things considered, a very shrewd publicity stunt. Last month, Marvel Comics, the print shingle of the absurdly profitable superhero factory behind blockbuster film franchises The Avengers, Spider-Man, Iron Man, and X-Men, made waves when they announced that the Falcon, the longtime sidekick to Captain America, would be stepping into the shoes of the uber-patriotic superhero. This was news because Falcon, of course, is black. The move came one day after the comic book company introduced a female Thor.
“It’s about time,” Marvel executive editor Tom Brevoort said of the change. “In 2014, this should be a thing that we shrug off, it shouldn’t be seen as revolutionary, but it still feels exciting.”
And the media, in turn, patted the company on the back for their “groundbreaking” progressivism. Marvel, it seems, no longer thought of diversity in Burgundyian terms–namely, as an old, wooden ship that was used during the Civil War era. But these are comics. They appeal to a small group of like-minded, liberal nerds who relate on a cellular level to the plight of the cultural outsider (see: the proprietor of The Android’s Dungeon on The Simpsons). Just ask the geek-God himself, Neil deGrasse Tyson. “Right now Comic-Con is going on in San Diego,” the science genius said recently on Real Time with Bill Maher. “Just go there and take a show of hands. How many vote Republican or Democrat? It will be overwhelmingly liberal Democrat.”
Marvel Studios, on the other hand, is a money-printing movie studio that churns out billion dollar-grossing populist entertainments designed to appeal to the biggest audience possible (they are owned by The Walt Disney Company, after all). And as such, they’re loath to take the same risks as their pint-sized nephew, which brings us to the cultural impasse at hand: Marvel has, with the exception of a few titles, announced their superhero film slate through 2019 and it is entirely devoid of lead superheroes of color, or women–with the exception of maybe one female superhero, although this has yet to be confirmed.
So why, in 2014, is the superhero standard-bearer so minority-averse? There are, it seems, a variety of factors at play here–from the financially motivated (international box office) to the cultural (inequality) to the practical (source material).
The media’s counterpoint to this argument is the recent Marvel superhero flick Guardians of the Galaxy, which opened to a stellar $160.4 million worldwide, and boasts a multi-ethnic cast, including Zoe Saldana (Hispanic), Dave Bautista (Filipino), Djimon Hounsou (West African), and Benicio Del Toro (Puerto Rican).
“It was very important to me to have a diverse cast of different people,” said the film’s director, James Gunn, adding, “Let’s face it: there’s still a certain amount of racism in human beings, so that shows up in Hollywood.”
But Guardians isn’t that diverse, really. Saldana and Bautista play space aliens who are colored different shades of green, while Del Toro and Hounsou serve very minor roles. The film’s hero, Star-Lord, is played by Chris Pratt, a corn-fed blond, white guy from Minnesota–and the third major Marvel superhero played by a white guy named Chris, joining the broad-shouldered ranks of Chris Hemsworth (Thor) and Chris Evans (Captain America).
And there was a time, prior to the one-two punch of Catwoman and Elektra, when superhero films were championed minority heroes. In fact, two of the earliest contemporary Marvel superhero films did just that–1998’s Blade, starring Wesley Snipes as a vampire-samurai, and 2000’s X-Men, which featured Halle Berry’s Storm as the female lead. As the years progressed, however, Berry’s Storm played a smaller and smaller role in the X-Men films, and the Blade movies attracted less and less eyeballs.
One of the reasons minority superheroes are getting short shrift could be the international box office, which in 2013 was up 33 percent over five years prior, and nowadays trumps domestic sales. In 2013, the North American box office accounted for $10.9 billion, while the international box office raked in $25 billion–led by increased growth in markets like China, Japan, Korea, Russia, and Mexico, according to the Motion Picture Association of America.
Some actors feel the studios are unwilling to take chances with these huge global revenues by taking risks in casting. Many films featuring minority casts–in particular blacks–have been given very limited international releases. Take the 2012 comedy hit Think Like A Man. The film, which featured a predominately black cast, grossed a surprising $91.5 million stateside, compared to a meager $4.5 million abroad. And last year’s Lee Daniels’ The Butler raked in $116 million in North America versus just $59 million internationally.
Still, there are plenty of properties in the Marvel Universe featuring superheroes of color (or women), from the aforementioned Luke Cage to Black Panther, Deathlok, War Machine, Captain Marvel, She-Hulk, the list goes on.
And there have, in recent years, been some advances–albeit in the form of minority or female superhero sidekicks or villains. There’s Scarlett Johansson’s Black Widow in Iron Man 2 and The Avengers, Jennifer Lawrence’s Mystique in the X-Men reboots, Jamie Foxx’s supervillain Electro in last year’s The Amazing Spider-Man 2, and the aforementioned Falcon, played by Anthony Mackie, to name a few. All of these characters, with the exception of Foxx’s, could front their own superhero film.
And next year will bring us Josh Trank’s The Fantastic Four, which has cast the black actor Michael B. Jordan in the role of The Human Torch–a far cry from the original Fantastic films, which transformed the Hispanic Jessica Alba into a blond-haired, blue-eyed white woman.
So it’s up to Marvel to buck the trend. They can, after all, afford it. On Tuesday, The Walt Disney Company (which owns Marvel) announced that “its quarterly profit totaled $2.25 billion, a 22 percent increase from the year-ago period, helped in large part by the success of its Marvel franchise,” reported The New York Times.
And last May, The Hollywood Reporter reported that Marvel has a number of scripts for superhero films featuring minority or female heroes that could fit into the company’s future plans.
“Marvel has a writing program it uses as a concept generator and has scripts forBlade and Ms. Marvel features, for example,” they said. “Doctor Strange, Iron Fist, Black Panther and The Runaways are other projects on the horizon.”
Marvel: The ball is in your court.