In the past month, Marvel Studios and DC Entertainment have delivered Christmas early to comic book fans by announcing 19 new superhero films for release between 2016 and 2020. To those impressive numbers, add additional promised offerings from Fox (which holds the license to Marvel’s X-Men and Fantastic Four franchises) and Sony (with rights to Spider-Man). The surge in comic book-based movies is based on a proven track record: Four of the top ten grossing films this year are based on comic books properties, including Guardians of the Galaxy and Captain America: The Winter Soldier.
What is striking about the upcoming slate is that it is finally bringing diversity to the big screen of comic book movies after a nearly decade long absence. Wonder Woman will finally receive a feature film in 2017, joined by The Black Panther that year, and Marvel’s female powerhouse, Captain Marvel, in 2018.
Previously, Shaquille O’Neal, of all people, had broken the race barrier in bringing the comic-book character Steel to movie life in 1997, followed, in short order, by Wesley Snipes’s Blade, the Vampire Hunter, triology. Helen Slater was the first female headliner with Supergirl in 1984, and it was another two decades until Halle Berry played the lead in 2004’s poorly-reviewed Catwoman. Yet almost none of the movies since then – including the two-dozen comic book films of the past two years – has had as a lead a woman or racial minority.
The struggle to portray the full diversity of America is nothing new for the source material for these adaptations, the great American comic book. The great comics innovator Will Eisner gave the heroic lead in The Spirit an African-American sidekick named Ebony White. With his pronounced lips and thick accent, Ebony embodied every offensive stereotype already thrust upon the African-American community in vaudeville, film, and radio. Eisner later expressed regret for playing into those stereotypes, and his peers largely decided to avoid depicting people of color. Of course, no representation may be as bad as misrepresentation. Although superheroes had arrived on the scene with Superman’s debut in 1938, it would be another quarter of a century before a hero of color would appear with the Black Panther’s premiere in 1966.
The superheroines, of course, fared only slightly better. Wonder Woman was not the first superheroine but she is the only one to have enjoyed a nearly continuous publication record that stretches from 1941 to present. Women superheroes continued to populate the pages of American mainstream comics, but mostly as token members of an entourage, such as Sue Storm, the Invisible Woman, as one-quarter of the Fantastic Four. In fact, publishers have had difficulty producing sustained runs of titles with female stars. Aside from Wonder Woman, the most enduring stand-alone female superhero to date has come from Image Comics, whose Witchblade series has been regularly published since 1995. Even many of the most recurring ones have been derivatives of their male counterparts, including Supergirl, Batgirl, Ms. Marvel (following a previous male Captain Marvel), Spider-Woman, and She-Hulk.
Interestingly, the modest number of diverse role models has not dissuaded Americans of all backgrounds from embracing the narratives of personal struggle and ultimate triumph popularized in superhero films. As I boarded the metro bound for the San Diego Convention Center last summer during Comic-Con International, I was followed on board by a pair of five-year-old Latino boys dressed as Captain America and Iron Man. Later, at the Convention Center, I saw numerous women dressed, once again, as Captain America and Iron Man. Despite the fact that the characters are portrayed by stereotypical white men on film, the impact of the narratives is so powerful that people transcend ethnic and gender limitations and embrace the embodiment of the ideals these characters represent.
Historically, superheroes have enjoyed their greatest popularity at times when national confidence is under strain. In comic books, the superheroes’ popularity peaked during World War II, enjoyed a creative renaissance during the turbulent 1960s, and are now meeting a new national hunger for heroes as the country faces military threats from radicalized groups, renewed tension with Cold War adversaries and shadowy cyber-attacks.
In this new climate, I look forward to experiencing a culture in which portrayals of super-powerful people from minorities are standards in the mainstream. On the one hand, could such heroes become even more potent icons for a new Millennial generation that expects diversity? On the other hand, perhaps these heroes will not resonate in quite the same way that icons like Cap do, and we won’t see white boys attired like the Black Panther? That latter outcome would be a shame.
As much as we malign the mass media (and who could be more a part of the mass media than Marvel’s parent company of Disney or DC Entertainment’s, Time Warner), particularly for their frequent shortfalls when it comes to recognizing and representing the diversity of our culture, those creative forces now calling the shots within these corporations may be on to something with this line-up of films. It would have been safer to have filled these slates with even more white, male superheroes, given the public’s appetite for them. But appetites do change with time, and perhaps both Marvel and DC have figured out that the highly diverse fan community will be looking for a wider palate of superheroes to admire — at least by 2017.
Matthew J. Smith, Ph.D., is a professor of communication at Wittenberg University in Springfield, Ohio. In collaboration with Dr. Randy Duncan of Henderson State University and Paul Levitz, former president and publisher of DC Comics, he is the author of the forthcoming The Power of Comics: History, Form and Culture, 2nd Edition.