Between sneak-reading issues of my father’s epic comic collection and watching superhero cartoons on TV, I was always drawn to minorities and women in comic books. There was something comforting and exhilarating to me when watching Africa-American teen Virgil in Static Shock or John Stewart (definitely not The Daily Show host) in Justice League, and fawning for hours over gothic-styled Storm in X-Men Unlimited and the assassin/coming-of-age story of the Eurasian Cassandra Cain in Batgirl.
For a genre that has been about the underdog, the odd one out, the misunderstood, people who look like me have been left out a lot. And, I grasped for these representations of familiarity desperately. That’s why Marvel’s recent three-year push to bring more diversity to its comic line up is so important.
Yes, I’m glad Marvel decided to give us a Black-Latino Spider-Man in 2011, a Pakistani Ms. Marvel in 2014, and a female wielding the hammer of Thor, this past Wednesday. And, on Thursday we learned that Steve Rogers’ BFF in patriotic crime fighting, The Falcon, will take over his mantle as the first black Captain America.
But, victories like these happened for me more than a decade ago, as I was being indoctrinated by lifelong comic book readers (I’ve always thought comic fandom was somewhat hereditary). Really, these minor line-up changes are just the same kinds of swaps that Marvel and rival DC have been serving up since the ‘70s. They’re just maintaining the status quo.
One of the pleasures — and, truth be told, annoyances — of comic book storytelling is that it goes on for freaking ever. Characters who die come back. Alternate universes are born. Everything is retconned, and then retconned again. There are so many different storylines and timelines that there really isn’t much of a risk in creating a side-franchise that replaces Spider-Man with a black kid. The Peter Parker we grew up with is still web-slinging in The Amazing Spider-Man series, while new Spidey fights crime in Miles Morales: Ultimate Spider-Man.
That’s why I rolled my eyes at the announcement that Sam Wilson (played by Anthony Mackie in Captain America: The Winter Solider) would become Captain America.
Though the exact identity and means by which the new female Thor assumes the title is unknown, well, female characters who share the same look and powers of the original male heroes have existed for years. Ever heard of She-Hulk? She’s Bruce Banner’s cousin. Hawkgirl is the counterpart to Hawkman. The Captain Marvel/Ms. Marvel stories are filled with gender swapping, it’s why the new Ms. Marvel gets to be a Pakistani teen. Her predecessor, Carol Danvers, was promoted to Captain Marvel after the previous (male) holder of that title decided to change his name.
You know what would be really daring? Killing off the old, male Thor and replacing him with a woman. The male Thor isn’t gone, he’s just waylaid for the time being. I guarantee he’ll be back.
Comic book fans already know these things and have watched writers take on these new story lines with gusto. Sadly, nothing has changed in the superhero movie universe, which is undoubtedly where new fans are born. The superhero audience is no longer just comic book readers; it's the mainstream movie-going audience, and it's one that's both growing and global. Hollywood isn't jumping on the superhero diversity wagon anytime soon. For example, the industry missed a clear opportunity to champion diversity when they cast Ryan Reynolds to play Hal Jordan in The Green Lantern, rather than casting a black actor to play John Stewart, the character who has represented Green Lantern in animated movies and television for at least a decade.
I don’t blame Marvel for the status quo in the movies. The movie industry is an institution hell-bent on maintaining the young, white, male slant to attract the most dollars in the theater. Still, moviegoer demographics have been changing, and Disney in particular has made a push for more heroines and more diversity in its family-friendly releases.
This makes it clear that people are hungry for a change; for more diverse casts. So changing the race and gender of some of their storied superheroes is a fabulous business move for Marvel and Disney. Every time they do it’s a PR coup, and for every detractor who claims the changes ruin the legends, there are many more who applaud them for being progressive, inclusive, and creative. They'll attract people who will either pick up the new story arcs out of curiosity or to prove their fears were correct.
If Marvel and Disney were truly advocating for diversity, they have a wealth of already written characters they can promote and make movies out of, such as The Falcon, Storm, Black Panther, and Luke Cage. Or, they can create new heroes, and a more diverse fantasy universe. My MVP in this regard? Image Comics, and their Saga series, which is about interplanetary, interspeciel war, and within the species there is diversity.
I'm not saying Marvel has done wrong with their new lineup changes. They just haven't done enough.