A big picture take on representation in Marvel

Why This Matters | Robyn Di Giacinto | May 24, 2016

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Boseman’s Black Panther is definitely a step in the right direction.

When I say Marvel fan, what’s the first image that comes to your head?

20 years ago, the answer would probably have been a middle-aged white guy living in his mother’s basement. But over the past 10 years, that image has undergone a major revamp. Marvel is now a household name, heralded by an ever-growing universe of films and television shows.

Although many of Marvel’s staple heroes are still 30-something year old white men, we’re increasingly seeing films and shows reflecting Marvel’s diverse fan base– a trend which has caused no shortage of buzz in recent months. We’ve recently seen a spike in the number of black male protagonists, including the debut of Black Panther in Captain America: Civil War (slotted for his own solo film in 2018), and the green-lighting of Cloak and Dagger last month. Women are becoming more visible in roles like Black Widow, and we’re even seeing them move beyond ensembles to title roles, as in Marvel’s Jessica Jones and the upcoming film Captain Marvel.

Bet you didn’t know that in several comics, Loki is genderfluid and bisexual.

Yet for all this progress, Marvel has gotten a lot of well-deserved flak for its lack of representation of other groups. You can count the number of women of color in speaking roles on one hand. Queer fans have been repeatedly disappointed as queer comic icons like Loki are portrayed as straight and cisgender on screen. And there’s the cancellation of Agent Carter despite its critical success, marking one less strong female lead in the Marvel cinematic universe.

Then there’s the fact that Marvel cast white actors in several high profile Asian roles, including the Ancient One in Doctor Strange and the titular role in the upcoming Netflix series Iron Fist. And those roles that actually do go to Asians and Asian-Americans rely heavily on ninja stereotypes—think The Wolverine, and Elektra from the Netflix series Daredevil. Likewise, when is the last time you saw a brown person in a Marvel movie who wasn’t cast as an evil henchman or terrorist extra in Iron Man? And when was the last time you saw a Latino Marvel character at all?

Tilda Swinton is great… but not Asian.

This is especially disappointing because we know Marvel can do better. We’ve seen them do better in their comics, for example, which have reinvented old characters and introduced new ones to match an increasingly diverse fan base. Where is Miles Morales? Where is Kamala Khan? In a world where the highest domestic grossing film of all time stars a woman and a black man, Marvel can no longer hide behind the excuse that diverse stories are not commercially viable.

Esther Kim, Manager of Dupont-based Fantom Comics, explains it this way: “Representation matters because it helps validate the very existence of all of the incredibly diverse peoples in our world and the lives they lead. Stories matter. Our lives are just stories we tell ourselves and then write on the pages of the world. When others are erasing our stories…it gets harder to convince the world that our stories and lives matter.”

Photo credits to Gage Skidmore, Nicolas Genin, and Georges Biard.

This contribution was written by a GW community member and the opinions expressed do not necessarily reflect the view of The Rival at GW, The Rival network, or any of its affiliates.  Special thanks to Esther Kim and Fantom Comics for contributing to this article.