by Staff Writer: Calamity Jung-Allen
Recently, superhero movies have been ruling the theaters. Thor made over $181 million, The Incredible Hulk $312 million, Iron Man $318 million, and Captain America $176 million. In fact, The Avengers broke box office records making $623 million so far, and close to $206 million in its opening weekend.
Because of all this success, superheroes are in the spotlight, and when something is in the spotlight, a lot of heads turn to look. But how do those superheroes compare to the audiences that watch them? And what cultural norms are they enforcing?
Take the 1978 Superman as an example. When Superman announces that he stands for the American way, the implication that this statement will appease mainly American audiences is a dangerous one, because it goes along with the assumption that America’s face is that of a straight, white, cis, able-bodied man.
So many people (children more often than not) look to superhero movies as inspirations for how they should act to be good citizens (I’m looking at you, Captain America), but whether purposefully or not, the movies also set a standard for how to look. What about people other than Superman?
Women (and I’m talking the least persecuted section of women: white, cis, and fit)
One role that has run rampant in superhero films for a very long time is the love interest. These female characters were most often static and had further identity outside of their relationship with the male hero. One such example is Lois Lane in Superman, who, though a subjectively exciting character, spends her entire time kissing or being saved by Clark Kent. The same happens to Mary Jane Watson in Superman, Rachel in The Dark Knight, and Jane Foster in Thor.
Another one of the most recent developments in the depiction of women in superhero movies is called the fighting sex toy. This trope is perpetuated repeatedly amongst the women shown in movies such as Black Widow in The Avengers, all of the girls in Sucker Punch and Mystique in X-Men. Physically powerful women are reduced to their bodies. Even though they are technically strong, they often use their bodies as sexual weapons more often than that. Black Widow usually cracks villains’ necks between her leather clad legs, Mystique spends the entire movie in a skintight suit made to look like the character is naked, and the women in Sucker Punch have multiple scenes of sexual context and extremely revealing outfits.
Now, don’t get me wrong: ladies fighting bad guys and being comfortable and confident in their bodies is not something I want to discourage. But the persistence of this trend is what makes it ridiculously frustrating for the representation of women. The seduction is overused, and creates the connotation that the only way a female superhero can even exist is if they are conventionally attractive and use their sexual prowess as their main advantage.
People of color
One way that directors will often feign diversity in their casts is by having people of color as consistently secondary characters. You see this among many superhero movies, where almost if not all of the main cast is white, with one person of color in the background. Including characters of color only to play backseat roles only reinforces the idea that people of color are only important as the sidekick or comic relief. White characters are seen as the ideal image, and this limits the dynamic of non-white characters.
The Avengers, being one of the most influential and famous superhero films in recent mainstream media, is one of the best examples of this. Its poor representation reinstates the philosophy that a white, straight male is the default, and everyone who is part of a minority has only one responsibility: to support. This way of thinking makes it easier for the general public to pinpoint a Black Widow movie as a girl movie, or a Miles Morales movie as a black movie. It’s almost as if being part of an underrepresented section of society turns you into an adjective.
Another way that people of color are marginalized in superhero movies is by altering natural characteristics and assimilating them into white culture to make white audiences and critics more comfortable. For instance, Storm in X-Men and Thunder in The Outsider both have straight, flowing hair (grey-white for Storm and blonde for Thunder).
Not only this, but the very color of their skin is often in question. In Guardians of the Galaxy, Zoe Saldana is painted green, Dave Bautista is painted grey and red, and Vin Diesel is a tree. Not only does this take away from the representation of people of color in superhero movies by almost disguising them, but also further promotes Euro-centric beauty standards.
Another problematic role that characters of color are often smashed into is the villain. Often, they are shown as the savage and/or evil caricatures who barely have backstories. It’s important that audiences do not mistake this for adequate inclusion. Though prominent non-white characters is a pro, consistently portraying them as threatening is a definite con. Apparently, people of color are seen as dangerous not only in America, but also in galaxies far far away.
Looking to the future
Recently, there has been a lot of buzz about characters who have usually been portrayed as white people being played in live action movies by actors of color. For instance, the originally white, blond Human Torch and Aquaman are now cast as Micheal B. Jordan and Jason Momoa. Other examples in comic book form include John Stewart as Green Lantern, Miles Morales as Spiderman, and a Pakistani American Mulism as Ms. Marvel. Many people have condemned this trend as disrespectful to the original artists’ visions, but as Azie Dungey says in The Huffington Post, writers in 1961 can’t be expected to write black superheroes when black men couldn’t vote or eat at lunch counters.
If the industry is ever going to follow suit, it’s important we support and encourage movies, concepts, and casting choices that reflect diversity. As movie goers that support such diversity, it’s up to us to help the films that have good representation! So, go on. Buy your tickets! Do your research! And together we may be able to help the superhero film industry finally change its ways.