Media Consumers for Entertainment Equality
At ComicCon 2012, Marvel Studios announced that Sir Ben Kingsley will be playing a version of The Mandarin, Tony Stark’s traditional yellow peril arch-nemesis, in Iron Man 3. The announcement was a sudden about-turn from previous statements the Iron Man directors have made about the Fu Manchu-inspired villain.
“There are certain fears and certain strengths the character evokes that are applicable, but of course you have to completely remove any of that short sighted cultural ignorance that leads to any sort of bigotry in the storytelling. That isn’t to say those fears and shortcomings of Iron Man as relating to that character aren’t relevant…He was based in China which was then mysterious because it was Red China. Today China is mysterious in other ways because it’s Global China.”- Jon Favreau, director of Iron Man and Iron Man 2 to CHUD in 2006
“You have to do The Mandarin. The problem with The Mandarin is, the way it’s depicted in the comic books, you don’t want to see that.”- Jon Favreau, director of Iron Man and Iron Man 2 to MTV in 2010
“The Mandarin is a racist caricature.” – Iron Man 3 director Shane Black at Long Beach ComicCon, October 2011
Kingsley’s casting has made some waves; he is a British actor of partial South Asian descent while the Mandarin was originally of Chinese descent in the comics. It’s complicated by the fact that the Chinese government is virtually co-financing and co-producing Iron 3 through DMG film group; China likely had a say in the depiction of The Mandarin in Iron Man 3. [A stamp of approval from the Chinese government doesn't mean much given Asian Americans who live in the United States as a minority group are arguably more strongly affected by sinophobia and stereotypes than the people of China or the Chinese government. (eg. Han Chinese people living in China have access to unlimited representation of themselves in their domestic entertainment industries; Asian Americans do not.)]
Does the casting of Kingsley serve to perpetuate the stereotype that all Asian ethnic groups are interchangeable? Or does it simply cement Marvel Studios’ decision to shift the stereotypical bad guys of the comics from “yellow peril” to “Middle Eastern/South Asian terrorism”? (The first Iron Man film had the Ten Rings bad guy Raza, played by South Asian American actor Faran Tahir.) Rather than debating among ourselves about which Asian American or Asian actor should have the sad privilege to continue the legacy of the reviled Fu Manchu-esque Mandarin, or hand wringing about how Asian Americans don’t have much say in how to reinvent or salvage unforgivable stereotypes that have caused great harm to our communities, there are more pertinent questions we need to lob at Marvel.
Questions like: How did we end up with The Mandarin in a Marvel Studios movie before any Asian American lead heroes?
Or even just: Why isn’t Marvel really utilizing its pantheon of women heroes or characters of color?
The image above was created from gathering all of the significant named characters from released Marvel Studios movies as documented on the Marvel Movies wikia.
It’s pretty sad. As you can see, only 22% of the characters are women and half of them are love interests. There are over twice as many supporting characters who are men than women (and none of them function as love interests like the women do.) 84% of the characters are white.
Out of all the films, Thor probably does the best in introducing diverse side characters. Natalie Portman and Kat Denning’s characters pass the Bechdel test within the first five minutes, and some of the Asgardians are played by people of color including Idris Elba’s Heimdall and Tadanobu Asano’s Hogun. Four white women characters are introduced instead of the other films’ average of one or two. But even then, there’s no question that the main characters of the film are Thor and his brother Loki. (And Thor was set in New Mexico but had no Latino or Native American characters…)
Marvel is working off of decades of existing properties that for years solely focused on white men and a the demographic market of white men. So it makes sense that many of the films would have an abundance of white male characters. Beyond ratios, what doesn’t make sense is that even in the comics there is also an abundance of characters of color, etc. that they are ignoring or underutilizing. There are already five completed films where the titular character is a white man, with more to come. There are no films in the works where the titular character is a person of color or a woman.
Things were looking up in 2009 when Marvel announced that it was going to adapt its teen book, Runaways, into a movie. This series featured a group of super teens featuring more girls than guys. (Contrast that to the Avengers where there was only one woman on the entire team.) It would have been the first Marvel film to have a black lead (Alex Wilder) and Asian American lead (Nico Minoru), and the first Marvel film to feature a gay character (Karolina Dean), and also the first Marvel film to feature an interracial relationship.
Then, Racebending caught wind of the casting breakdown for the Asian American character and learned from production insiders that there was a chance the Asian American character would be whitewashed. The Asian American community rallied and things looked up when Marvel committed to casting an Asian American in the lead role. But the Runaways project has since been shelved. And it’s not going to be made for the time being, if at all, based on the line up announced last weekend.
At ComicCon 2012, Marvel Studios announced its next big slate of androcentric superhero movies: Iron Man 3, Captain America: The Winter Soldier, Thor: The Dark World, Guardians of the Galaxy, and Ant-Man. While some male characters of color and white women characters will likely appear in these films–Samuel L. Jackson’s Nick Fury, the main characters’ love interests, etc.–the titular characters in all but one of these films are white men. (Guardians of the Galaxy is the only ensemble film, but the Guardians team is also led by a white man, NASA astronaut Peter Quill.)
Even though there are several women on the Guardians of the Galaxy team, the concept art only features one woman, Gamora.
The women left out include Mantis, Phyla-Vell and Moondragon. In the comics, Mantis is a member of the Avengers, which would bridge the two teams. She would be the first Asian superhero in a Marvel film. Phyla-Vell and Moondragon are popular with fans of Guardians of the Galaxy and would be Marvel’s first lesbian and bisexual movie superheroes, repsectively.
Marvel’s chance at adding more than just straight white women to their films…missing from the concept art. Will they play a role in the film? I hope so. Because this idea that Marvel will have lead characters who are walking trees and talking raccoons with space guns…before lead characters who are women of color or LGBTQ…is kind of astounding.
Women made up at least 40% of the audience of The Avengers, yet only one out of the six Avengers–Black Widow–was a woman. Women also made up 40% of attendees at this year’s ComicCon. Why, given the scarcity of female heroic leads in the existing Marvel films, did Marvel choose to announce the addition of several more male characters but only one new female character?
“If you’re a Marvel reader and truly feel we’re sexist, then why are you reading our books? Now, perhaps you’re not a Marvel reader, then if that’s the case, I’m not quite sure what you’re criticizing if you don’t read our books?” – Marvel editor in chief and chief creative officer Joe Quesada, 2009, in response to a woman reader expressing concerns about sexism in Marvel comics.
For years now, Marvel fans have been advocating for more diversity in comics and films. The response has been very disappointing.
“Since our core customer has always been guys, we need to be very careful when we introduce female product so that we don’t alienate our core. What we have found through testing is that we haven’t alienated them, which gives us the OK to move forward with female product.” -Paul Gitter, President of Marvel Consumer Products, in 2009, regarding a line of “female apparel and cosmetics” featuring slogans such as “My boyfriend is a super-hero” and “I heart boys.” Essentially, Marvel sought permission from male fans before catering heavily stereotypical merchandise to female fans.
In a chat afterwards, Joe told me that he’d love to make a tentpole [Marvel] movie with a female lead, but that he really doesn’t think there is an actress right now who could carry it, or a character that would work either. – Ain’t it Cool News blogger Adrian Hieatt, on his conversation with Joe Quesada at the 2012 KAPOW! Comic Convention.
Yes, studio is doing better on the diversity front than DC Comics–which, frankly, missed a ton of opportunities for actors of color with The Dark Knight series and The Green Lantern movie– and many other Hollywood studios. Still, because Marvel is so successful, it is also uniquely positioned to do better than average when it comes to Hollywood diversity. I know that Marvel Studio’s sole business plan isn’t to feature characters who look like me or my friends or the people who live in my community. They have no responsibility or obligation to feature characters of color as prominently as they feature white characters. No obligation to feature women, or characters with disabilities, or LGBTQ characters as prominently as they feature characters from over-represented groups. But it doesn’t help anyone when Marvel execs shut down fan concerns about diversity.
“One of the things we have to deal with first are the icons. If we don’t do those first, other characters regardless of race or ethnicity, will fail.” – Marvel chief creative officer Joe Quesada at ComicCon 2011, in response to a fan’s request for a Luke Cage movie. Because Antman and Rocket Raccoon are so iconic.
“He has a lot of the same characteristics of a Captain America: great character, good values. But it’s a little more difficult, maybe, creating [a world like Wakanda]. It’s always easier basing it here. For instance, Iron Man 3 is rooted right here in Los Angeles and New York. When you bring in other worlds, you’re always faced with those difficulties.” – Louis D’Esposito, Marvel Studios co-president, July 2012, on why Marvel can’t make a movie based on the Black Panther. Because Africa is another world? And Asgard isn’t?
Whenever we write about the lack of diversity in Marvel movies we get responses from people noting the presence of Nick Fury, Heimdall, War Machine, and now Falcon, as if a few men of color–sprinkled across an entire milieu of white male heroes–can somehow represent the vast diversity of people of color. As if a few women fighters and straight women love interests–all portrayed by white actresses–can somehow reflect the vast diversity of women.
It’s just sad that Marvel has been so profitable in its movie enterprise but still doesn’t think a film about a white woman or person of color will sell. Also at ComicCon, Marvel announced their new children’s animated series, Avengers Assemble.
It’s just more of the same. One white woman. One man of color. There are more than twice as many white male characters, and all of these white guys are depicted in the forefront in this logo, with Black Widow and Falcon poking out in the back.
Marvel has opportunities to introduce diverse characters in its films; the studio just isn’t taking them. The Avengers superhero team, while heavily skewed to white male members, has also had several women members, members of color, and even women of color on the team–like Mantis! The Guardians of the Galaxy team also features several women superheroes.
When characters of color like War Machine are included, they do not cross over to other films. (When New York City was under siege in The Avengers, why didn’t anyone think to call in Rhodey?) Any story revolving around SHIELD could have easily inserted Chinese American hero Jimmy Woo, Agent of SHIELD; instead, fans were introduced to a new character, SHIELD agent Phil Coulson. While Phil Coulson proved to be a fan favorite, this new character was again portrayed by a white actor. Marvel also had the opportunity to cast a Latina actress to depict Maria Hill, which would have broken the streak of half a dozen movies with no women of color or Latino characters. It’s mind boggling that a film like The Avengers, set in the metropolitan United States, featured a ton of white guys, two women, and one black guy. The only hope for saving the world from alien invaders was a team that barely represented it.
There is a more prominent Asian Asgardian in the Marvel movies than any Asian American character, and he barely had any lines. A significant role for an Asian American hero in Marvel films would greatly mitigate the racist legacy and impact of the decision to include the Mandarin in Iron Man 3.
I’m not advocating for forced quotas, but I also think that the “source material” defense is bogus. Marvel clearly has no qualms adapting the source material during film development, including in Avengers team composition. I just wish my dollar was worth the same amount in representation from Marvel as those of my straight white male friends. The excuses are tired and outdated. It’s possible to be a True Believer and advocate for more diversity at the same time. Marvel is a studio that tells amazingly creative stories. I know Marvel can do better.