By Kaylee Brewster
There is something different about some of the latest and most popular superheroes hitting American movie screens — they’re not all white men.
First, DC’s “Wonder Woman” broke the mold as the first superhero movie to depict the female superhero. Now it’s Marvel’s turn.
Black Panther will be one of the first black superheroes to carry the lead in a feature film. While the character first appeared in “Captain America: Civil War,” this time he’s going solo.
“Wonder Woman” and “Black Panther” show a shift in the diversity of movies, both on the screen and behind it.
Diversity in comics
Diversity within the superhero universe in nothing new. It’s been done since X-men revamped their lineup to include more international heroes in the ’70s, including Storm (African), Nightcrawler (German), Wolverine (Canadian), Banshee (Irish), Thunderbird (Apache) Colossus (Russian) and Sunfire (Japanese). More recently, Marvel reintroduced Captain Marvel as a woman and Ms. Marvel as a muslim Pakistani-American female. Among other characters, Jane Foster took on the role of Thor and Spider-man is now an American teen born to an African-American father and a Puerto Rican mother. Riri Williams, a black American engineering student, has become Ironheart, taking over for Tony Stark’s Iron Man.
In a 2017 interview with “ICv2,” an online magazine that covers geek culture for retailers, Marvel’s vice president of sales, David Gabriel, blamed diversity in comics for low book sales, saying it shows audiences don’t want diversity. He later revised his statement, saying diversity wasn’t solely to blame and diverse characters at Marvel will continue. However, many critics argued against this.
Comic Book Resources found Jane Foster’s series as Thor was the second-highest selling title for Marvel. Black Panther, under the authorship of Ta-Nehisi Coates, was the top selling comic in 2016.
Critics say diversity isn’t to blame, more often it’s the writing. If the writing lacks authenticity — for example, a 30-year-old white male writing the perspective of a black teenage girl — audiences pick that up and lose interest.
Others suggest Marvel create new characters, rather than transferring old names and titles. Readers can be nostalgic and traditional, wanting to read the stories of the Iron Man and Spider-Man they know and grew up with, rather than a comic with a new character in the same role. For example, readers might be more likely to pick up a comic with Peter Parker as Spider-Man than Miles Morales as Spider-Man because they are more familiar with Peter Parker’s character, who has been in that role since 1962.
Diversity on and behind the screen
From the pages of comics, these superheroes trickle into movie and television adaptations. Marvel and Netflix gave audiences a female superhero with “Jessica Jones” in 2015 and a black title character with “Luke Cage” in 2017. This year, DC Comics and CW released “Black Lightning,” another black hero.
These TV shows feature a largely female or black creative team to more authentically tell the stories of characters representing those groups.
The same thing is happening in films. “Wonder Woman” was directed by a woman, Patty Jenkins. “Black Panther” is directed by Ryan Coogler, who is black. He also directed the Rocky spin-off “Creed” and co-wrote the “Black Panther” screenplay.
Not only does diversity behind the screen create a more accurate representation of those in front of it, it gives a more diverse group of filmmakers the chance to tell more stories from their point of view.
Audience reception of diversity
As seen with “Wonder Woman,” which became the highest-grossing superhero film of all time, “Black Panther” is set to break some records. It is already out-performing advance ticket sales of “Captain America: Civil War,” which set a previous record for pre-ticket sales.
Critics’ reception of “Black Panther” has been largely positive; audiences appear enthusiastic as well.
Various charities and celebrities have started campaigns to help black children see the film. A social media campaign #WhatBlackPantherMeansToMe set loose a flood of emotional responses at seeing a black character who was a king, intelligent and a superhero instead of a criminal, sidekick or slave.
However, not all response has been positive. A Facebook group called “Down With Disney’s Treatment of Franchises and its Fanboys,” created an event to “Give Black Panther a Rotten Audience Score on Rotten Tomatoes.” The group believes Disney has paid critics to give good reviews of Marvel and bad reviews of DC — despite the fact that “Wonder Woman,” a DC film, received a 92 percent rating on Rotten Tomatoes.
In an interview with the Huffington Post, the moderator self-identified as a member of the alt-right movement. The group, which believes white identity is under attack, was also behind an organized movement to produce low audience scores on Rotten Tomatoes and elsewhere for “Star Wars: The Last Jedi.” The Down with Disney Facebook page moderator told the Huffington Post the film created male characters who are victims of the “anti-mansplaining movement,” and the moderator expressed disapproval of the film’s feminism and female protagonists.
Facebook has since removed the page for violating community standards. The event has also been removed. Rotten Tomatoes said it will track review bombing attempts as well as provide a platform for audience and fan participation that does not include hate speech.
Why diversity matters
Although the stories of women and blacks are making their way to the big screen, the world is far more diverse than most films and television show. Box office reports show superheroes of different genders and races are wanted by audiences. Gender and race are only the beginning of how the superhero genre can diversify. Perhaps everyone should have the chance to see a superhero on screen and think, “That’s like me.”