Superheroes are not good at representing diversity. The genre has for decades been dominated by mostly to white male heroes — and, in fact, is actually tilted specifically towards rich white male superheroes. So while some show runners and producers have tried to move towards greater diversity recently, the sheer ubiquity of these narratives in our pop culture landscape means that even the best exceptions are swamped by a tidal wave of status quo white men saving the world. When superheroes dominate film and television as thoroughly as they do today, the genre’s limitations become that more obvious, and that more frustrating for fans eager for truly diverse storytelling.
This may seem like a needlessly pessimistic take in 2017, after the critical and commercial success of the Patty Jenkins-directed “Wonder Woman.,” or after “Thor: Ragnarok” introduced a black, bisexual woman hero (Tessa Thompson) in Valkyrie. This was also the year that “The Defenders” brought together characters from all of Netflix's diverse Marvel series, including Jessica Jones (Krysten Rytter), Luke Cage (Mike Colter), Claire Temple (Rosario Dawson) and Colleen Wing (Jessica Henwick).
When you look a little closer, though, the diversity we’ve been celebrating starts to look a little threadbare.
It took 17 years of our current superhero explosion before we got that Wonder Woman film. And we still, inexplicably, don't have a Black Widow movie, even though the character has been portrayed in multiple ensemble movies by Scarlett Johansson, probably the single most bankable actors in Hollywood. Films like “Thor: Ragnarok,” “Guardians of the Galaxy 2” and “Justice League” certainly included non-white guys as supporting actors, but white guys were in their usual position at center stage.
When you look a little closer, the diversity we’ve been celebrating starts to look a little threadbare.
Worse, when non-white people are represented, they frequently still show up as wearisome stereotypes. Mantis (Pom Klementieff) in Guardians is portrayed as a submissive Asian woman, who the villain literally keeps as a pet; her main power is lulling the bad guy to sleep. In the “Legion” television show, Kerry (Amber Midthunder) is a Native woman who shares a body with a white guy. The Natty Bumppo narrative, where some white person is presented as having a Native essence, is retooled here as a superpower. To make matters worse, the character is introduced as a great fighter, but then spends most of the season getting badly beaten up or threatened with sexual assault.
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Superhero narratives struggle with diversity, even when they strive for it, for a few reasons. The first is that the entire superhero genre was built on characters and stories that are 40, 50 and, in some cases, almost 80 years old. Most of the major properties at that time were created by white men for an audience of mostly white men and boys, at a time during which white men were (even more than now) seen as the heroic default.
Old war horses like “Star Wars” and “Star Trek,” and newer entries like “Dark Matter” and “Okja” have had an easier time reworking their formula to give top billing to characters who aren't white men.
As a result, fan pressure, nostalgia, and simple laziness push the superhero genre towards white guy heroes. Fans begged Marvel to cast an Asian-American actor as Iron Fist, which would have addressed the stereotypical (and racist) white-guy-goes-East-and-gets-super-powers narrative in the character's origin. But Marvel decided to do what they usually do, and cast the bafflingly uncharismatic white guy Finn Jones instead.
Similarly, fans were hoping that the new “Spider-Man: Homecoming” might feature Miles Morales, a popular black comic-book character who has worn the webbed-costume for years in the comics. But, again, nostalgia won out and white actor Tom Holland was cast as the white Peter Parker version of the character in the latest movie version.
Another barrier to superhero diversity is the fact that the genre is built around stories of defending the status quo. Superheroes stop bank robbers and thwart the violent overthrow of the government, expectations that lead to narratives embracing the perspective of the powerful: rich people, white people and men. Billionaire Tony Stark/Iron Man (Robert Downey, Jr.), for instance, ends up at the center of “Spider-Man: Homecoming,” sidelining (at least to some degree) the working class title hero. Billionaire Bruce Wayne/Batman (Ben Affleck) ends up at the center of “Justice League,” sidelining women heroes and heroes of color.
The Netflix Marvel universe provides the most painful example of this dynamic. The first Netflix series were devoted to small scale, ground-level adventures and marginalized heroes — a victim of rape and domestic abuse in “Jessica Jones”; an African-American ex-prisoner in “Luke Cage”; a blind lawyer in “Daredevil”; But “The Defenders” crossover series chose to slight those characters in favor of multi-billionaire whiner Danny Rand/Iron Fist. When Danny showed up, all the non-rich, non-white, non-male heroes had to abandon their own story lines to help him battle for the future of his company.
Following “The Defenders,” the last Netflix Marvel show of 2017 was “The Punisher,” a series about the inner turmoil of an angry white guy whose family is killed, which gives him an excuse to murder bad men.
Even when scripts and directors start out focusing on someone else, in superhero stories it seems like the white men always ease their way back to the center of the action.
Fan pressure, nostalgia, and simple laziness push the superhero genre towards white guy heroes.
There are some exceptions that test the rule. The Hulu series “Runaways” features a diverse ensemble cast of teens working together against their wealthy supervillain parents. The remarkable Australian SundanceTV series “Cleverman” focuses on an aboriginal superhero who fights to protect the exploited, super-powered indigenous people, the Hairies, from an increasingly authoritarian near-future government.
Both of these shows, though, are notably different in origin and approach from most superhero fare. Runaways is based on a Marvel comic that debuted quite recently, in 2003, while Cleverman was created for television in 2016; neither is linked to the bigger Marvel Cinematic Universe or DC Extended Universe. To create a more diverse world, both these shows simply imagined a new one without white guys at the center. Most superhero narratives don't want to do that.
It's possible that the superhero genre will improve. “Black Panther” looks very promising, and the success of “Wonder Woman” means that Gal Gadot is going to be more central to the DC Extended Universe from now on. Superheroes are so dominant in film and television, though, that small steps forward, or even large steps forward, seem insufficient. Science-fiction, for example, certainly has its own problems, but old war horses like “Star Wars” and “Star Trek,” and newer entries like “Dark Matter,” “Okja” and even the Power Rangers have had an easier time reworking their formula to give top billing to characters who aren't white men.
Activists and fans should of course keep pushing superhero studios and writers to do better. The pressure has been helpful in the past, and is a big part of the reason why we have “The Runaways,” “Wonder Woman” and the forthcoming “Black Panther.” But as long as superheroes take up so much space in the universe of entertainment options, progress is going to be limited by the shadow of Stark Tower and Wayne Manor. If we want more diversity on screen, we probably are ultimately going to need not just different superheroes, but fewer of them.
Noah Berlatsky is a freelance writer. He edits the online comics-and-culture website The Hooded Utilitarian and is the author of the book "Wonder Woman: Bondage and Feminism in the Marston/Peter Comics, 1941-1948."