Saturday, December 17, 2016

Superhero Representation in Marvel: We Still Have a Long Way to Go

One of the things I'm not quiet about is my absolute love of Marvel superheroes, both the movies and the comics. From Iron Man to the third Spider-man reboot to Marvel's less-appropriate cousin Deadpool, I love it all. However, part of loving something includes being willing to admit its faults, and today I've decided to admit something I've been too privileged to see until now: Marvel has a representation problem.

Before we get into the details, I'll say this: Marvel does have some representation, particularly when it comes to black male characters. Rhodey and Sam Wilson come to mind, especially since they've taken on an even bigger role now that they're New Avengers. However, there's still even a troubling aspect of that: Rhodey and Sam Wilson are still the sidekicks and have never been able to headline their own movie. Not only that, but you might as well forget seeing an Asian person or woman of color on-screen, much less headlining it. Everyone is thin and able-bodied. And aside from the pansexual Deadpool, LGBTQ+ representation in the MCU is nowhere to speak of.

Hey, thanks, Wade.

Instead, we've got about twenty billion different movies about white, heterosexual men. Trust me, I am a huge fan of Tony Stark, Steve Rogers, and Peter Quill. And yes, we do have Black Widow, Scarlet Witch, and cinnamon rolls T'Challa and Sam Wilson. However, that doesn't change the fact that Marvel has a representation problem, and all of its stories are skewed unfairly towards white men, despite the fact that Marvel has plenty of diverse heroes from its comics to choose from. (Seriously. The Young Avengers, Khamala Khan... need I go on?)

This problem was ultimately brought to my mind by this video by Upworthy.

It focuses especially on the lack of female representation in all superhero genres, but my brain took it one step further to representation of all types of people we lack. Also, I'm only human, so forgive me if I forget to mention any examples of positive or negative representation--the Marvel universe is so big that I'm bound to miss something.

Another disclaimer: I'm focusing specifically on Marvel for this post because it's where I'm most knowledgeable--and because DC is behind several franchises which make a small dent in the lack of representation. Supergirl and Wonder Woman in particular allow women to lead the helm. We also have people of color on The Flash (Joe, Cisco, and Iris) and LGBTQ+ characters in Arrow, Supergirl, and Legends of Tomorrow (Curtis, Alex Danvers, and Sara Lance, just to name a few). DC is far from perfect, but I wish that Marvel would at least take a small clue from DC allowing people of all types into the spotlight.

As the video says, there are thirty superhero movies coming out soon, and only two of them involve women as the main characters. Yes. THIRTY. And only two out of thirty--that's seven percent--are headlined by women.

Out of thirty, could we not have at least a few more movies headlined by someone other than a white man?

To put this in perspective, Iron Man, which was arguably the film that jump started the MCU as we know it, premiered eight years ago. In eight years, we have only had films about white men. Our first Marvel film with a (white) woman as its main character will be Captain Marvel, which comes out in 2019--two years from now and eleven years after the first Marvel Cinematic Universe film. Black Panther comes out a little sooner in 2018, and it's headlined by T'Challa, a black man. But that is still ten years after the MCU was born.

That isn't okay.

Such diversity, much wow.--(source)

Like I said, Asian people and women of color have it even worse--they're virtually nowhere to be found in the MCU. (Doctor Strange did feature an Asian character, but that's a whole other controversial bag of cats.) Also, our only Latino character, Luis, showed up in Ant-Man, and even then, it ended up being a caricatured portrayal.

The lack of representation does extend to the TV shows as well, and they only do marginally better. Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. seems to be the only Marvel entity to combat the lack of Asian characters (because even though Daredevil has Asian characters, they are pretty much all the villains). Chloe Bennet and Ming-Na Wen are completely rocking it on AOS.

Chloe Bennet as Daisy Johnson--(source)

For women of color, the Defenders shows has Claire Temple and AOS had Raina. But the former isn't as much of a main character as I wish she was, and the latter met an untimely end.

There are of course exceptions to the rule, especially with the Netflix shows, which are allowed to be a little more gritty and a little more progressive. Jessica Jones was a female-dominated show with POC characters and LGBTQ characters with powerful things to say about rape culture, feminism, and trauma. But it was still mostly about white women, and it fell into the pattern of denying its LGBTQ characters a happy ending. We also have Luke Cage's show, which was extremely powerful. However, it's embarrassing that Luke Cage was the first Marvel production to be led by a person of color when the Marvel universe has been in production since 2008. 

When you look at it without thinking about it too much, Marvel's got the representation down. They have female characters and POC characters in most of their movies. I'm not implying that they don't. Because yes, the characters we do have are good, and I'm glad we have them. I don't want to discredit what Marvel is and has been doing because a lot of it has been good so far. But we can't stop there. As Angelica Schuyler says in Hamilton, "I will never be satisfied." I will never be satisfied until there are POC and/or women headlining just as many films as white men. I will never be satisfied until every Marvel film has a population of people of color, people of all body types, people with disabilities, people who are LGBTQ, and people from all walks of life. I will never be satisfied until Marvel is truly diverse.

Until then, we still have a long way to go.


  1. Oh oh I couldn't agree more!! I've actually fallen out of love with a lot of Marvel things in the last few years. Like I'm still a fan...I still love Iron Man MORE THAN ANYTHING but the fact that it is 2016 and there is NO female-centred movie out there is absolutely disgusting. And that's just women. What about people of different nationalities like you said?!? Where are the LGBT heroes? Where is the diversity?? It's beyond disappointing.

  2. This is so, so true. I know that within my close friend group, I know a lot of people are also concerned about Marvel's whitewashing patterns. Especially in regards to the wake of Doctor Strange, I know a lot of people were upset that the Ancient One was made about as white as can be with Celtic lore instead of the original Himalayan roots. In that regard I know a lot of people struggle because Marvel isn't just avoiding representation but willfully erasing it.

    I, too, really hope that we get to see some amazing representation in superhero movies, in all areas. Still, I can also understand why people feel hurt by these patterns. Change would be good.