Representation in Marvel
‘I am Iron Man’.
These famous words uttered by RDJ in 2008 ushered in a new era for Marvel Entertainment. Since then, Marvel movies have dominated pop culture conversations and sparked discussion around important topics such as politics, race and humanity. The interwoven narrative of 20+ movies and TV shows made characters like Steve Rogers, Tony Stark and Hulk household names. In terms of storytelling, action, special effects, portrayal of science and superheroes as well as social commentary, Marvel Studios has broken new ground and crafted a lasting legacy in the world of cinematic entertainment.
One of the reasons Marvel’s depictions are so influential is because they portray superheroes in a realistic light - they make us believe in altruistic heroism and the spectacular action. While these movies capture the progression and regression of humanity with nuanced narratives and larger-than-life action sequences, one aspect where Marvel has consistently fallen short is reflecting the diversity of humanity on screen.
The original 6 Marvel superheroes are all Caucasian, heterosexual, cisgendered characters who hail from Western society (with the exception of Thor, of course).
When addressing gender diversity, Marvel has often done the bare minimum. Only 1 of the core Avengers crew is a woman. For further context, it took the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) around 11 years after Iron Man to make a standalone film featuring a female superhero.
In reference to POC, Marvel’s efforts have seemed performative, to say the least. Black characters have held significant roles, but their appearance has certainly not matched the demographic makeup of the global population. Asian representation has been far worse, with the supporting Asian cast either brutally murdered or paired up as sidekicks to the white protagonists. For example: Mantis from Guardians of the Galaxy is dismissed as ‘that girl with the antennas’. Wong in Doctor Stranger, despite being superior in age and experience, was reduced to a role which caters to Steven Strange’s every whim. The list could go on and on. Beyond the passive inferences, there are other instances when the MCU directly took a stand against diversity in cinema. Emails leaked from Sony Corporation in 2014 revealed then-Marvel CEO - Ike Perlmutter’s skepticism towards female-led superhero films. His doubts about the profitability of these projects further fueled the conjecture that only white, heterosexual, cisgendered superheroes would appeal to the masses.
Fortunately however, Marvel has recently been shifting their stance on diversity through movies and shows such as Black Panther, Captain Marvel, Falcon and the Winter Soldier and yet-to-be-released work such as Black Widow, Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings, Ms Marvel, Black Panther 2, and so on. It seems as though the tremendous successes of Black Panther and Captain Marvel have affirmed the showrunner’s confidence in equitable and inclusive storytelling. Furthermore, the outspoken criticism from the audience when demanding diverse characterization has been crucial in moving the needle. As Marvel fans across the globe regularly flock to theatres or tune into Disney+ to follow the journey of their beloved superheroes, they have come to notice that their favorite narratives are not a true reflection of themselves, and by extension, of their society. Superhero films such as those by the MCU encourage us to defy the odds, to stand up for causes greater than ourselves. These movies strive to showcase humanity in all its glory - they show us our better selves in the vigilantes on screen. Such messages of courage and hope from MCU movies are much more impactful to audiences around the world when the characters on screen look back at them like reflections in the mirror. Thus, rises a growing demand for diversity in Marvel.
Now that Marvel showrunners are finally acknowledging and acting on the calls for broader representation, it serves to explore some of these inclusive projects that better display the intersectionalities of humanity; and steer the world of entertainment in the right direction.
Because the scope of this exciting discussion is so large and has many layers to it, this article will outline Marvel’s efforts in one of its upcoming productions.
Ms Marvel: Ms Marvel came into being in 2014 and its amazing performance transformed the way superhero comics were created and perceived thereafter. Before this comic book emerged, Marvel’s comic division was heavily focused upon its core characters such as the Avengers and the X-Men. Heroes who were not white such as Miles Morales aka Spiderman and Carol Danvers aka Captain Marvel had loyal followings, too; but none of them had the same level of recognition and success as that of Peter Parker or Tony Stark. Ms Marvel’s entry into the world of comics broke that mould. Pakistani-American, Muslim teen Kamala’s contemporary story has been relatable to audiences through and through. Unlike her predecessors, her religion, race, household ambience and experiences made Kamala simultaneously distinctive and universal. Written by G. Willow Wilson, drawn by artist Adrian Alphona, and overseen by editors Sana Amanat and Steve Wacker - Kamala’s story, with all of its coming-of-age highs and lows mixed in with the secret superhero lifestyle have an undeniable charm which resonates with Marvel readers across the board. Kamala’s landscape of lived experiences appear real, raw and relatable, even to a non-Muslim; and her journey from commoner to superhero is worth the hero hype. Upon Kamala’s emergence into the Marvel world, she inspired a large swath of Marvel fans to see someone like them - their skin color, religious belief and age group - arriving at humanity's rescue. This has been conducive to Ms Marvel’s wild popularity and subsequently large profits. The high profit margins yielded by Kamala’s storyline has been an important indicator of the fact that investment into gender, racial and religious diversity - among other things - is fruitful to money making. Succeeding such incredible performance, the MCU has launched its production of Ms Marvel for Disney+. Iman Vellani, a Canadian born to Pakistani immigrants, is set to portray the Inhuman on screen. Ahead of her show’s release, Marvel Studios has even confirmed for Ms Marvel to appear in the MCU’s 2022 feature film ‘The Marvels’. With a serious lack of Muslim role models in Western culture alongside rising Islamophobic sentiments, Ms Marvel’s debut instills hope for a more tolerant society as well as the future of diversity in entertainment.
Bottom line: With movements like Stop Anti-Asian Hate and BLM dominating social networking spheres in recent times, Marvel’s executive decisions in diversity are significant. This is largely due to the influence the production company holds - it has been a pioneer in the industry in the past and therefore, its inclusive attitude sets precedent for other companies to make similar choices in the field. Notably, having greater representation in the media for visible minorities and historically marginalized groups has implications beyond forging personal connections with the audience. The more people see diversity taking centre stage, the more they empathize with the narratives of cultures, gender identities, races and religions different from their own. Storytelling is a powerful device and if used right, it can pave the path towards progressive dialogue and promote compassion. Given that our cultural, racial, national and social divisions are presently fueling various disputes across the globe; it is high time that we understand and embrace our differences in ways both big and small, and ultimately realize that deep down, we are all one and the same. Marvel’s shift to diverse storytelling has the power to do just that.