“Why doesn’t the hero look like me?” It’s a question that many people were asking at last year’s San Diego Comic-Con, which plays host to the year’s biggest blockbuster films. Even the die-hard fans had had enough and challenged studios on the notion that our galaxy’s greatest heroes always have to be white and male. And studios listened. One year later at this summer’s convention, superheroes like Wonder Woman, Black Panther and Captain Marvel proved they can be just as powerful—and popular—as white dudes.
It has been over a decade since a major studio made a superhero film with a woman in the lead role. And neither Marvel/Disney nor DC/Warner Bros., currently the two leading producers of superhero films, have released a superhero movie with a black character as the lead. That’s to say nothing of the dearth of other types of diversity in those movies—Hispanic, Asian, LGBT, to name a few.
That’s a big problem, especially for parents who are seeking out diverse role models in popular culture. Superheroes are ubiquitous: They dominate kids’ toys, clothing, backpacks and television shows. Many parents have complained the lack of (non-sexualized) female action figures or non-white kids’ TV show stars send the message that only one type of person can be a hero. It’s notable that the comic books are miles ahead of the films in terms of diversity. Marvel boasts a female Thor, a black female Iron Man, a black-Hispanic Spider-Man and an Asian Hulk (to name a few characters). In the DC Comics, Catwoman is bisexual, Cyborg got his own standalone series last year and they launched an action figure line (and web series) with Mattel called DC Superhero Girls focusing on empowerment for young girls.
But studios are finally starting to catch up, as was demonstrated at this year’s Comic-Con. While many of last year’s panels were dominated by questions about diversity, feminism and empowerment, this year’s convention was marked by unbridled enthusiasm for some long-awaited characters finally coming to the big screen.
The premiere of the Wonder Woman trailer was met with hysteria. In a self-conscious edit, the footage included a moment where Wonder Woman’s love interest Steve Trevor (Chris Pine) said, “I can’t let you do this.” Cut to the heroine blocking an onslaught of bullets with her shield. “What I do is not up to you,” she responded. The next minute of the trailer was drowned out by cheers.
Wonder Woman director Patty Jenkins summed up the issue neatly in a smaller panel celebrating Wonder Woman’s 75th birthday in the comic books Saturday. “Why do white men get to be universal and everyone else has to be a smaller story?” she asked.
She went on to make a case for Wonder Woman’s universal appeal. “[Wonder Woman] is fierce. I’m not worried about that,” Jenkins continued. “She’s also vulnerable, loving, falls in love, which is what we’ve always done to Superman. So that’s the thing that I cared the most about. It’s a universal story.”
Batman baddie Harley Quinn, too, got her girl power moment in a new trailer for Suicide Squad. The footage showed the character breezily killing a group of armed men in an elevator, leaving her male compatriots stunned. During the Q&A portion, actress Margot Robbie pointed out, “Whatever anyone did in this film, I did in a pair of heels.” (Which begs the question why the few superheroes we do have on screen can’t just wear flats.)
Later on Saturday, Marvel made a significant step toward fulfilling its old promise of looking like “the world outside your window,” when it showcased the cast to Black Panther, the studio’s first superhero film with a black character in the lead role. Director Ryan Coogler (who helmed Creed and Fruitvale Station) introduced star Chadwick Boseman and confirmed Michael B. Jordan (also in Creed) as the villain and Lupita Nyong’o and Danai Gurira as cast members. Marvel went on to announced that Tessa Thompson (yet another Creed star) will join Thor: Ragnarok.
“The superhero field is a field where there’s not a lot of representation,” Coogler told Entertainment Weekly after the panel. “It’s traditionally white male, but the fans look like the world. So, naturally, people are going to yearn to see someone flying around doing these incredible things that looks like them. It’s an incredible opportunity, but that’s what keeps me up at night – for better and for worse.”
Marvel induced frenzy again at the end of its panel when the studio announced that Brie Larson would star in its first female-led superhero movie, Captain Marvel. It’s expected to hit theaters in 2018, a year after Wonder Woman. To say the crowd was ecstatic would not do justice to the screaming that took place when Oscar-winner Larson took the stage.
The casts of ensemble pictures, too, are beginning to look like a reflection of its audiences. The Avengers, Suicide Squad and Justice League are still dominated by white male actors, but include characters from other backgrounds as well. And though fans pushed back against Marvel for making Spider-Man white in the new movie, Spider-Man: Homecoming—currently Miles Morales, who is black and Hispanic, is Spider-Man in the comic books—Peter Parker’s classmates, which include actors Zendaya, Laura Harrier, Tony Revolori and Jacob Batalon, at least look closer to the population of a Queens high school than previous Spidey movies did.
Television, generally speaking, has sped ahead of film in terms of including a larger range of voices. Shows like Orange Is the New Black, How to Get Away With Murder and Fresh Off the Boat are quickly making stories about non-white men the norm. That was reflected at Comic-Con’s TV panels as well with shows like Marvel and Netflix’s Luke Cage, with Mike Colter reprising his role from Jessica Jones, and a Rocky Horror Picture Show remake with transgender actress Laverne Cox as Dr. Frank-n-Furter.
Not all attempts to bring diversity to the screen and update old stories have been successful. The casting of Tilda Swinton as The Ancient One, who is Tibetan in the comic books, in Doctor Strange outraged some fans. Swinton did not explicitly acknowledge the controversy in her comments at Comic-Con, but did point out that The Ancient One is a title that anyone can adopt in the comic books. “Who knows who will be the ancient one?” she said during the presentation. “It can be any one of us.”
Notably, Chiwetel Ejiofor is playing a character that was originally white in that movie, and Benedict Wong has spoken about how he felt uncomfortable with his character Wong being a manservant, so they changed his role.
And recently, the new Star Trek movie found itself at the center of controversy when it revealed that the character of Sulu is gay. George Takei, who played Sulu on the original Star Trek series and is an LGBT rights activist, called the decision “really unfortunate.”
Bryan Fuller, the showrunner for the upcoming CBS All Access series Star Trek: Discovery and a gay man himself, weighed in during a panel celebrating Star Trek’s 50th anniversary at Comic-Con: “I think the bigger picture is that we need gay representation. And the fact that they embraced that idea and made John Cho’s portrayal as Sulu a gay man was a lovely move of inclusivity.”
Of course, representational diversity isn’t everything—there’s still a long way to go before the makeup of Hollywood’s blockbuster entertainment is truly diverse. But given the response to Wonder Woman, Captain Marvel and Black Panther at Comic-Con, fans have high hopes that studios are finally catching up to their demands.
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Write to Eliana Dockterman at firstname.lastname@example.org