Traditionally, superheroes have been straight white men—the greatest, most recognizable, and most profitable among them being Superman, Batman, Spiderman, Ironman, and Captain America. The introduction of Wonder Woman in 1941, and Marvel’s multicultural surge in the ’60s embodied by the X-Men and Black Panther, disrupted this all-white boys’ club, as people from myriad backgrounds began to see themselves in the heroes they admired.
The ’90s brought Marvel’s Northstar and DC’s Midnighter, both eventually marrying their significant others in the pages of their respective comic books. But if superheroes in print have been diversifying more and more over the years, their cinematic counterparts have been slower to adapt. However, that now seems to be changing, albeit incrementally, with Marvel leading the way. As part of its Phase 4 rollout, the Marvel Cinematic Universe will feature its first deaf, Asian-American, and openly gay superheroes.
Meanwhile, rumors persist of a queer character in the the upcoming Eternals, starring Angelina Jolie, Salma Hayek, Richard Madden, Kumail Nanjiani, and Bryan Tyree Henry.
Marvel’s Phase 4 is already looking more inclusive than its previous incarnations, but it took a decade, two phases, and a dozen films into the franchise before last year’s Black Panther and this year’s female-led Captain Marvel, starring Brie Larson, changed the face of the MCU.
Over at DC, 2017’s Wonder Woman soared to critical acclaim and commercial success, while Ezra Miller was slated to be the first openly queer lead of a superhero flick with the long-delayed Flash movie.
There are also reports that the DCU’s upcoming film Birds of Prey will feature the gay supervillain Black Mask, played by Ewan McGregor.
Whether this wave of representation is a reflection of the real world or a blatant cash brag trading on the popularity of “diversity” (most likely, a bit of both) it begs the questions: Who gets to be a hero? What does a hero, or a villain, look like? And who’s telling the story?
The popularity of superhero films coincided with the end of the Bush era and the trust it had eroded in institutions. At that point superheroes felt like a salve because they exist in a world where tragedy can be avoided, or rectified—where the good guys tend to win and the bad guys don’t get away with it. Considering the times we live in now, it’s no wonder superhero franchises are still storming the box office. That said, there are signs of fatigue—this summer has been replete with duds such as Dark Phoenix, from the once-esteemed X-Men series. Still, the idealism born of superheroes—in which much is made of the power of the individual to effect change—spoke to the disillusionment over 9/11, the rise of mass shootings, the financial crisis, and two seemingly interminable wars.
These superheroes were almost exclusively straight, white, and male. Their sexuality was implied, there being no possible alternative, but unlike the films and TV shows from the earlier part of the 2000s, the villains weren’t brown—the usual generic terrorist. They were, more often that not, other white men.
So white men saved the world from the other white men who threatened to destroy it. But in order to defeat the Big Bad, they required the help of a rainbow coalition: the black inventor or the female reporter or the Asian best friend.
Barack Obama’s administration epitomized this union of disparate backgrounds in support of a common goal, just as Donald Trump’s administration represents the exact opposite. Under Trump, the Enemy of the American People is, in broader and broader strokes, painted as brown, or black, or female, or queer. Yet, for many Americans, the biggest Bad there is sits in the White House. He and the rest of the mostly white Republican Party have emboldened racism, xenophobia, misogyny, and homophobia, while his administration is literally working to destroy the planet.
Trump is a classic comic book villain. He’s Wilson Fisk (the Kingpin) and Lex Luthor rolled into one. For a short while, Luthor was even President of the United States.
Like Fisk and Luthor, Trump is rich and charismatic, and despite being essentially and undeniably evil, he exists on a different moral playing field afforded by his wealth and connections. Though Kingpin’s and Luthor’s plans may get foiled, they always return for another day—they always find a way to get back on top and to ingratiate themselves with the public. Thanks to complicity and cowardice in Washington, Trump has also largely avoided his comeuppance. Evil is winning.
Nevertheless, while our villain is a white supremacist, our heroes are only getting browner and blacker. Just as there are now more women than ever in Congress, there are more women fronting their own films. In addition to the inevitable sequel to Captain America and Natalie Portman’s turn as Thor, noted chameleonic thespian and aspirational oak Scarlett Johansson will star in the Black Widow prequel next year.
But superheroes are still not queer enough. Not even close. And that is a betrayal of one of the fiercest and most loyal fanbases the comic book world has.
“Comics have always led the way in queer representation,” says Eric DeLoretta, who runs the Instagram account @GayNerdPun, a community for queer fanboys and fangirls from across the internet. “Firsts like ‘first gay kiss’ or ‘first same-sex wedding’ in comics made headlines years, even decades, before film and TV made any considerable strides. Considering the 80-plus-year history of mainstream comics, it’s only fair that the superhero genre of films might be a little slow to react, but when DC’s television properties already feature the first trans superhero and a queer woman headlining her own Bat series, it just makes the big film studios look embarrassingly outdated.”
Indeed, TV has done far more for inclusiveness than film on nearly every level—both in front of and behind the camera, and in various genres. That disparity is due, in part, to concessions made to the global market, where the general rule is that diversity doesn’t sell—despite evidence to the contrary. But then, when you look at who’s heading up the studios and who’s been producing, writing, and directing the films, it’s clear the problem isn’t just what will or won’t play in China.
Marvel’s Phase 4 has taken this into account—only one of the five MCU films announced at this year’s Comic-Con is directed by a white man. It’s a start. Though a better start may have been not to tap dance around Carol Danvers’ relationship with Maria Rambeau (new 007 Lashana Lynch) in Captain Marvel. Like, this haircut isn’t fooling anyone, sis.
Or, an even better start may have been rethinking that perfunctory gay character in Avengers: Endgame who merely existed to show us that Captain America is a woke bae. Though if Marvel were to retcon a Cap and Bucky romance, maybe we could call it even.
After all, superheroes are just people. And people are gay. Our entertainment should reflect the real world while giving us a respite from it. When the news is filled with horrors and tragedy, a little escapism isn’t just welcomed, it’s necessary. Because no one’s going to swing in on a web and yank Donald Trump out of office, as appealing as that idea sounds. But being able to see a world where the bad guys suffer consequences and the day is ultimately saved makes you believe that such a world does and should exist.