Fear of a Minority Superhero: Marvel’s Obsession with White Guys Saving the World

Marvel’s business is booming and they have their film lineup mapped until 2019. The problem? No superheroes of color toplining a film—and (maybe) one woman.

Zade Rosenthal

It was, all things considered, a very shrewd publicity stunt. Last month, Marvel Comics, the print shingle of the absurdly profitable superhero factory behind blockbuster film franchises The Avengers, Spider-Man, Iron Man, and X-Men, made waves when they announced that the Falcon, the longtime sidekick to Captain America, would be stepping into the shoes of the uber-patriotic superhero. This was news because Falcon, of course, is black. The move came one day after the comic book company introduced a female Thor.

“It’s about time,” Marvel executive editor Tom Brevoort said of the change. “In 2014, this should be a thing that we shrug off, it shouldn’t be seen as revolutionary, but it still feels exciting.”

And the media, in turn, patted the company on the back for their “groundbreaking” progressivism. Marvel, it seems, no longer thought of diversity in Burgundyian terms—namely, as an old, wooden ship that was used during the Civil War era. But these are comics. They appeal to a small group of like-minded, liberal nerds who relate on a cellular level to the plight of the cultural outsider (see: the proprietor of The Android’s Dungeon on The Simpsons). Just ask the geek-God himself, Neil deGrasse Tyson. “Right now Comic-Con is going on in San Diego,” the science genius said recently on Real Time with Bill Maher. “Just go there and take a show of hands. How many vote Republican or Democrat? It will be overwhelmingly liberal Democrat.”

Marvel Studios, on the other hand, is a money-printing movie studio that churns out billion dollar-grossing populist entertainments designed to appeal to the biggest audience possible (they are owned by The Walt Disney Company, after all). And as such, they’re loath to take the same risks as their pint-sized nephew, which brings us to the cultural impasse at hand: Marvel has, with the exception of a few titles, announced their superhero film slate through 2019 and it is entirely devoid of lead superheroes of color, or women—with the exception of maybe one female superhero, although this has yet to be confirmed.

When pressed about the dearth of female superhero-led films, Marvel Studios’ grand poobah, Kevin Feige, gave a head-scratcher of a response.

“I hope we do it sooner rather than later,” said Feige, who declined to participate in this article. “But we find ourselves in the very strange position of managing more franchises than most people have—which is a very, very good thing and we don't take for granted, but is a challenging thing. You may notice from those release dates, we have three for 2017. And that's because just the timing worked on what was sort of gearing up. But it does mean you have to put one franchise on hold for three or four years in order to introduce a new one? I don't know. Those are the kinds of chess matches we're playing right now.” Translation: We’re too busy printing money to deal with this right now.

So why, in 2014, is the superhero standard-bearer so minority-averse? There are, it seems, a variety of factors at play here—from the financially motivated (international box office) to the cultural (inequality) to the practical (source material).

The media’s counterpoint to this argument is the recent Marvel superhero flick Guardians of the Galaxy, which opened to a stellar $160.4 million worldwide, and boasts a multi-ethnic cast, including Zoe Saldana (Hispanic), Dave Bautista (Filipino), Djimon Hounsou (West African), and Benicio Del Toro (Puerto Rican).

“It was very important to me to have a diverse cast of different people,” said the film’s director, James Gunn, adding, “Let’s face it: there’s still a certain amount of racism in human beings, so that shows up in Hollywood.”

But Guardians isn’t that diverse, really. Saldana and Bautista play space aliens who are colored different shades of green, while Del Toro and Hounsou serve very minor roles. The film’s hero, Star-Lord, is played by Chris Pratt, a corn-fed blond, white guy from Minnesota—and the third major Marvel superhero played by a white guy named Chris, joining the broad-shouldered ranks of Chris Hemsworth (Thor) and Chris Evans (Captain America).

At last year’s Comic-Con, the annual gathering of the geeks in San Diego, Hounsou offered up a poignant anecdote concerning the extreme lack of minority superheroes.

“I have a 4-year-old son who loves superheroes from Spider-Man to Iron Man to Batman. He’s got all the costumes,” said Hounsou. “One day he looks at me and says, ‘Dad, I want to be light-skinned so I could be Spider-Man. Spider-Man has light skin.’ That was sort of a shock.”

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Hollywood films do hold a mirror to society, and representation—or the lack thereof—is incredibly important when it comes to cultural minorities, including women. Last year, I spoke to Joss Whedon, the director behind The Avengers and its upcoming sequel about the lack of female superheroes. The issue hits close to home for Whedon, who championed female ass-kickers with the TV series Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and even penned an unproduced screenplay for the DC-owned Wonder Woman.

“I think it comes from idiocy and cowardice,” said Whedon of the female superhero problem. “Toymakers will tell you they won’t sell enough and movie people will point to the two terrible superheroine movies that were made and say, ‘You see? It can’t be done.’ It’s stupid and I’m hoping The Hunger Games will lead to a paradigm shift. It’s starting to become very frustrating to me that I don’t see anybody developing one of these movies. It actually pisses me off. My daughter watched The Avengers and was like, ‘My favorite characters were The Black Widow and Maria Hill,’ and I thought, ‘Yeah. Of course they were.’ I read a beautiful thing Junot Diaz wrote: ‘If you want to make a human being into a monster, deny them, at the cultural level, any reflection of themselves.’”

The two “superheroine movies” Whedon is referring to are 2004’s Catwoman, starring Halle Berry, and 2005’s Elektra, featuring Jennifer Garner. Both films were critical and commercial disappointments, grossing a combined $138 million worldwide—cat kibble to a company like Marvel. But that was then. Today, there are plenty of women fronting highly profitable film franchises, from the Jennifer Lawrence-led Hunger Games to Kristen Stewart’s Twilight movies. Hell, they’re even launching an all-female Ghostbusters flick.

“There have been gigantic films with female action heroes in them, whether that be The Hunger Games, or others, and we’ve done it to a smaller extent in films like Salt and Resident Evil, and you’re seeing it now with Lucy,” Michael Lynton, CEO of Sony Pictures Entertainment, told The Daily Beast. “Everyone knows it works—putting a strong female in the lead role.”

One big reason: More women are checking out action and superhero films. Guardians of the Galaxy attracted a 44 percent female audience on opening weekend—the most of any Marvel film.

And there was a time, prior to the one-two punch of Catwoman and Elektra, when superhero films were championed minority heroes. In fact, two of the earliest contemporary Marvel superhero films did just that—1998’s Blade, starring Wesley Snipes as a vampire-samurai, and 2000’s X-Men, which featured Halle Berry’s Storm as the female lead. As the years progressed, however, Berry’s Storm played a smaller and smaller role in the X-Men films, and the Blade movies attracted less and less eyeballs.

A good case study for the minority superhero problem is Luke Cage. At one point, before making Pulp Fiction, Quentin Tarantino was toying with the idea of making a Cage film starring Laurence Fishburne, but it never came to fruition. Then in 2004, the same year that Catwoman was released, Marvel green-lit a Luke Cage film with director John Singleton (Boyz n the Hood) at the helm. Cage, an African-American superhero, was first introduced in 1972 at the height of the Blaxploitation craze, and is even the namesake of the actor Nicolas Cage (born Nicolas Coppola). But by 2007, the project was seemingly dead and Singleton claimed race was a factor.

“It's got to have a great script. We have a great script,” said Singleton. “We have a couple of great scripts. It's just a matter of some people have not got it yet. I'm not saying every studio on the board, some people haven't got it that multi-ethnic sells.”

Last May, Marvel President Kevin Feige, who rarely courts talent publicly, came out and said he’d love to have Dwayne Johnson—who is half black and half Samoan—“be part of the Marvel Universe somewhere, someday.” This prompted Johnson to tweet out a picture of himself as the superhero Luke Cage:

But Marvel has thus far ruled that Cage, along with his onetime Asian superhero sidekick Iron Fist, will be relegated to the small screen—as a pair of live-action series’ on Netflix.

One of the reasons minority superheroes are getting short shrift could be the international box office, which in 2013 was up 33 percent over five years prior, and nowadays trumps domestic sales. In 2013, the North American box office accounted for $10.9 billion, while the international box office raked in $25 billion—led by increased growth in markets like China, Japan, Korea, Russia, and Mexico, according to the Motion Picture Association of America.

Some actors feel the studios are unwilling to take chances with these huge global revenues by taking risks in casting. Many films featuring minority casts—in particular blacks—have been given very limited international releases. Take the 2012 comedy hit Think Like A Man. The film, which featured a predominately black cast, grossed a surprising $91.5 million stateside, compared to a meager $4.5 million abroad. And last year’s Lee Daniels’ The Butler raked in $116 million in North America versus just $59 million internationally.

“It’s extremely difficult,” said Anthony Mackie, who played the sidekick Falcon in Captain America: The Winter Soldier, of the lack of black superheroes. “There just aren’t a lot of them. Me being black, the height of black filmmaking was in the late-‘80s up until 2002. Now, filmmaking has become an international business as opposed to a domestic business, so the idea of making $200 million trumps the idea of making $50 million. It’s tricky…The film business has actually turned into a really bad business.”

But, given the right star—and studio push—audiences will embrace a black superhero. Take 2008’s Hancock, starring Will Smith. The superhero film was an original idea that wasn’t based on an existing comic, starring a black actor, and grossed over $624 million worldwide.

“We did Hancock, and did brilliantly with it,” said Sony’s Lynton. “The only thing I can postulate is that most of this superhero material is taken directly from the comic books, and you tend to have to be true, at some level, to what the comic books have presented to you. That makes it difficult, at times—since some of these comics were written in the ‘60s—to change out the ethnicity or the gender of some of the main characters. It’s tough to make Peter Parker be any other way than how Peter Parker looks.”

Still, there are plenty of properties in the Marvel Universe featuring superheroes of color (or women), from the aforementioned Luke Cage to Black Panther, Deathlok, War Machine, Captain Marvel, She-Hulk, the list goes on.

And there have, in recent years, been some advances—albeit in the form of minority or female superhero sidekicks or villains. There’s Scarlett Johansson’s Black Widow in Iron Man 2 and The Avengers, Jennifer Lawrence’s Mystique in the X-Men reboots, Jamie Foxx’s supervillain Electro in last year’s The Amazing Spider-Man 2, and the aforementioned Falcon, played by Anthony Mackie, to name a few. All of these characters, with the exception of Foxx’s, could front their own superhero film.

And next year will bring us Josh Trank’s The Fantastic Four, which has cast the black actor Michael B. Jordan in the role of The Human Torch—a far cry from the original Fantastic films, which transformed the Hispanic Jessica Alba into a blond-haired, blue-eyed white woman.

“Yeah, the way we went about casting Fantastic Four was, ‘Who is the best actor for the part?’” writer/producer Simon Kinberg told me. “We didn’t go into it saying we wanted to cast a particular race for any part. Josh had worked with Michael on Chronicle and I’m a big fan of Michael’s, so we knew he was the best actor for that part. We knew casting an African-American Human Torch would be news, but I can tell you it’s something that Stan Lee loves, and I can also tell you that having been on set and seeing Michael bring him to life, he’s really spectacular. He’s doing something really cool with the character that I think will become the iconic Johnny Storm.”

Now, there’s also, as Gunn said, a great deal of discrimination that still exists in Hollywood. A recent study by the University of Southern California analyzed 4,000 characters in the top 100 highest-grossing films of 2013, and found that Hispanic actors played only 4.9 percent of speaking parts, while black actors played 14.1 percent—and 17 percent of the films analyzed had no black characters with speaking roles. The report also said there has been “no meaningful change” in the frequency with which minorities have appeared in popular films from 2007-2013.

So it’s up to Marvel to buck the trend. They can, after all, afford it. On Tuesday, The Walt Disney Company (which owns Marvel) announced that “its quarterly profit totaled $2.25 billion, a 22 percent increase from the year-ago period, helped in large part by the success of its Marvel franchise,” reported The New York Times.

And last May, The Hollywood Reporter reported that Marvel has a number of scripts for superhero films featuring minority or female heroes that could fit into the company’s future plans.

“Marvel has a writing program it uses as a concept generator and has scripts for Blade and Ms. Marvel features, for example,” they said. “Doctor Strange, Iron Fist, Black Panther and The Runaways are other projects on the horizon.”

Marvel: The ball is in your court.