Marvel Movies Stuck in the 60's
“I’m not here to be a watered-down version of some other hero. I’m here to be the best version of Kamala,” proclaimed sixteen-year-old Kamala Khan when deciding to use her newly acquired superpowers for good (Ms. Marvel #5). And she has lived up to those words. The geeky, fanfiction-writing Pakistani-American was Marvel’s first Muslim superhero to have their own magazine and she’s been doing fairly well since then, both on the comic book pages and outside them. An ex-Avenger, Kamala currently leads a racially diverse superhero team Champions, founded by her and other teenaged heroes. Ms. Marvel has received critical acclaim and readers of different colour and religion send the magazine touching letters about how much it means to them to see this character in print.
I bring Kamala up as an example of what Marvel comic books look like these days. Superheroes come in all gender, colour, sexual orientation, and age. The past few years have given us for example new female-led titles such as All-New Wolverine (starring Laura Kinney, seen on screen last year in Logan) and stereotype-defying heroes such as Lunella Lafayette, a black 9-year-old girl (in her own title Moon Girl and Devil Dinosaur). Kamala and the Champions travel to South Asia to help girls fight for their rights and work against hate crimes in America. The diversity of characters and themes in Marvel comics has really become quite remarkable. You would think that the film adaptations of the comics would reflect this, but alas.
On the big screen
We live arguably in an era of superhero films, launched 18 years ago with the release of X-Men, and there seems to be no end in sight. Several times a year, we get to sit down at a movie theatre to watch groups of superheroes punch aliens and each other. These groups tend to follow the secret formula of Hollywood: there are from three to five men and one woman, all straight and white. Should one want to add a person of colour, the amount of white men needs to be increased first. Same in the case of wanting to have another female character. God only knows what one would have to do in order to be allowed to bring in an LGBT character. 18 years of this and these 18 years are starting to feel like quite enough.
I don’t necessarily mean an end to superhero films. Actually, I don’t mean that at all. Despite their many, many flaws, I still do enjoy them and know that I’ll sit down and watch anything Marvel churns out, keeping my fingers crossed for more diverse representation and better plots. Luckily, changes have started to develop. The release of Black Panther earlier this year has been one of these developments. While not actually the first superhero film with a black lead, it is the first mainstream black superhero film. And not only was the cast predominantly POC, everything from the costume designs to the music played was culturally rich and done with great thought. An additional merit to Black Panther was its female characters. Letitia Wright’s Shuri and Danai Gurira’s Okoye particularly stole my heart. It is great to see that even MCU of all franchises is starting to employ film makers who seem to understand that a strong female character doesn’t mean just a badass woman, it means an interesting, well-written character.
The big problem with the Marvel films of the past 18 years is that they have been hopelessly stuck in the 1960’s. I myself get a lot of kicks out of the silliness of the Silver Age comic books and I admire the way Marvel took political stands even back then, but especially the sexism was really quite awful. The amount of female superheroes did increase somewhat steadily as the 60’s proceeded, but at a slow pace and the way they were treated didn’t really improve. I’ll never understand for example how Fantastic Four’s Sue Storm agreed to marry Reed Richards after the way he talked to her back in those days (someone needs to come up with a No-Prize-able explanation to this so I can sleep better at night). As for racial diversity, it took until 1966 for the first mainstream black superhero – Black Panther – to appear. Looking at MCU, they seem to have barely reached the late 60’s in terms of representation. This is of course partly because the films have been going through the history of the Avengers, but you’d think that they could have been modernised to reflect the millennium we live in.
A look in the past
I have praised here the diversity in Marvel comics of today, but I need to point out the fact that while the diversity indeed is present now more than ever, it is not like it's a new thing. Big changes started happening especially during late Bronze Age. For example, the great young female characters of today have something of a role model in Kitty Pryde from X-Men. A Jewish girl of only 13, she joined the X-Men team back in 1980 and ended up more or less stealing the show, becoming the central character even over popular and well-established male characters such as Cyclops and Wolverine. Young girls and women became extremely important to X-Men in general and the phenomenon has only grown since then.
As for characters of colour in the Bronze Age, there is for example a personal favourite of mine, Power Man and Iron Fist. The series ran from 1978 to 1986 and featured first of all Luke Cage - Marvel’s first black superhero to have their own magazine - but also supporting characters Misty Knight and Colleen Wing, a black and an Asian woman, respectively. (You can catch these characters on Netflix’s Luke Cage, Iron First and Defenders). Also X-Men and more notably its spin-off The New Mutants did their best with added racial diversity around this era for example with New Mutant characters Karma, Mirage and Sunspot.
The case is a bit different with LGBT characters, however, as it took as late as 1992 for Marvel to allow a gay superhero (Northstar of Alpha Flight) to publicly come out (Alpha Flight #106). Embarrassingly late, but even that was over 25 years ago. I would say that the lack of the LGBT characters in Marvel films is especially frustrating exactly because it was such a hard-won issue. Northstar’s creator John Byrne had intended for the character to be gay almost ever since his creation back in 1979, but that had to be only subtly implied for over a decade. Reader letters after the character’s coming out ranged from gratitude from the LGBT readers to outrage expressed through Bible quotations and suggestions of killing the character off (I kid you not). These days Marvel comics feature an adequate list of characters of different sexual orientations and their complete absence from the film adaptions really is sad. We came close to having some representation last year with Thor: Ragnarök as actress Tessa Thompson had convinced director Taika Waititi to film a brief scene in which Valkyrie’s canon bisexuality was made explicit. The scene was cut off, however. Of course.
Future and careful optimism
There are many ways with which Marvel could have modernised their films. More round female characters in bigger roles. Canonically LGBT characters shown explicitly so (if I have to watch Jennifer Lawrence on screen, I feel like X-Men owes me her character's longtime lover Irene Adler). Famous superheroes could also be introduced in their different versions. I adore Tom Holland as the newest Spider-Man, but three Peter Parkers in less than 20 years has been a bit too much. MCU could have made things far more interesting for example by introducing Miles Morales, a black-latino boy who’s currently one of the people carrying the mantle of Spider-Man.
However, Black Panther and other recent films should give us some hope of a brighter future. I found for example Spider-Man: Homecoming delightfully fresh with its diverse side characters and Tessa Thompson was simply gorgeous as the Norse Goddess in Ragnarök. A lot of fans are also holding out careful hope for LGBT representation in the upcoming Deadpool 2. Ryan Reynolds himself expressed interest last year in giving his canonically pansexual character a boyfriend and we’re about to find out whether he succeeded in this.
And then next year we are going to be treated to Captain Marvel - MCU's first and to my understanding only the second Marvel film with a female lead.
It’s only taken them until 2019 to do that.
Wake me up when I can see Kamala Khan on screen.