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Spider-Man: Homecoming is out this week, and one thing stands out particularly from the trailers. Where other Marvel films have undeniably featured all-white casts with one quippy black side-kick per franchise (Rhodey, Sam, … Heimdall I guess?), Homecoming’s secondary characters are a diverse bunch.
However talented Tom Holland is, some fans simply won’t be able to get over the disappointment of Marvel ignoring the opportunity to bring Miles Morales to the screen instead of yet another iteration of Peter Parker. Miles is a popular Afro-Latino character who picks up the mantle of Spider-Man, and many fans certainly felt that it was time to see a slightly different face behind the iconic mask.
Representation in cinema has been the subject of much debate over the last few years, and superhero films have taken a lot of flack. Marvel particularly have been the subject of much mockery for having three entire franchises led by arguably identical white men called Chris whilst having minimal representation for women and people of color.
The treatment of Scarlett Johansson’s Natasha Romanoff in Avengers: Age of Ultron was justifiably loathed by many fans, especially female ones. The contrived Beauty and the Beast-esque love story with the Hulk followed on from their only previous interaction being Natasha running terrified away from the rampaging Hulk in the first Avengers film. On top of that, the dialogue surrounding her being a “monster” because she couldn’t have kids further angered fans. This treatment of female characters ends up driving away female fans who only ask for female characters to be treated with the same respect as their male counterparts.
Elizabeth Olsen’s white-washed version of Romani character Wanda Maximoff also falls into fake-feminist Joss Whedon’s favorite trope: the Strong Female Character. Like Buffy from Buffy the Vampire Slayer, River from Firefly, and even Natasha herself, Wanda to is an incredibly powerful, ass-kicking woman whose emotional development is childlike, resulting in her looking to male characters for guidance.
Age of Ultron ended with the introduction of the new Avengers, which included Sam and Rhodey, with the implication that some of the other original Avengers would take more of a backseat role in the future of the franchise. Civil War, however, kept those two firmly in their established roles as props for their white leading men. Fans of color are tired of being told by these films that they can’t be superheroes, only sidekicks.
As for women of color, Zoe Saldana’s Gamora in Guardians of the Galaxy has been the only one in pretty much the entirety of the MCU, and she’s painted green. The issue of painting people of color has long plagued the sci-fi world, and Marvel has done exactly that. She too, like Natasha in the Avengers, has to carry the mantle of being the only female character in an all-male team. This reeks of tokenism — especially since the Guardians of the Galaxy team in the comics features at least three regularly occurring female members of the team.
Marvel’s Netflix shows have been progressing faster than their big screen projects. Jessica Jones engaged with women’s issues in a frank and uncompromising manner, but the women in the show are still overwhelmingly white. Luke Cage brilliantly presents a huge range of black stories, including complex black women like Misty Knight (Simone Missick) and Mariah Dillard (Alfre Woodard). Looking at Daredevil, Jessica Jones and Luke Cage, you can see a clear progression in engagement with social issues. Unfortunately, Iron Fist was a huge step back. The inclusion of East Asian characters as support for a white lead in a fundamentally Asian story is possibly the worst thing Marvel could have done with the character of Danny Rand. Marvel has contributed significantly to the ugly trend of whitewashing East Asian roles – just look at the Ancient One in Doctor Strange.
Credit where credit’s due, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. has always had a hugely diverse cast right from the start. Half-Chinese actress Chloe Bennet has led the show since the beginning, and though other characters of color come and go, Ming-Na Wen’s Melinda May has also been a solid staple character. Alongside their very inclusion being considered representation, these actors’ race is written as a fundamental part of their character. Skye/Daisy had a whole season dedicated to her uncovering her roots and coming to terms with her mixed heritage, with her race used as a metaphor for the Inhumans plot. Though this might be a little heavy-handed, at least the decisiion was made not to simply ignore race entirely on the small screen.
But maybe Phase 3 is finally catching up with the social climate. Spider-Man: Homecoming features Hawaiian actor Jacob Batalon, Disney star Zendaya, and Laura Harrier as Peter’s group of friends. This is a huge step towards normalizing representation on screen, even if they’re still in sidekick roles. The fact that multiple people of color get to exist together in the same narrative is a step forward. Alongside this, Brie Larson is set to play Captain Marvel, aka the first female Marvel superhero to get a solo film, although we don’t have any news on how production is coming along for that or when it will be released.
An even greater step forward, of course, is the upcoming Black Panther. Fans have been eagerly awaiting footage of his solo film since Chadwick Boseman’s first outing in his catsuit as T’Challa in Civil War, and the first trailer blew all our expectations out of the water!
We can’t wait to explore Wakanda and be introduced to all the different characters that populate it. There probably will be a black sidekick figure, but there’s also a black hero, a black villain, black women who fight, who invent, who are queens and mothers and sisters, and that is true representation.
Casting Tessa Thompson as Valkyrie, a love interest of Thor, in Thor: Ragnarok is one of those “bold” race-bending decisions that need to become more commonplace, but Black Panther is ultimately more powerful representation since it tells a black story.
Let’s hope in future Marvel will continue to move in the right direction by casting more women and people of color in complex and interesting roles, but more importantly by telling more diverse stories.
Watch the Black Panther trailer below!