Diversity Aboveground: Marvel’s Diversity Improving?

Benedict Wong as Wong

Marvel Studios has taken a lot of criticism that seems to increase with every year. It’s 2016 and still no Black Widow solo film. Doctor Strange, despite the box office numbers, did have boycotts. Black Panther is still 16 months away. Captain Marvel won’t premiere until over a year after that. Characters in the LGBTQUIA+ community seem segregated to the television series. Film production after film production have been led by Caucasian males. Captain America: Civil War was the first time that three Black superheroes were onscreen together and talked to each other! However, the same can’t be said of females yet.

But is there hope for Marvel? Are they learning from their mistakes? Has Marvel’s diversity improved?

Doctor Strange

The hottest film this weekend stars…a male Caucasian. It’s like a whole series of…buts. The Ancient One is a woman but Caucasian and the audience is told she’s Celtic as though that would explain everything? Chiwetel Ejiofor plays Strange’s strongest supporter but comic readers know Baron Mordo doesn’t stay that way. Benedict Wong plays Wong and Marvel Studios president Kevin Feige has referred to him as “a very key character for us” but most of his role is the sidekick who provides comic relief through stereotypical humor and being the fool. Then, it finally appears twice that viewers will see him in action but it cuts away to a different character. There are multiple Indian actors but Meera Syal plays a tiny role as a doctor and Ezra Khan has a single scene which concludes after he’s been beheaded.

Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2

Gamora with binders

Well, they’re aliens, right? That’s why the only People of Color are encased in make-up or CGI?

However, the first film did pass the Bechdel Test, the sister relationship between Gamora and Nebula will be further explored and it’s added several more females to the cast.

Thor: Ragnarok

This is the first film to deviate from having a male Caucasian director. Taika Waititi was born and raised in New Zealand. His father is Māori; the indigenous people who first settled that country. Although he’s one of the screenwriters for Disney’s Moana, Waititi hasn’t been credited with the screenplay for his Thor film although he does seem to have made tweaks and little changes.

The bulk of the screenplay appears to have been written by Christopher Yost, who wrote on the last Thor film, and Craig Kyle who’s previously written for Marvel’s animated productions. Then, it was sent to Stephany Folsom for a final polish. Folsom is famous for writing a very popular script where she imagines what it would have been like if N.A.S.A. had hired Stanley Kubrick to fake a moon landing. It’s never been filmed.

Tessa Thompson as Valkyrie

From Facebook livestream

Valkyrie, who’s traditionally portrayed as a blonde Caucasian, will be played by Tessa Thompson. It feels a bit overdue since they had established that Asgardians come in all colors when casting Idris Elba as Heimdall. Cate Blanchett will play Hela who’s Loki’s daughter in traditional mythology but not so in Marvel’s personal lore. Unfortunately, the addition of these two great actresses is alongside the loss of Natalie Portman, Kat Dennings, Jaimie Alexander and Rene Russo from the cast. Russo’s Frigga was fridged in the last film, Portman’s Foster was busy with her career in Avengers: Age of Ultron and Dennings’ Lewis is usually right beside her. Alexander’s Sif could be helping Coulson with something on Midgard since the other Warriors Three, including Hogun ( Tadanobu Asanoere) will make a brief appearance. Whatever the story reasons given, Thor: The Dark World had a cast where females made up almost 1/3 of it and Thor: Ragnarok has…two females total so far.

Spider-Man: Homecoming

It’s not technically a Marvel Studios film but it’s in the Marvel Cinematic Universe and Marvel Studios has creative control over it. This is the same Marvel Studios whose films have been predominantly Caucasian males like the current Spider-Man but look at the cast list. 11 announced actors are People of Color! Of course, the entire announced cast is around 26 but that’s how bad things are. Two actors are considered progressive and 11 actors are amazing. Zendaya is playing Mary Jane! This is the first time that Mary Jane has been race-bended. However, there’s no guarantee how large the rest of the roles actually are. Peter Parker, his aunt and major villain are all still Caucasians.

It is also likely that they may play antagonists, like Aasif Mandvi’s character in Spider-Man 3 that fired Peter Parker from his pizza delivery job or Jamie Fox playing Electro in The Amazing Spider-Man 2. Tony Revolori was announced as playing Manuel but at SDCC 2016, it was revealed he’s actually playing Flash Thompson.

Tony Revolori in his natural state

Color blind casting where someone of Guatemalan descent plays a male previously blond haired and blue eyed is always good, right?

No matter what?

Well…

Flash Thompson normally symbolizes a perversion of the American dream. He’s a blond haired, blue eyed perfect football jock who uses his popularity and physical prowess to bully others. Thompson could also be referred to as a Bizarro Steve Rogers.

Revolori doesn’t have blond hair, blue eyes or the body of a high school quarterback. However, should films be more careful about their use of People of Color? In a perfect world, it shouldn’t matter who plays whom but for now, it does. Peter Parker finally on equal or greater footing than Flash Thompson is supposed to be an underdog story where audiences root for Peter yet doesn’t it seem a little strange to pit Caucasians against minorities so that audiences root for the Caucasians? Wasn’t one of the most uncomfortable parts of X-Men: Age of Apocalypse realizing that the audience is supposed to be supporting these eight Caucasians as they bring down five minorities who just wanted to make the world a better place?

Maximiliano Hernandez as Jasper Sitwell

Agent Sitwell was a double agent for HYDRA.

Revolori would be the third Hispanic to play a villainous role in the MCU universe. Isn’t that feeding into the stereotype? Why do the casts for Marvel Television Studios have more diversity than the films? Robbie Reyes as Ghost Rider might be seen as a villain to some but to others, he’s a hero and has understandable reasons for what he does. He even helped S.H.I.E.L.D. It suited his goals but that still counts. Meanwhile, Doctor Strange gives Benjamin Bratt two scenes and there still hasn’t been a Hispanic or Latino superhero on the big screen.

The only way to make Revolori as Thompson excusable would be to incorporate Thompson’s entire comic book history. Specifically, Thompson becomes paralyzed and agrees to wear the Venom symbiote which allows him to walk again but he’s an agent of good, working for S.H.I.E.L.D.

Black Panther

The director is Ryan Coogler who will also co-write the script with Joe Robert Cole. Both are African-American. Just because a film takes place in Africa doesn’t mean the cast will star People of Color. However, Marvel Studios’ President Kevin Feige says that the cast will be 90% African or African-American. Already, they’ve announced Michael B. Jordan and Lupita Nyong’o. Jordan will play Erik Killmonger; one of the title character’s main nemesi. Nyong’o will play Nakia, part of the Dora Milaje which is the Wakandan version of the Secret Service. Don’t be too excited about it being all women. Wakanda set it up that way long ago to ensure the King would find a bride mentally and physically worthy of his affection. Alongside Nyong’o is Danai Gurira, playing another Dora Milaje member, Okoye. Florence Kasumba played one of the Dora Milaje in Captain America: Civil War and has been confirmed to reprise her role. Forest Whitaker will play the King’s loyal companion, Zuri, although he died 17 years ago in the comics so don’t get too attached to Zuri.

Captain Marvel

Brie Larson sporting Marvel Cap

Courtesy from Brie Larson

This film will one up DC’s Wonder Woman film by having a female director AND TWO female screenwriters. Nicole Perlman is responsible for original treatment and first screenplay for Guardians of the Galaxy. She also wrote an unused treatment for a Black Widow film. Meg LeFauve’s first two screenplays were Inside/Out and The Good Dinosaur. The film still doesn’t have a director although it will star Brie Larson as Carol Danvers. This casting decision was heralded by most of the Internet but less popular among fans. In the comics, Danvers achieved the title Colonel in the Air Force. This can only happen after 22 years of service and three years being a lieutenant colonel. Danvers would be 40 at the earliest and Larson is only 27. Then again, Doctor Strange appears to confirm that James Rhodes is only 35 and he was already Colonel in the first Iron Man film which would have taken place when he was 27. However, Perlman told Any Time with Vin Forte podcast that  “But here’s the thing: if you were just going to do a straight adaptation of the comics, her origin story is very similar to Green Lantern. And obviously, that’s not what we want to do. So there’s a lot of reinvention that needs to happen.” Will Danvers keep her Air Force background that’s similar to Rhodes or will she be turned into an internet hacker, investigative journalist or something similar?

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The animated Disney film, Moana, releases later this month and it’s already created controversy from its character, Maui  (Dwayne Johnson). In Pacific Islander mythologies, Maui is an extremely important person. On Tonga, he is so revered that there are no images of him. It’s possible that nothing Disney could have come up with would have satisfied that devotion, like trying to make an animated film about Jesus.

Maui is considered a Trickster character. The traditional Trickster is known for their slim build, intellect and ability to talk people into doing things they wouldn’t normally do. Maui is not a slim character and that is one of the main issues. Many Pacific Islanders have complained about Maui coming off like a stereotypical Polynesian male. Most complain that it perpetuates the assumption that all Pacific Islander males are overweight. Others are concerned that it encourages being overweight as a positive. Leah Damm, a Pacific Islander, wrote for a local New Zealand magazine that “The controversy about Maui’s size only reinforces a very modern European concept of health and beauty, especially if the desired standard for Maui is that he should have been modelled on a European God like Hercules.” Read the entire article here because she goes more in depth about how obesity is a complicated issue.

The real life problem with body-shaming a cartoon Polynesian

Earlier production drawings show Disney had always intended Maui to be a larger body shape even before figuring out specifics.

Maui character sketches

Maui seems to be influenced by aesthetics and his voice actor. In duos, people prefer opposites. C-3PO is tall and slender while R2-D2 is short with a literal barrel chest. Timon and Pumbaa have a similar contrast as do Liz Sherman and Hellboy. Since Disney insists on their princesses being able to fit Scarlet O’Hara’s corset, Maui’s body type is large.

Maui’s tattoos and other specifics appear to be inspired by Dwayne Johnson who voices him. As people complain about being overweight,  it’s important to study Johnson. The former full-time professional wrestler is 6’5 and listed as 260 pounds. By current Body Mass Index standards, that qualifies as obese. Even if he has lost some of that weight, he would still be labeled as overweight.

Does Dwayne Johnson look overweight or obese to you?

It’s almost all muscle and strength. While Pacific cultures differ on which islands Maui hauled out of the ocean or whether he helped his father push up the sky when it was falling, all agree on his physical prowess. Why should a man of such incredible strength be slim?

Another criticism that has been less addressed is whether Disney kept Maui’s intellect. In the trailer, Maui is the comic relief which can often resort to making that person seem stupid. This is another common trait in duos that one is much dumber or naive than the other one. In order to make Moana look good, they may have her smarter at Maui’s expense. It’s very early to tell from the trailer but Disney doesn’t have a good track record of that either.

Damm wrote on her personal blog about some other concerns:

Disney’s Moana: For The Kids or A Question of Race, Culture & History?

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Disney had another Maui misstep when they released this Halloween costume:

Maui Halloween Costume

Some called it “Polyface”, a Polynesian equivalent to blackface. Not only did wearing another’s skin seem insensitive but he is a revered god in many counties. Then, there’s the tattoos. For many children, tattoos are just cool. In the Pacific Islander culture, each is full of meaning to the wearer and not lightly added to their skin.

After about a month, Disney pulled the costumes from stores and the website.

This past summer has seen a number of possible strides in LGBTQUIA+ representation. The newest Sulu is married to a fellow male. Various ghostbusters might not be quite so heterosexual. However, overseas airings of American television have been censored to remove homosexual elements. What does this mean for the future? And more importantly, what does this mean for the Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them franchise?


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