Where did Storm go?: Representing Race and Gender in Superhero films

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?

superhero Captain AmericaWomen in refrigerators, black guys as sidekicks

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.

superhero ThorDebate and backlash

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.

superhero guardian of the galaxyA Marvellous opportunity

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.

Andrew is a freelance writer based in Stockport, England, where the grey skies provide a good motive to stay inside at the word processor. He’s had over forty stories published in places such as Daily Science Fiction, Wily Writers and Ann VanderMeer’s Steampunk anthologies. He blogs about books, film, TV and writing at andrewknighton.wordpress.com.

18 thoughts on “Where did Storm go?: Representing Race and Gender in Superhero films

  1. Hi Andrew,
    I love a good debate. In regards to your article I was also going to bring up Blade and Spawn as comic book movies that were made right from the start of this whole comic book movie craze. As someone who was an avid comic book collector, there is a fatal flaw in your premise. When did Marvel Comics start? Back in the 60s! It was a different time and Stan Lee and company were actually boldly at the forefront of that social change. They were some of the first to introduce non-White and unconventional characters to comic book audiences. They’ve created a mountain of work that is only now being brought to the masses after forty more years, namely because movie technology because of James Cameron and George Lucas, etc. has progressed to the point where we can do anything on screen that we can imagine and make it look real. Also since movies are a business after all and not a non-profit organization, they are making movies of those properties with the largest followings. On the DC side of comic book movies, we’re still getting Superman and Batman today and they were introduced back in the 30s!

    Let’s not get crazy and keep with this line that if a movie is majority White that it should be suspect. America is majority White and it would follow that a majority of its characters in movies are White. I watch a lot of foreign films and if I’m watching movies out of China or Korea, everyone is Asian and its rarity that there are any non-Asian characters around.

    Very few people are like me who write characters of different races, ages, etc. People write what they know, but that is not a bad thing. The goal should not be to have movies with more non-White characters, but to have movies with more great writing. The “color” thing will sort itself out on its own.

  2. I always thought Storm was absolutely kick-ass and should have her own movie. But we all know that it will never happen, because a strong black female superhero doesn’t appeal to the people making superhero movies. It’s a damn shame too, she was one of my idols as a kid. Best we can hope for is a female superhero without an exceedingly tragic backstory gets her own film. And is it just me, or do the backstories for female superheros actually end up being more tragic than their male counterparts? I have noticed that when they aren’t extra tragic with a side of normal female would contemplate suicide after going through that, the seem sort of…trivial, and kinda wishwashy when it comes to a reason to want to fight crime.

  3. James! I’m going to second Pete’s issue here. I’ve used both Firefox and Chrome, and comments are sporadically viewable or not viewable at all on certain pages. Not sure if anyone else besides Pete and me is having this issue, but it’s definitely bizarre. I blame you, of course. 😀

  4. I get your point Andrew, and have to say that I never enjoy these super-hero blockbusters. As a result, I cannot really comment further, never having seen them. I will just say (because I always do) that I feel these characters should have stayed on the pages of the comics that they came from. Not really my idea of entertaining cinema, at any level.
    But then I am old!
    Best wishes, Pete.

  5. These race and gender issues are still very prevalent across many forms of media – just check how many video games have black or female leads, or are deemed marketable and therefore acceptable for the cover art.

    I don’t see this situation correcting itself anytime soon as those who finance productions aren’t willing to back a project not directly targeting what the marketing people want: white guy heroes who represent a safe (but now outdated) viewpoint of our society. Too many executive decisions are still being made by white males with their eyes firmly fixed on revenue expectations, with issues like equality and fair representation somewhere way, way down most lists of importance.

    As with Guardians of the Galaxy, expect to see more aliens of all colours, shapes and sexes, ahead of any serious expansion of significant or lead roles for other races or gender.

  6. Agreed, Andrew. Food for thought: A long, long time ago, I had a comic book featuring the characters Power Man and Iron Fist. Power Man was black. The installment I had concerned the duo’s battle with a pair of black villains. I can’t remember their names, but one of them was an archer, while I believe the other shot rays out of some sort of visor. For some reason, Marvel has mined the depths of its repertoire, yet never revived these characters. Why? Granted, the storyline of this particular comic book was not very complex or interesting, but it was unusual in that many of the characters weren’t white … and one of the protagonists was black. It is a shame that we keep seeing the likes of Thor part 6,073, yet it seems like it’s been a while since we had a Blade or Spawn installment. Not that I want more films equal to the (bad) quality of the latter, but … you get my drift.

    • Interestingly, it looks like Marvel are turning Power Man, who now goes by the name of Luke Cage, into one of four TV shows they’ll be releasing via Netflix. Iron Fist, on the other hand, has the slightly dubious distinction of being a white guy taking on the role of oriental-style martial arts hero.

      Really good point bringing up Blade and Spawn – those two showed that people don’t need a white lead to go see a superhero film. And I thought the first Blade was pretty enjoyable, even if things went downhill from there.

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