ARTICLE / LONG READ
HALFWAY through X-MEN: FIRST CLASS (Matthew Vaughn 2011), Darwin (Edi
Gathegi), a mutant with reactive powers, fails to rescue the alluring Angel (Zoë Kravitz). Antagonist Sebastian Shaw (Kevin Bacon) places a ball of energy down Darwin’s throat, planning to end him. Although Darwin’s powers allow him to adapt to any environment, his face changes in horror as his body unsuccessfully attempts to adapt before perishing and turning to dust. Losing biracial Angel to the dark side and
African American Darwin completely, we are left with an all-white cast until the end of the film.
Across ten years of production, Marvel’s superhero films have been subject to much
criticism for their lack of diversity and treatment of minorities. While the marginalised mutants are a metaphor for minorities in society, the X-Men and other superheroes are often played by white, heterosexual and able-bodied actors while racial minorities are stereotyped, pushed to the background or silenced. With BLACK PANTHER
(Ryan Coogler 2018) being added to the Marvel Cinematic Universe, is this the beginning of racially-diverse superhero films?
Since the beginning of the Marvel Cinematic Universe with IRON MAN (Jon Favreau 2008), non-white characters can be easily placed across three categories: the help, the background and the dead. Regarding the help, drawing from film historian Donald Bogle’s 1994 book TOM, COONS, MULATTOES, MAMMIES AND BUCKS, two stereotypes emerge: the “Tom” and the Uncle Remus “Coon”. While Bogle wrote about these stereotypes based on black character roles he had seen multiple times before, these stereotypes can also be applied to the Mexican, Italian, Filipino and Chinese characters we see in Marvel films today as they all get the same treatment.
The "Tom" stereotype is evident in Sam Wilson (Anthony Mackie) in CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE WINTER SOLDIER (Anthony Russo and Joe Russo 2014), James Rhodes (Don Cheadle and Terrence Howard) in IRON MAN and Heimdall (Idris Elba) in THOR (Kenneth Branagh 2011). They are “stoic, generous, selfless, and oh-sovery-
kind”, Bogle writes. This shows in Wilson, Rhodes and Heimdall as they will do whatever they can to help the white hero.
MARVEL’S SUPERHERO FILMS HAVE BEEN SUBJECT TO MUCH CRITICISM FOR THEIR LACK OF DIVERSITY AND TREATMENT OF MINORITIES.
The “Coon” stereotype is depicted in Ned Leeds (Jacob Batalon) in SPIDER-MAN:
HOMECOMING (Jon Watts 2017) and Luis, Kurt and Dave (Michael Peña, David Dastmalchian and T.I.) in ANT-MAN (Peyton Reed 2015). They are the “harmless” comedians. They help where they can but are usually cracking jokes, in a state of naïve belief that the main protagonist has powers and are unable to physically help, instead relying on their computer skills. Seeing these same stereotypical characters
with different nationalities is criticised as bad character writing but not racial stereotyping. With each new Marvel film, the diversity in the supporting cast has grown but always remained stereotypical. The “background” actors or extras have diversified to contain a great number of different nationalities but when they are all taxi drivers, computer technicians, SHIELD agents or non-speaking councilmen, it is regressive.
Regarding the "dead", Marvel has a trope of using the death of non-white characters as an incentive to avenge so that the remaining heroes come together to defeat the evil that killed their comrade. This can be seen with Agent Coulson (Clark Gregg) in THE AVENGERS (Joss Whedon 2012) and T’Chaka (John Kani) in CAPTAIN AMERICA: CIVIL WAR. Both deaths are used as ammunition to spur the white protagonists to
However, in X-MEN: FIRST CLASS when Darwin is killed and Erik Lehnsherr (Michael Fassbender) uses his death for an inspirational line to the team, fans were in an uproar by this unnecessary death. Fans of the comic book series know that Darwin can adapt to any environment, which was questioning enough as to why he could not
survive, but that he can also transform into pure energy, meaning he would survive that “fatal” blow. Was this a power move from writer and director Matthew Vaughn to show how powerful Shaw was? Was it the motivation the X-Men needed to defeat Shaw or was it to silence one of the two racially diverse voices in this film? It is not seen as important that Darwin and other black or Asian characters are seen as the failed heroes and are subjects of bad representation, used as motivation for the white characters to fight for justice but unable to fight for themselves.
THE DIVERSITY IN THE SUPPORTING CAST HAS GROWN BUT ALWAYS REMAINED STEREOTYPICAL.
Marvel does have one non-white character who does not fit in any of the three aforementioned categories. Netflix series LUKE CAGE (2016-2018) presents a black protagonist who departs from Bogle’s stereotypes. The show has been praised for taking out the racist undertones from the previous Blaxploitation comics in the seventies. MoviePilot blogger Mark Lynch states LUKE CAGE is a show full of culture with its music, location and conversation on “the problems that black/African American face in urban neighbourhoods”. This references a scene where Cage makes a point of the unnecessary use of racial slurs.
LUKE CAGE received praise when showrunner Cheo Hodari Coker told a Comic-Con crowd in 2016: “When I think about what’s going on in the world right now, the world is ready for a bulletproof black man”. His comment can be read in the context of police brutality horror stories and the "Black Lives Matter" movement that received much media coverage over the past year. Among fans, it was argued that this could be the turning point for Marvel, altering their ways and introducing diversity into the Marvel Universe.
When the show was released, critic David Berry for the National Post newspaper argued that “Luke Cage looks an awful lot like the first season of Marvel’s DAREDEVIL", a white superhero fighting for justice in the same geographical area as Cage. This suggests there is something inauthentic about a show featuring a black main character, suggesting something is lacking due to being similar in every respect apart from race. Charles Pulliam-Moore, a journalist for Splinter News, said that “the show is getting a lot of (justified) love for being Marvel’s first black project, but there is a lot of projecting about what the show actually says about being black”. The journalist’s comment suggests that it is not that LUKE CAGE is similar to DAREDEVIL but that it says very little about being black, in a show that aimed to be full of culture. Coker, however, saw it differently, telling the Telegraph that “Luke Cage is a black hero, not a hero who happens to be black”. This is an important distinction and implies that Coker put thought into the culture and language shown in the show.
If black male characters are hardly represented, black, Asian and biracial female characters are even fewer. The combination of their race and being female makes them subject to severe inequality. While they are mostly supporting characters, they are characterised as little more than the "help". They assist the white protagonist in saving the day, possibly having extraordinary powers of their own, but are not interesting or powerful enough to take attention away from the white male protagonist or the main story. This cannot be considered progressive. In X-MEN:
FIRST CLASS, Angel is introduced at a strip club where she showcases her powers to Charles Xavier (James McAvoy) and Eric Lehnsherr. Xavier asks her: “How would you like a job where you get to keep your clothes on?” and in a later scene, when taunted about her powers, Angel reveals that she would rather have men “stare at me with my clothes off than the way that these ones stare at me”. These scenes add nothing
to Angel’s character apart from sexualising her. This “has so often been represented”, film scholar Diane Negra argues in her 2001 book OFFWHITE HOLLYWOOD: AMERICAN CULTURE AND ETHNIC FEMALE STARDOM. Negra writes that the ethnic woman is often shown as hypersexual and exotic. Even in the final battle, Angel wears hoop earrings and a mini skirt as she fights against and with a fully clothed cast.
Although Angel is not an example of Bogle’s mixed-race stereotype - the tragic mulatta, a mixed-race woman who is assumed to be sad because they do not fit in “white” society or “black” society - she still falls victim to choosing between her black side and white side through an analogy. When Sebastian Shaw offers his hand to Angel to join his side, Angel accepts. Darwin stretches out his own hand for Angel to come back but she turns away from him. The implication here is that she is rejecting her blackness and freedom to be herself and embracing the worst side of whiteness as she joins white supremacist, Shaw. Angel's turn toward evil is overshadowed by the controversy of Darwin’s death moments after.
17 feature films and over a decade later, BLACK PANTHER has widely been considered a sign of hope for equality in the Marvel franchise. While LUKE CAGE, released before BLACK PANTHER, proves representation of black male characters
have been progressing, racial stereotypes and inequality continue to abound. It is a constant issue in need of discussion and critical examination, even with BLACK PANTHER we have barely begun to repair the damage. Marvel will continue to have mainly white leads but LUKE CAGE and BLACK PANTHER suggest a positive future.