Jul 19, 2018
Why a female Thor and black Captain America aren’t enough
Last week, Marvel Comics made news by announcing two big shakeups to established characters: In stories to be published this fall, a woman will be wielding Thor’s hammer, while black superhero Sam Wilson AKA the Falcon will be taking on the role of Captain America.
Depending on which websites you frequent, this is either a massive middle finger to fans of these characters, or a positive step towards better representation of women and minorities in comics. Personally, I think more diversity in comics is usually a good thing, and a lot more interesting than a comic book universe where everybody looks the same and has all the same life experiences. I’ll be the first to admit I haven’t kept up with comic books in quite a while, but as a movie fan, I’m now totally invested in what happens in the comics, because they’ve become the testing ground for tomorrow’s blockbusters. More diversity in the comics means more diversity in the movies we’ll be watching years from now—in theory, at least.
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Alas, there’s been a strong negative reaction to these announcements, with comic book fans taking to social media and website comment sections to voice their displeasure with the changes. As you’d expect, a lot of these complaints are just plain idiotic, with racist/sexist undertones that you just might be able to pick up on…
There have also been the expected accusations that Marvel is simply pandering to “political correctness”, as if these changes were the product of some sinister new cultural phenomenon.
I’m obviously clueless when it comes to recent Marvel continuity, but even I know that other characters have been taking over for Thor for decades. And if a space horse can take on Thor’s powers and costume (and if Thor himself can become a frog), there really shouldn’t be outrage over a woman picking up Mjolnir. And yet…
Similarly, considering there’s a lengthy history of other characters donning the Captain America costume, I don’t see why it matters much when one of those characters happens to be black. Especially since it’s happened before. Especially since the Falcon becoming Captain America has happened before.
So a lot of the commenters blowing a fuse over these announcements are clearly not even taking the time to understand the history of the thing they’re outraged over (and we should all be thankful the internet wasn’t around when Rhodey became Iron Man, or John Stewart became Green Lantern).
But it appears the majority of complaints are centered around the notion that well-known, beloved characters are being demoted and taking on reduced roles to make way for newer versions. “Why screw around with established characters for the sake of diversity?” goes a common refrain. “Instead of gender-swapping and race-swapping Thor and Captain America, why not come up with original characters who already happen to be women and minorities?” And to that I say…
Seriously, there’s clearly room for both approaches here. Having diverse original characters is great, but there’s no reason female and minority characters can’t take over for the big names every now and then. But having said that, the complainers might just have a point.
If the end goal is to introduce true, long-lasting diversity into comic book franchises, and appeal to a more diverse audience, one has to wonder if simply changing the genders and races of established characters is the right way to go about it.
For one thing, we all know that the female Thor and Sam Wilson as Captain America are only going to last as long as the sales uptick Marvel sees from putting out these press releases. After a year or so, the original versions of these characters will be back (probably just in time for the next Avengers movie), and their replacements sent back to the sidelines, because that’s the way comics work. Does it really do that much to raise the status of black superheroes when we all know Falcon is only a temporary substitute for the “real” superhero?
And worse yet, as we just witnessed, these kind of racial/gender reassignments tend to stir up loads of anger and bitterness among fans. A lot of readers end up feeling like diversity is being shoved down their throats, and while the easy reaction is to dismiss them as entitled racists and misogynists who need to suck it up, we have to acknowledge that simply saying “Thor is a woman now, deal with it” may do more harm than good. Because it’s clearly generating a great deal of resentment towards those who simply want better representation in the medium.
And once you get past the rather butthurt way these sentiments are often expressed, they’re right in one respect: Marvel should be bringing more attention to their characters who are already women and minorities. And there’s no need to create brand new characters and hope they catch on, either. Marvel has plenty of diverse superheroes who have been around for decades.
The Falcon first appeared in 1969, while Sif and Valkyrie (both of whom could be likened to a “female Thor”) were introduced in 1964 and 1970, respectively. Meanwhile, Black Panther and Carol Danvers and Luke Cage have all been around longer than so-called “established” superheroes like Wolverine and the Punisher.
And I realize all of these characters have been given their own titles at one time or another, and none of them have ever sold particularly well. But does that mean Marvel’s only recourse is to throw in the towel, and basically admit that the only way they can get their readers to care about female/minority superheroes is by dressing them up in the costumes of their white male counterparts? Doesn’t that run counter to the whole concept of being more inclusive in the first place?
I think there’s a lot more Marvel could be doing to raise the profile of existing minority superheroes, particularly by increasing diversity among its creative staff. There have been a few notable attempts of late, including the new Ms. Marvel series (starring a Pakistani-American teenager) written by G. Willow Wilson, and a new Storm title coming out this month written by Greg Pak. But Marvel’s writers and artists are still overwhelmingly white males, who may not be the most qualified to tell great stories about minority characters. Some may disparage this as a call for racial quotas at the Marvel offices, but comics that appeal to non-traditional demographics mean more people reading comics, and if you’re a comics fan, how can you be against more people reading comics?
But more importantly, Marvel is currently in a unique position to bring attention to unlikely characters. On the Cinematic Universe side of things, they took a risk on Guardians of the Galaxy, an outré, obscure property, and it looks like that risk is about to pay off (the movie is tracking to have a $60 million opening weekend, about the same as the first Captain America). Next year, they’re going to bring us a movie starring C-list superhero Ant-Man. Clearly, they’re in a place where they can take a chance on characters unfamiliar to the general public. They have the power and influence to make a female or minority superhero movie happen, and the behind-the-scenes talent to make sure the film isn’t a megabomb like previous attempts.
So yes, at the risk of beating a dead horse (though, not a space horse), I’m going to be yet another voice saying that the time has come for Marvel to announce a movie starring a female superhero or a person of color… and that time was 2010. It’s absurd that it’s taken this long for them to get around to it.
Instead of announcing that Sam Wilson will be the new Captain America, the announcement should have been that the Falcon would be getting his own movie. Or the Black Panther, or Captain Marvel, or the Black Widow. That would have done just as much to generate publicity and boost comic book sales and increase diversity, while pissing off exactly nobody. While there are certainly plenty of bigoted morons who would still snipe at a major motion picture starring a black or female superhero, it’s hard to imagine the majority of comic book fans being against giving one of these lesser-known characters a shot at the big time.
(And yes, I realize that Peggy Carter is getting her own ABC miniseries, and Luke Cage is getting his own Netflix series, which is great! But neither of those are anywhere near the huge deal that a multimillion-dollar four-quadrant tentpole theatrical release would be.)
Obviously, Marvel is a business, and from a financial perspective, previous attempts to make movies starring minority superheroes haven’t gone over well. But it’s ridiculous to argue that this makes Marvel justified in not taking a chance on another, because this argument basically boils down to “we can’t challenge the status quo because money.” And it’s not even our money. Unless you personally own a significant amount of Disney stock, there’s nothing to be gained from perpetuating this argument.
By putting out press releases and announcing the female Thor on The View, it’s obvious Marvel really wants to be seen as a positive force for social change, without actually having to do the heavy lifting and take real risks. If the goal is to shake up their current titles and tell different kinds of stories, then Falcon as Captain America and a female Thor are both perfectly fine ideas. And if the goal is to bring Marvel lots of publicity (both positive and negative), then mission accomplished. But if the aim is to bring lasting change to comics, or expose current readers to more diverse characters, this is probably not the best way to go about it.