By Karl Southgate, M.A.
Captain America, Iron Man, Thor, Black Widow, the Invisible Woman (Sue Storm/Richards), the Hulk (Bruce Banner), Hawkeye, Wonder Woman, Daredevil, Spiderman, Star Lord, Rogue, Mr. Fantastic, the Thing (Ben Grimm), Wolverine, Professor X, Jean Gray, Cyclops, Batman, Superman, and Green Lantern—given their wide range of powers and significantly different backstories, what could all of these characters have in common? As it turns out, quite a bit. In addition to being portrayed in major motion picture adaptations, each of these superheroes is white and heterosexual. There are of course heroes from minority backgrounds, such as Falcon, Nick Fury, and Storm. However, even someone as passionate about and well-versed in comics must strain to think of many more. And, as far as I know, there has never been a superhero in a film who does not identify as heterosexual. We should not necessarily be surprised by this state of affairs. Almost all of the above-mentioned characters were created before 1965, when, more so than today, people of color and individuals who do not identify as heterosexual lived in the margins of society. Given the predominant cultural narrative at the time, it did not exactly follow that individuals often perceived as inferior or perverted could or should be portrayed as beings with godlike powers or as the manifestation of cultural ideals.
There have been sweeping changes in the civil rights of racial minorities and those in the LGBTQ population since the 1960s. We are therefore left wondering why superhero movies do not for the most part reflect the cultural changes over the last fifty years. There are several potential reasons for the slowness of superhero movies to give more screen time to individuals from minority populations. The avoidance of a culture war may represent one reason for the minimal screen time afforded to minority superheroes. It is not difficult to imagine the backlash that would ensue if Superman came out of the closet in the upcoming Batman vs. Superman movie. And, although Marvel has made some progress by casting Samuel L. Jackson as Nick Fury, what would the public’s reaction be if an Arab actor played Captain America instead of the blonde-haired Chris Evans? Case in point: DC Comics faced an immediate backlash after introducing a gay Green Lantern in a comic book entitled Earth Two. The organization One Million Moms was especially vocal in their response—they made a vow to boycott DC Comics and encouraged others to do so. One of their representatives made the following statement: “Why do adult gay men need comic superheroes as role models? They don’t but do want to indoctrinate impressionable young minds by placing these gay characters on pedestals in a positive light.” Given the extremely popular nature of superhero movies, such a reaction to a movie with a gay superhero would likely be much stronger. This brings up another potential reason behind the lack of diversity in the DC and Marvel cinematic universes—profit. The companies must know that millions of people from all races and sexual identities will come to see their movies if the status quo is upheld. On the other hand, introducing more gay or non-white characters would undoubtedly be a financial risk.
A third and final reason for the exclusion of LGBTQ and minimal inclusion of minority superheroes could be the potential backlash of comic book fans who might perceive such changes as unforgiveable alterations of the characters they love. Some might argue that making Tony Stark gay would change the very nature of the character, who has a reputation for his charm and womanizing. Similarly, many might respond negatively if Lois Lane were to be replaced by Louis Lane. I think, however, that it is more important to focus on what would remain the same. Regardless of their race or sexual identity, a superhero can still embody the best of human nature and inspire fans to live life with courage, empathy, and honor. My next blog will address the ways in which print comics have succeeded where comic book movies have failed.