DC Comics recently announced that a Wonder Woman movie will come out in 2017. While this news is exciting for feminists, comic book fans, and moviegoers, this movie announcement should illuminate the broader problem of diversity representation in superhero movies. Despite the fact that Wonder Woman ranks number five in IGN’s list of the “Top 100 Comic Book Heroes,” until last week, Wonder Woman was the only character within the top ten of that list without a modern movie or television show. In 2007 Joss Whedon wrote a script, in 2011 NBC canceled a pilot television episode, and in 2013 the CW stopped development on a series. These repeated missed opportunities for a Wonder Woman production were often explained away with excuses of low-quality scripts or financial risk. The apparent inability to take a risk on Wonder Woman came in a 15-year period of unprecedented superhero movie saturation. Of the nearly 30 blockbuster superhero movies of the last decade, none starred a female character. In an era when every movie received a sequel, a prequel, and a spin-off, the reason for Wonder Woman’s prolonged absence was her gender.
Superhero movies have a diversity problem. Why do super-powered genetic mutations select white people almost exclusively? Why, if super-soldier serum and weaponized armor allows for heroics regardless of natural strength, are there no super-strong women? Why is every film superhero heterosexual? All of the box office triumphs by DC and Marvel have starred white, straight, male superheroes and that must change.
Why Superheroes Matter
Diversity in superhero movies is of particular importance given the financial and social sway that these movies currently hold. Superhero movies collect record-breaking amounts of money, illustrating just how widely seen they are. For instance, Marvel’s Avengers broke the record for the most money earned in an opening weekend and became the third highest grossing movie of all time, collecting over $1.5 billion. The Marvel Cinematic Universe films have grossed over $6.3 billion in the domestic box office, with many more movies to be released in the coming years. Dark Horse Comic’s The Dark Knight also surpassed the one billion mark, and, when adjusted for inflation, DC’s domestic box office gross is well over $2 billion.
Aside from their popularity, superhero movies enforce cultural and moral norms. When Superman explains to Lois Lane that he stands “for truth, justice, and the American way” in the 1978 film, Superman, his famous line asserts that his identity is intrinsically connected to America. Superman’s preservation of the “American way” indicates that his protection extends beyond ensuring the physical safety of citizens to the protection of a set of “American” beliefs. The phrase “American way” implies a way of thinking. By protecting the “American way,” Superman conserves American ideology. This 1978 film, the first widely popular superhero movie, established for film audiences that superheroes are American symbols who reflect idealized American citizens. Superman’s preservation of the “American way” goes hand-in-hand with his physical appearance as a tall, muscular, white man. The moralistic nature of superhero movies prescribes definitions for what doing and being “good” should be, and, by extension, what those who do good should look like. When a superhero like Captain America, Superman, or Batman symbolizes justice and morality, he also defines the cultural understanding of a hero based on his appearance and identities.
Superhero movies struggle both with underrepresentation and misrepresentation. That the issue of diversity representation is two-pronged ensures that movies are not excused simply because they adequately fill one of these characteristics. For instance, in the movie Sucker Punch, most of the characters are female superheroes, and therefore the movie does not underrepresent female characters. Given that film’s treatment of women as primarily sexual objects, Sucker Punch serves as an example of misrepresentation. Many critics have argued that the film is “faux-feminist” and “disempowering to women.” On the other hand, Thor’s character Heimdall does not fulfill any of the frequent stereotypes of people of color on film. Heimdall is just another hero whose character extends well beyond race. However, the Thor series deserves a closer look, because Heimdall is the only character of color in the films. It is worth noting that Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje, a British actor of Nigerian descent, plays a non-humanoid alien monster, so whether his character ought to be considered for our purposes is up for interpretation. Because of the film’s overall underrepresentation of people of color, the Thor films do not succeed in the portrayal of diversity.
Total Absence: Who Cannot Be a Superhero?
Before examining instances of misrepresentation, it is important to note instances of underrepresentation of diversity in superhero films. There are few, if any, LGBTQ, Latino, and Native American characters. In modern iterations of the comic books, characters such as Batwoman and Green Lantern have been revealed as homosexual. Wolverine, for instance, kisses the character Hercules in an iteration of an alternate universe X-Men comic, though not in a comic book that counts as the “official” canon of the X-Men universe. However, LGBTQ characters are completely absent from superhero films. In other genres of film, LGBTQ representation has improved tremendously. Notable examples include critically acclaimed movies like Brokeback Mountain, The Kids Are Alright, and Dallas Buyer’s Club. In superhero films, gay characters are completely absent, and, frequently, the entire concept of homosexuality is ignored.
Mainstream superhero films deal with homosexuality only through subtext and allusion. The X-Men franchise uses the concept of mutation to stand as a metaphor for homosexuality. X-Men 2 features a mutant coming out scene in which Bobby’s mother asks “Have you tried not being a mutant?” This question echoes the conservative argument that being gay is a choice, and that you can “choose” not to be gay. However, despite X-Men 2’s mutant coming out scene, X-Men’s parallels with gay-rights are all figurative. At the end of Avengers, Iron Man makes a joke to Captain America, Thor, and the Hulk that he hopes no one kissed him when he was unconscious. This moment, one of the few references to homosexuality in superhero films, works as a homophobic remark that positions homosexuality as something unlikely among superheroes and as something that would conflict with the atmosphere of a team. This joke treats the concept of the gay team-member as threatening and mirrors the homophobic rhetoric used recently in discussions of gay athletes. The complete absence of gay superheroes in film implies that gay people cannot be heroic.
Native Americans and Latinos are also widely underrepresented in superhero films. In a search of Latino and Native American superheroes that appear on film, the only characters that appear in mainstream superhero movies were Sunspot and Warpath from X-Men: Days of Future Past and the much-criticized character Tonto from The Lone Ranger, if it even counts as a superhero film. Sunspot is played by a Latino man. Warpath is not named within the actual dialogue of the movie. While the presence of these characters is certainly is a step in the right direction, their characters are given a small amount of screen time. Given the social and economic significance of superhero films, the absence of Native American, Latino, and LGBTQ characters is troubling.
Asian characters appear in superhero films primarily to fulfill stereotypes. The recent X-Men movie features an Asian character, Blink, who appears briefly with few lines of dialogue. Asian characters in superhero films are often defined by their identity as Asian. The Dark Knight’s Chinese mobsters’ character development begins and ends with “China.” Some superhero movies exoticize Asia by sending the hero out of the U.S. In Batman Begins, Batman stereotypically learns martial arts while in Bhutan, though his instructor is a white man. The Wolverine movie spent much of its time in Japan, with scenes that included Wolverine saving a Japanese man from the nuclear bomb in Nagasaki. While this movie had many Asian characters, reviews were mixed on the portrayal of Asians in the movie. Professor Susan J. Napier of Tufts University argued in the Huffington Post that the clichés of Japanese culture used in the film never allowed for three-dimensional character development. In considering films like The Wolverine and Iron Man 3, in which East Asian characters appear frequently on screen, the question becomes whether a stereotypical portrayal is better than no portrayal at all.
The Black Hero
The African American hero has evolved from the earliest superhero films. None of the early superhero films starred had black main characters, with the notable exception of the 1977 blaxploitation film Abar: The First Black Superman. Blaxploitation movies were films made for an African American audience, and therefore carry with them deep complications. These films, though featuring African American actors, were regressive given their utilization of stereotypes about African Americans. This particular film chronicled an African American man who gains super powers and uses them to fight crime usually perpetrated by racist white people. Though the film itself perpetrated stereotypes about African American men and women, it is perhaps the earliest African American superhero on film. Interestingly, Abar: The First Black Superman is still the only superhero film centering on an African American.
As superhero films progress, black characters remain in supporting roles. Characters like Avengers’ Nick Fury, Man of Steel’s Perry White, and Captain America: Winter Soldier’s Sam Wilson are an important part of the core group of characters, but they are never the leader. The most visible African American character in superhero films is Tony Stark’s best friend Rhodey. Rhodey possesses an Iron Man suit, which Tony builds for him. Rhodey’s heroics in the movies, which include saving Tony, are often a result of the tools Tony has built for him. Sam Wilson’s Falcon character similarly uses technology he himself has not made. And whereas Captain America’s super-soldier serum works due to special character attributes of Captain America, the Falcon relies on wings fashioned by the government. In comic books, the first African character, Black Panther, creates these wings for the Falcon. The film inception of the Falcon’s wings is impersonal and does not relate or necessitate heroics on the part of the Falcon’s character. Even though Rhodey and the Falcon are wonderful characters, they still come second to their white superhero partners. The question remains–when will Marvel will take a further step and allow their film heroes to be African American?
While Marvel makes advancements in comics only, DC Comics just announced that African American actor Ray Fisher will star as Cyborg in 2020. Two important caveats are worth noting before lauding DC for this progressive decision. Cyborg as a character is partially covered by metal, including on his face and limbs. The first modern solo film starring a black superhero will feature a character whose actual skin covered. The powers that make Cyborg a hero come from the metal on his body that covers his skin and masks his race to an audience. Rather than serving as a progressive choice, this movie will present a complicated message about heroism and blackness.
The Female Superhero Sex Symbol
Women have always appeared in superhero films, but female characters of the ’70s were almost exclusively love interests with no broader purpose or identity. Characters like Lois Lane and Mary Jane Watson are exuberant and even tough, but their real purposes are in their relationships with Superman and Spiderman. In the Spiderman trilogy of the early 2000’s, each movie involves Mary Jane getting captured and saved by Peter Parker. Thor’s Jane Foster and The Dark Knight’s Rachel are a modified version of this trope.
A more recent development in the depiction of women in superhero films is what the documentary Missrepresentation labels as the “fighting fuck toy.” These women, while physically powerful, are primarily sexual figures. X-Men’s Mystique, for instance, spends most time naked (or, more accurately, covered in a skin-tight blue body suit made to look like a natural blue skin). In The Avengers the Black Widow and Agent Hill both wear skintight black body suits. The nature of their fighting leans heavily on sexuality. Mystique often chokes people with her legs, and the Black Widow wraps her thighs around bad guys’ necks. These women, as well as Catwoman from The Dark Knight Rises and Emma Frost from X-Men: First Class use seduction as methods of interrogation and coercion. In small doses, this reads as women taking control of their bodies and using eroticism to their own gain. Seducing villains into telling secrets or making incorrect moves in battle is clever and paints the bad guys as uncontrolled and stupid. The overuse of this seduction, however, creates an implication that the female superhero can only be the femme fatale. It limits the ability of the female superhero to be dynamic.
Progress on the Horizon?
In recent months, Marvel and DC have announced various updates on the diversity of their characters. The DC character Supergirl will be starring in her own television show. Supergirl, who in the comic books is a teenager, has been aged up to mid-twenties for this production. As an adult, Supergirl is allowed to be an erotic symbol, much in the way of the “fighting fuck toy.” Marvel has announced the Agent Carter television show, which could rewrite some of the usual notions regarding female heroes. Recently, Marvel also announced that a female would replace Thor, and that Falcon would replace Captain America. Upon closer inspection, these highly publicized announcements only apply to comic books, not films. Comic books, the less viewed versions of the superhero stories, are allowed creativity and diversity. However, when adapted to the screen, white male superheroes dominate.
Given the exposure and cultural power that superhero films attain, the current lack of diversity in superhero films is regressive and alarming. Race and gender in superhero films, and therefore in the cultural definition of heroism, has remained constant since the early Superman movies, indicating a failure to adapt to a modern media that consistently evolves and progresses. A solo film starring someone who differs from the current mold of white, male, and straight would destabilize the cultural understanding of the hero. Instead of limiting the image of the hero to only a percentage of the population, superhero films have the power to show that the American conception of a hero is not limited to a specific race, gender, or sexuality.