The Responsibility for Diversity in Superhero Movies

Superheroes have of course been around since World War Two in the form of comics, but it was the early 2000s film adaptations – for example X-Men (2000), Spider-Man (2002), and later The Dark Knight (2008) and Iron Man (2008) – that helped push superheroes into mainstream entertainment. As pointed out by the New York Film Academy, successful film adaptations were made possible by the fact that movie special effects were finally at a stage where they could look realistic enough to not put off viewers. Today people say the industry is getting saturated with superhero films – the span of April 2019 has room for three new ones: Shazam!, Hellboy and of course the eagerly awaited Avengers: Endgame. Even TV has its share of superheroes. It's not entirely fair that any other good movie that gets big crowds, good reviews, and awards will at the box office always be beaten to the punch (often literally) by a good ol' superhero flick.

Escapism is an often cited reason for why we enjoy superheroes. We want the individual to stand up for what's good and to thwart the schemes of the bad guys. This is partly why superhero movies may seem formulaic: much like feel-good romantic films rely on the lead couple ending up together at the end, superhero movies rely on the evil to be stopped and the hero to ultimately prevail – this is what the audience is expecting (even if we don't want to admit the predictability of the plot while we're still enjoying watching it unfold). This is not to say that superheroes or movies about them are all the same. Batman is brooding, Spider-Man tempers brooding with wit, and Deadpool is outright zany, and each has their own goals or motivations for why they do what they are doing. It is these individual personality flaws or struggles that make the characters engaging. But the engagement often goes beyond the level of the individual. When the world is a scary place and the news just depressing, it is comforting to be inspired be heroes who fight that sort of thing. In the 1940s, it was Superman and Captain America punching Nazis - today they are punching terrorists. Fantasy and sci-fi have a long history of putting real-world conflicts intro perspective using fantasy parallels as a thought experiment. Humans vs aliens, mutants vs humans without superpowers, or humans vs robots/cyborgs/AI – fantastic racism is often a  parallel to issues such as racism or anti-immigrant tensions.

The X-Men are heroic mutants, feared and hated for their superpowers -- an allegory for queerness. Picture by Hollywood Reporter.

But back on the personal level, whose stories are being told and in whose voice? This ties with the idea of representation, a concept brought out ever more frequently and in contexts relating to all genres of all forms of media. Representation entails thoughtful writing of characters that are not limited by stereotypes pertaining to gender, ethnicity, sexuality, religion or disability. In the superhero movie scene, guys have a long list of characters corresponding to their own gender. Girls less so, although the recent attention to representation issues has increased the list, most recently with Captain Marvel. The list of queer superheroes still needs more love, although in 2018, transgender actress Nicole Maines was cast to play a transgender superhero on CW's Supergirl TV-adaptation. In cinema, sexuality has yet to stray outside the heteronormative (although Wonder Woman is bisexual in comic-canon). As for race and ethnicity, Black Panther became an icon of black African superheroism, even though in terms of black superheroes he too was preceded by the African-American Blade. While Latinx, Asian as well as Muslim superheroes exist in comics, they have yet to make it to the movies - maybe one day the time is ripe for Pakistani-American and Muslim successor of the Ms. Marvel title, Kamala Khan.

It is not as if those of us without laser-shooting eyes can exactly relate to a person who can singlehandedly take on a fleet of bad guys. According to a survey by Statista with adults in the US, only 9% strongly agree and 17% somewhat agree that they can relate to characters in superhero movies. At the same time, the results of a survey by Women’s Media Center shows that people want more representation of female and POC characters in the sci-fi/superhero genre. Neither superheroism nor everyday heroism needs to be automatically linked to whiteness, masculinity or America. Characters from Latin America or the Middle-East should not be found only among villains or people of dubious morals – and this holds true in all movie genres. While it's easy enough to be inspired by someone completely different from yourself in terms of background, there's just something extra special about seeing an aspect of yourself being reflected on the screen.

Hulu's superhero TV show Marvel's Runaways is appropriately diverse considering the story is set in L.A. In terms of race, the main cast of six (pictured) includes an African-American, a Latina, and a Japanese-American. The team also features LBGT characters. Photo by IGN.

With the momentum that continues to boost the superhero genre, one would imagine that studios and producers could easily bring in some more diversity and still make a successful movie – assuming the storytelling is good, of course. However, this is not as straightforward as one might think. In 2015, Marvel comics launched its “All-New, All-Different Marvel”, recasting major heroes such as Iron Man and the Hulk as more diverse people. In 2016, they also launched “Marvel NOW!” comic book branding focusing on completely new characters who were already more diverse than long established characters. These efforts were followed by the quick launch of “Marvel Legacy” in 2017, restoring the traditional white male leads.  This may have been due to the small groups of vocal “fans” (some of whom may admittedly be trolls) who love complaining about "leftist" or “anti-white” diversity being "shoved in our faces", a case in point being their outrage at the female and PoC representation in the main cast of the latest Star Wars films. It may well be a waste of time to try to persuade the people who honestly feel threatened by a non-white and/or female fictional character. While views on what is “good” change over time, superheroes generally stand up for the everybody who is “good”, their stories parallel our own personal fears or more large-scale global concerns. It is only fair that superheroes are as diverse as those who continue to be inspired by their worlds.