Superhero films and the comics that spawned them are famous for their traditionally white male fan-base. It’s a fan-base to which the creators play, with the vast majority of superheroes, and particularly the high profile ones, being white men.
This raises issues for the balanced representation of gender and race and for the diversity of perspectives possible within these stories. It becomes even more problematic as these stories reach out to a wider audience, perpetuating norms of white male cultural dominance. But why is this so common? And is an opportunity for change being squandered?
As somebody recently pointed out, there are currently more big budget superhero films headlined by blond men named Chris than by women and other ethnicities combined. Even when more diverse characters appear they do so in less prominent roles – sidekicks in Iron Man 2 (2010), Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014), Thor (2011), and various others.
The same applies in team stories, where large ensemble casts could provide an opportunity for variety. Five out of seven lead heroes in The Avengers (2012) were white men, as was the villain. In X-Men: Days of Future Past (2014), a film set during an era of civil rights conflict and whose source material is often taken as a metaphor for race, five out of six leads are white men, as are fifteen out of twenty-three significant named characters in the cast list.
There is an infamous trope in superhero comics, known as ‘women in refrigerators’, in which female characters are killed off just to provide a motive for their male counterparts. In the films they seldom even garner this much attention.
This is a difficult issue to raise among fans of the comics and films. In every individual instance these white male characters, and their dominance in the narratives, are accurate adaptations of the source material.
Many fans are defensive of that source material and its adaptations. The fans of superhero comics have a long history of being ridiculed and side-lined. Film adaptations have a long history of being bad – Marvel’s previous adaptation of Captain America being a prime example. As a result, many fans of these films are passionately devoted to them. When something in the films is challenged they often feel that they and the things they love are under attack, and so go on the defensive.
This makes is difficult to discuss this issue with those most knowledgeable about the superhero source material, who could highlight more diverse and interesting characters and provide the passion to campaign for them to appear on screen. The very people who would most enjoy a film about African superhero the Black Panther or female leads such as Captain Marvel or Storm are also those who react most negatively if someone questions the dominance of those blond characters played by men named Chris.
This fan reaction combines with Hollywood’s accepted wisdom about casting choices to keep superheroes firmly locked down as white male territory. It’s a great shame, because the audience clearly isn’t vastly dominated white men any more, if it ever really was. And because surely we’re now grown up enough that even an audience of white men can cope with someone else as the lead.
If there was ever an opportunity to break out of this pattern then that opportunity has come now with Marvel studios. Marvel have proved that they have the production values and marketing machine to get people to watch any superhero movie. The Guardians of the Galaxy (2014), their latest blockbuster, was an obscure property even by comic book standards, and yet it was a huge box office success. If Marvel can make a profit on that then they can do anything.
And yet it looks like they won’t. Films in the pipeline include the inevitable Thor 3 and Captain America 3. Even Ant Man, the next new character being added to the Marvel movie roster, is the story of an old white guy passing on his superhero technology to – wait for it – a young white guy.
Marvel have an opportunity to transform representation in superhero films and they aren’t taking it. It’s a terrible shame.