On May 6, just over eight years after the blockbuster smash Iron Man was released, Captain America: Civil War, the newest installment in the Marvel Cinematic Universe (or MCU), hits theatres. Once released, Civil War will be the 13th film in the official MCU. The success of these films cannot be ignored (three of them are in the top ten highest grossing of all time), but they have not escaped their fair share of criticism from audiences and comic book fans.
Comic books have a history as complex as their fans are enthusiastic. The superhero comic first became a cultural phenomenon among kids and teens in the 1940s with approximately 90 percent readership within that demographic. Soon their avid playground fan base grew up; Captain America punching Hitler was no longer enough to excite anyone. Instead it felt contrived in a way that insulted the very real tragedies the world had experienced since the ’40s. Comics’ narratives remained fantastic, but the characters became less symbolic and more human. Plots were now populated by flawed characters with real fears and human failings.
Gradually, characters began to reflect the world we live in.
The inclusive nature of comics is by no means new. Black Panther, for example, debuted in the ’60s. In recent years comics have boomed, becoming progressively less stereotypical, more inclusive and more diverse. Minorities exist in comics but have historically been relegated to supporting roles. They are love interests and team members rather than team leaders, and normal people populating a fantastical world. However, this has begun to change in recent years as American culture has, slowly (and by no means totally) moved to better represent our diverse country. Comics took minority characters and awarded them better plotlines, their own solo titles and ultimately the representation they deserve more swiftly and readily than other forms of media.
In 2002, when much of America was still reeling from the tragedy of 9/11 and Muslims were being villainized in daily life and in the media, Marvel debuted Dust. Dust, whose real name is Sooraya Qadir, is notable for being a Muslim and female character who was portrayed in a positive light and not highly sexualized. Like many Muslim women, she wears a niqab.
However, it was not until 2014 that Marvel released a series helmed by a Muslim female. Ms. Marvel has historically been a blonde white woman, but in 2014 the new series announced Kamala Khan as the newest Ms. Marvel. Kamala, like Dust, is a Muslim is Pakistani American and wears a costume inspired by the shalwar kameez and no veil. Khan’s plotlines revolve around her adventures as a superhero just as much as they examine her relationship with her faith and the Muslim-American diaspora. The series has received critical accolades and numerous awards, becoming both a critical and commercial success, proving that minority characters resonate with more than just minority audiences.
Beyond these two heroines, comic books are populated by many other popular minority characters. From the Kenyan weather-bending mutant Storm to the Native American deaf master martial artist Echo to the Chinese former teen mutant and now vampiric Jubilee, comics have made an active attempt to create characters of color who are not relegated to mere stereotypes.
Representation goes far beyond race and ethnicity. LGBTQ+ representation in comics is also prevalent and often incredibly well received by fans. When gay marriage was legalized in New York, Marvel celebrated the occasion. In Astonishing X-Men #51 longtime partners Northstar and Kyle Jinadu got married. After decades of censorship, Northstar was finally able to be written as openly gay in 1992.
All of the aforementioned characters are some of Marvel’s most popular with massive fan bases. In fact, in an alternate universe Spider-Man is Miles Morales, a biracial teenager who in recent years has been considered to be the “better Spider-Man” with a better story. However, after three iterations of Spider-Man as a film series, every single movie has featured the white Peter Parker rather than Morales. Unfortunately, the white-washing and erasure of minorities in major comic book films does not stop at Spider-Man. Peter Parker’s seventh recent cinematic outing has even taken precedence over minority helmed films. When Marvel re-won the rights to the character from Sony, they added a new Spider-Man film to their Phase 3 lineup. Doing so meant pushing back two highly anticipated films, Black Panther and Captain Marvel, starring a black man and a woman respectively—both firsts in comic book films. Now the first female lead will come as part of a duo in Ant-Man and The Wasp, while no other films until 2019 have a lead of color.
In the past the MCU has had a less than stellar reputation. Ten of the twelve films released have starred white male leads. In the most recent installment, Age of Ultron, controversy arose when a white actress was chosen to play a role meant to be ethnically Roma—in the film this cultural heritage was entirely ignored. In the upcoming Dr. Strange, Marvel attempted to make a progressive move by turning a stereotypical Asian character, The Ancient One, into something less racist. However, they received backlashwhen that progressive choice ultimately just meant whitewashing a key character.
In working with one of the deepest, most extensive and most diverse universes of characters, comics have a lot to work with when they make films. Unfortunately, the mantra of #HollywoodSoWhite still rings true when it comes to comic book adaptations.