THE CHANGE seems to arrive not as coincidence: The past four films from the Marvel Cinematic Universe have featured a female lead of color.
In the 15 months since “Doctor Strange” faced accusations of “whitewashing” Tilda Swinton’s ancient mystic character in the film, Marvel has embraced its fuller turn toward diversity.
This Friday’s “Black Panther” spotlights the Oscar-winning Lupita Nyong’o as Nakia, a Wakandan spy who fights alongside the title character and his fierce all-female special forces unit, the Dora Milaje. For the Kenyan-raised Nyong’o, it’s a chance to escape the veil of CGI effects in Disney’s “Jungle Book” and Star Wars franchise and play a high-profile part in a film that celebrates Africa.
Her arrival was preceded last year by Zoe Saldana as the green-tinted Gamora in “Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2″; Zendaya as Peter Parker’s “pal” Michelle/MJ in Sony’s “Spider-Man: Homecoming”; and Tessa Thompson’s boozing and battling Valkyrie in “Thor: Ragnarok.”
In isolation, that shift might appear less stark, but this casting run represents a marked change after years of Marvel’s highest-profile heroines being Scarlett Johansson’s Black Widow, Natalie Portman’s Jane Foster and Elizabeth Olsen’s Scarlet Witch — and even then, the female characters often seemed to be fighting their biggest opponent: lack of screen time.
Plus, a Marvel female superhero won’t get a solo film till early 2019 (“Captain Marvel,” with Brie Larson as the titular character), nearly two years after DC scored big with “Wonder Woman” — yet it’s part of the same overdue move toward larger diversity at the studio.
Much credit for the course correction must go to Marvel Studios president, Kevin Feige, who fought his corporate creative battles especially strategically once 2008’s “Iron Man” effectively launched Marvel’s current universe. (Feige also has nodded in gratitude to “Wonder Woman” as a commercial trailblazer.)
But the larger picture was that smart people at Marvel and DC could see how their cinematic worlds needed to grow beyond white male-only leads in every release — yet only DC was able to get a female superhero film moving forward. For all its acclaimed vision, what was holding Marvel back?
Well, that’s where the timing certainly rings as more than coincidence.
It was in the summer of 2015, fans recall, that Feige, in his 40s, broke free of the rule of Marvel Entertainment chief executive Ike Perlmutter, in his 70s, after “several years of frustration,” as the Hollywood Reporter said when the big news broke.
Much in the current phase of Marvel films was greenlit or shaped after Feige won his liberty and began reporting directly to Disney studio chief Alan Horn. Feige had certainly won this creative freedom after so masterfully turning around Marvel’s film fortunes.
Yet why cite Ike?
Well, amid years of swirling rumors over differing creative visions at Marvel Studios, the most damning evidence was perhaps the email that emerged just four months before Feige wrested away control.
In May 2015, as IndieWire reported, an email by Perlmutter that was sent the previous summer came under much scrutiny.
According to the leaked email, Perlmutter — the famously frugal and secretive mogul who sold his company to Disney for $4 billion in 2009 — said in 2014 that superheroines weren’t profitable.
Writing to Sony chief executive Michael Lynton, Perlmutter cited three female-led superhero movies — “Electra,” “Catwoman” and “Supergirl” — that he viewed as disasters or, at the least, “very, very bad.”
Perlmutter’s email, once leaked, was widely interpreted as his argument against female-led movies, despite myriad other factors at play here — even as the email neglected to mention smash action franchises such as the Hunger Games trilogy or the Alien saga, which were led by female heroes.
What that leaked email widely did, in fan perception, was paint Perlmutter as the chief obstructionist as Marvel took years to put “Black Panther” and “Captain Marvel” in motion.
And many fans are now grateful that this multicultural universe is in Feige’s next-generation hands.