I’m a fan of Marvel movies. As a critical moviegoer, I sometimes feel a little guilty for saying that; there is, after all, a certain formula that basically all movies in the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) follow. All Disney has to do is cobble together a few CGI’ed fight scenes with some pop culture references and witty one-liners, and bam — that’s a billion dollars in the bank.
It’s hard, however, not to enjoy them. Not to feel a rush of adrenaline when T’Challa fights Kilmonger or when Thanos fights Iron Man or when Hulk beats the shit out of Loki. Not to be entranced by the beauty of the Quantum Realm or the trippiness of the Mirror Dimension or the grandeur of Wakanda. Not to laugh at literally every word that comes out of Paul Rudd’s mouth. If there is a person who doesn’t feel even the slightest urge to stand up and cheer when Captain America picks up Mjolnir (Thor’s Hammer), I have yet to meet them.
Aside from the fact that the MCU is the world’s biggest cash cow for the world’s biggest entertainment company, there’s another thing that makes me a little uncomfortable when I shell out 10 bucks for a movie ticket. It’s the fact that of the 32 “main characters” in “Avengers: Endgame,“ only seven are black, and only one is Asian. The rest — putting aside the less conventional demographics, including but not limited to green, raccoon, robot, and tree — were white. It’s the fact that of the sixteen solo MCU movies, only one has been a person of color, and only one has been a woman. It’s the fact that 11 years, 23 movies, and $22.4 billion dollars (!) later, not a single BGLTQ, Asian, Hispanic, Native American, or disabled superhero has graced the entire multiverse.
For a movie studio grounded in a country that is projected to become majority minority in the next few decades, this has been a failure — not of imagination, but of effort. Marvel has the money and the ethos to get literally whoever they want. Yet, an ensemble that contains not one, not two, but three Chrises (Pratt, Evans, and Hemsworth) hardly suggests that they’re trying very hard to branch out.
That is, until last Saturday, when at the biggest panel of the Super Bowl of pop culture, San Diego Comic Con, Marvel finally caught on. Kevin Feige, president of Marvel Studios, went on stage and announced: “The Eternals,” to be directed by Chinese director Chloé Zhao, with an ensemble cast including a Mexican-American, Pakistani-American, and Korean-American superhero, as well as Marvel’s first deaf superhero, played by Lauren Ridloff; “Thor: Love and Thunder,” starring Tessa Thompson as Valkyrie, the MCU’s first openly bisexual superhero; “Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings,” a movie with an Asian-led cast, starring Tony Leung, Awkwafina (from “Crazy Rich Asians” and the ground-breaking “The Farewell), and Simu Liu (the unabashedly attractive older brother from “Kim’s Convenience”) as the titular superhero.
I know, it’s a lot.
Whether that’s a good thing or bad thing depends on who you ask. Some are applauding the studio for taking steps toward diversity. Others are accusing them of not being diverse enough and of being late or reactionary (weird how this big move happened only after “Black Panther“ broke box office records…). In the opinion of this writer, however, this is a good thing — remarkably so.
There’s an iconic moment in “Avengers: Endgame” where Ant-Man quips, “As far as I’m concerned, that’s America’s ass,” directed, of course, at Captain America, himself, played by Chris number two.
Now, don’t get me wrong. I’ve gushed, many a time, about how hot Chris Evans is (and I doubt I’m the only one), and his ass is indeed a fine one. I just wonder why the face (and, evidently, buttocks) of America has to be of a blonde-haired, blue-eyed man white man, when the country itself is far from that Eurocentric ideal.
Because as much of a joke as “America’s Ass” is, it means something. These heroes represent the upper limit of what humanity can achieve, yes, in toned cheeks, but also in intellectual capability, emotional maturity, and moral integrity. They’re made into action figures and Halloween costumes for a reason — because they represent the values and ideals that we want to instill in our children.
Millions upon millions of people go see these movies. That’s a lot of people! More people than company diversity trainings or government awareness initiatives could ever hope to reach, much less actually influence. Granted, not everyone will see these new heroes (I doubt there’ll be much of “Thor: Love and Thunder” left for Chinese audiences to see once government censors cut out every trace of Valkyrie trying to find her queen), but for the many that still will, it will be an empowering statement. For Asian people, gay people, Hispanic people, disabled people — and hopefully, many more — this is a step in the right direction, one that says, “Yes. You, too, can be a superhero.”
A part of me still can’t help but continue to feel guilty. Corporations and movie studios hopping on the diversity train is hardly a new phenomenon, and whether or not they do so out of genuine support for marginalized peoples or simply to increase their bottom line is hard to say (although significantly less so, I think, in the case of the “Make America Great Again” pride hat). Applauding these companies is easy, but whether or not doing so is ethical is a question that marginalized and underrepresented communities will continue to grapple with in the years to come, and a question that I will continue to ask myself every time I watch that Marvel Studios opening logo sequence.
But what I do know for sure is how I feel. I cannot wait for “Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings” to come out. I cannot wait for the day when Simu Liu (who, in my opinion, is hot enough to give Chris Evans a run for his money — especially in the rear department) isn’t just Dr. Strange’s obligatorily serious sidekick or Spiderman’s token minority best friend. When amidst the inevitable flood of promotional posters and YouTube ads and Jimmy Fallon appearances that accompany every Marvel movie, I will finally see people who look like me. When Asian-Americans no longer have to look only to Facebook groups for cultural representation, but when they can find it on the big screen.
When he, along with the diverse array of superheroes (in every aspect of the word) that are a part of Marvel’s new phase of movies, can, together, take on the holy mantle that is “America’s ass.”
—Staff writer Kalos K. Chu can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.