Marvel and diversity: Avengers: Endgame illuminates the road behind and road ahead

It has been a long journey towards diversity and equality in the MCU. Here is where we've come from, where we are now, and what can still be done.
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Avengers: Endgame poster / Marvel Studios

Living under a rock couldn’t keep you away from the mania surrounding Marvel Studios and its growing cinematic universe. Therefore, you’ve probably heard about the studio’s recent poster snafu involving fan-favorite Danai Gurira, who portrays Okoye in Black Panther and the upcoming Avengers: Endgame. The slight highlights how Hollywood often undervalues black actresses and calls to question the progress the TV and film industry has been celebrating in terms of representation. Despite proving that both its black and female characters are bankable fan-favorites, Marvel’s latest gaffe shouldn’t come as shock to anyone. The studio wasn’t always the diverse poster child it is today.

Where’s Black Widow’s stand-alone film?

Avengers Endgame will be the 22nd entry into the MCU and despite the kaleidoscope of talent that make up its Comic-Con panels, the franchise has had its issues with diversity. Phase one left critics asking for female leads both onscreen and off. By the time the cumulative Avengers was released, it seemed as though Scarlett Johansson’s Black Widow was taking a back seat to the other characters. Fans noticed massive discrepancies between how she and other characters like Iron Man, Captain America, and Thor were marketed.

Black Widow is the only female Avenger and comes to the aid and rescue of her male counterparts in their standalone films, but other than some brief backstory about her in Age of Ultron, she doesn’t really have her own story. Even Hawkeye is granted an on-screen family. Nobody cares about Hawkeye.

Of course, she serves as the honey pot in Iron Man 2, a mysterious flirt in The Winter Soldier, and random never-again-mentioned love interest to Bruce Banner in Age of Ultron. But other than that and her gymnastic ass-kicking skills, her character gets little exploration. Granted, she’s a spy. She has secrets. That’s cool. But is it too much to ask of Marvel for a movie about some of those secrets? This is the same group of people that managed to build an entire TV show around one character and a government organization that served as a backdrop to Captain America’s heroics. It’s within the realm of possibility.

While phase two and three of the MCU saw the addition of more female characters, many got even less commitment in terms of character development. Gwyneth Paltrow as Pepper Potts and Natalie Portman as Jane Foster did get major screen time in their respective films but in the rest of the franchise, their characters are relegated to cameos via phone calls or quick date night scenes.

The first two women of color (Zoe Saldana and Pom Klementieff) to join the franchise are aliens who—yawn—serve as support to the fumbling although endearing Peter Quill/Star-Lord, who’s made himself the leader.  The disservice goes on and on.

Course-correction…ish

After a decade, Black Panther became the first MCU entry to feature a title character of color, making Chadwick Boseman Marvel’s biggest diversity hire yet. While it served as a landmark achievement, it joined a list of phase three films that were noticeably more diverse than the first two phases in a way that almost seemed course-corrective.

Then there was the announcement that actress Zendaya would portray Peter’s love interest Michelle (nicknamed M.J. as a nod to Mary Jane) in the Spider-Man franchise reboot. This seemed like a bold move considering the love-interest role was always occupied by the traditionally-white Mary Jane. But it was a move that could easily have been seen as Marvel race-bending a character after catching a world of flak for casting Tilda Swinton and Finn Jones in roles that should have gone to actors of Asian descent. Giving Marvel the benefit of doubt, these decisions could legitimately be the result of a conscious effort to diversify the cast. That’s great—except in an ideal world these efforts would just come second-nature and not actually need “effort”.

When it takes 10 years for the most successful franchise of all time to introduce a black title character and 11 years to introduce a female one, its easy to see how a character like Danai Gurira’s Okoye might fall through the cracks.

Quite frankly its bittersweet hearing “for the first time…” over and over when referencing minority or female characters because their time to shine is long overdue. Progress is being made, but in a noticeable one-step-forward, two-steps-backward manner.

Behind the camera

Marvel isn’t alone in this issue. Hollywood as a whole is going through a gilded age where people are talking about diversity and inclusion but the train can’t seem to stay steady moving on the track. The conversation surrounding representation is often about putting more actors of color on screen so that audiences can see a world on TV that reflects the one around them, especially for children.

But the problem with this thinking is that Hollywood isn’t just made up of actors. The talent and crew behind the cameras, whether at Marvel or elsewhere, are just as important and influential as those in front.

What made Black Panther so special is not just that there were a bunch of black people on screen but that there were black storytellers behind the scenes who crafted the narrative. The same goes for critically acclaimed films Moonlight and Crazy Rich Asians.

Nothing is worse than seeing characters that are supposed to represent you fail to actually represent you. While they may look like you, they may not sound or act like you because they’re being written by people that don’t know anything about your culture. It’s like hearing non-native speakers butcher your first language.

Even worse, its detrimental to see characters crowd stories they aren’t the spotlight of. Hollywood’s white savior complex diminishes the accomplishments of the minority character’s it’s supposedly trying to celebrate. It’s time for the narrative of these films to shift in a way that accurately portrays the experiences of minority characters, especially in historical films where the progressive white characters serve as a divider between the out-and-out racists and the “wiser” white viewers; a way for them to say, “that would be me” when, if history is any indicator, it probably wouldn’t have been.

The future of diversity isn’t just in recycling characters, either. Not to say that I didn’t love Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse but the fight to get an Afro-Latinx Spider-Man to the big screen was a hard-fought battle I didn’t enjoy. Diversity and minority characters shouldn’t be something left to try out only after building a billion-dollar franchise that’s too big to fail.

Diversity starts in the writers’ room, a space still struggling with inequality and lack of diversity. It starts with original content, told by their original creators. While work still needs to be done, platforms like Netflix, HBO, and Showtime are making strides. When challenged with the task of looking outside of white, male dominated spaces, it’s easy to find authentic stories being told and portrayed by talented women and people of color who are trying to make diversity in Hollywood happen from the outside in.

 

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