Superhero Diversity Is More Than Just ‘Black Panther’ and ‘Captain Marvel’

By  · Published on November 4th, 2014


Getting swept up in a mass wave of superhero movie hype is extremely fun and everyone should do it. To that point, we at FSR have done just that – note the many “Is Marvel Doing This? Will Marvel Do That?” think pieces borne of last week’s Marvel Studios Phase Three party.

But there’s an angle to this great Internet Hype Train that seems a tad off-message. Specifically that, with Black Panther and Captain Marvel, Marvel Studios has become a glimmering beacon of superhero diversity, now and forever. Obviously, Black Panther and Captain Marvel are paragons of the non-white, non-male superhero set, and Marvel deserves applause just as DC does for expanding its film slate to include actors and characters that offer a wider representation of the population that’s actually going to see these movies (and, in much smaller numbers, reading the comics).

Except the general response has painted Black Panther as Captain Marvel as the first steps towards a broader, more inclusive Marvel Universe. Emphasis on “first.” Please peruse the headlines below, at your leisure.

“The Marvel Cinematic Universe’s Baby Steps Toward Diversity”- Indiewire

“Marvel Unveils an Ambitious Roster of Films, With a Bit of Diversity”- NY Times

“Chadwick Boseman Signed for 5 Films As Black Panther, Captain Marvel Bring Diversity to Superhero Slate”- Deadline

“Marvel Studios to Diversify Its Movies”- NPR

“Marvel goes for diversity with latest movie slate”- USA Today

“Marvel announces first female and black superhero leads in Captain Marvel and Black Panther movies”- The Independent

“Is Marvel’s Black Panther the big break for a black superhero?”- The Guardian

All of which is totally rad, except for one slight misstep: Marvel actually announced its first black and female lead superheroes last year: Luke Cage and Jessica Jones. Who you may recall, are part of the Defenders, the upcoming Marvel/Netflix expansion that will feature five series, two with white male leads (Daredevil, Iron Fist), one black male (Luke Cage) and one white female (Jessica Jones). And then a team-up that we can reasonable assume will have a 50/50 split between white male and black/female superheroes.


This was the case, long before anyone was frantically listing potential Captain Marvel actresses or photoshopping Chadwick Boseman’s head onto shots of men in skintight black fabric. And yet, in the crashing tsunami of Black Panther/Captain Marvel hype, Mr. Cage and Ms. Jones (Mr. and Mrs. Cage? When they got married, did she change her name?) have conveniently been wiped from the public’s memory.

Fun fact: in the seven pieces listed above, there’s precisely one mention of the Netflix deal (please direct a few solid claps in Indiewire’s direction). And three state straight-up falsehoods. Deadline calls Captain Marvel “the studio’s first stand-alone female superheroine.” The Guardian refers Black Panther as “Marvel’s first ever lead black superhero.” The Independent’s erasure is right up there in the title.

But when Cage and Jones were brought to the Marvel fold, there was almost no fanfare. Sample headlines include: “Netflix to Stream Original Series Based on Marvel Characters” or “Marvel plots new series for Netflix.” For fans of Luke Cage and Jessica Jones (like me), it’s beyond disappointing. Why are these characters, and Marvel’s laudable inclusion of them into the MCU, going entirely unnoticed? Swept aside for the arrival of two others with a higher profile?


Two reasons, most likely. One, straightforward and totally obvious – people care more about movies than they do TV (also the hard-to-pin-down televised gray area where Netflix resides); as much praise and well-earned affection as Orange is the New Black has earned, people would lose their minds on an exponentially huger scale if a movie was able to replicate OitNB levels of diversity/success.

The second reason requires a wordier explanation – TV and movies are separate landscapes with differing histories and differing ratios of white dude to non-white, non-dude. And it would benefit us all (well, “us all” as far as superhero media-watchers go) to take a closer look at both.

Let’s start with TV. Which at first glance, seems hilariously, apocalyptically bleak: in the past 15 years, there’s been a total of three comic-based series with a solo women/minority lead. A quick head count: TNT’s Witchblade, Spike’s Blade: The Series, and Syfy’s Painkiller Jane.

Only one lasted more than a single season, and the longest surviving one, Witchblade, was axed after season two. But let’s see those three in their full context – in those same 15 years, comic books haven’t been a huge priority for the TV world. Our other major players in the last decade and a half: The Walking Dead, The Tick, The Middleman, Human Target, Birds of Prey, Smallville, Mutant X (a vaguely X-Men-like mutant team, produced outside the bonds of Fox’s X-Men rights), Arrow, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., Gotham, The Flash, Constantine.

Four of which rely on ensemble casts (The Walking Dead, Mutant X, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., Birds of Prey), rendering them useless in a “solo lead hero” tally. Although, feel free to award brownie points to Birds of Prey for assigning all three of its co-lead slots to female characters – Huntress, Oracle, and a strange proto-Black Canary – and subtract as much as you’d like from Gotham, which is ensemblish, but leans heavily on James Gordon. Then comes The Middleman, a Men in Black-ish sci-fi secret agent comedy on ABC Family, splitting the bill between two leads – a man and a woman. Which leaves us with The Tick, Human Target, Smallville, Arrow, Gotham, The Flash and Constantine.


Thus, the comic TV landscape looks like this:

Not great, but factor in that three of those (Flash, Gotham, Constantine) are brand-new, this-season additions; take them away and the pre-2014 landscape is just about even between white male and minority/female lead roles. Which is pretty solid. Sure, we could always use a few more diverse solo heroes (and preferably, not the two standard options: black man/white woman), but you’d be hard-pressed to call this a diversity ghost town. (And, yes, we recognize that to make the numbers come close to balancing, we have to unfairly group all non-white male leading series together like they’re somehow the same.)

Even when adding in superheroes that aren’t official comic adaptations, all we’re getting is more ensembles – No Ordinary Family, Heroes, Alphas and Misfits. And, admittedly, The Cape, which is one more check mark on the white male side.

Marvel Comics

The future of superhero TV is on equal footing (which will hopefully make up for this year’s sudden glut of all white male characters). Here’s what lies in television’s immediate future.

DISCLAIMER: for anything that’s not even close to production yet, we’re going by the source material. Sure, maybe Letter 44 (a comic where the newly-inaugurated president receives a letter from Pres. #43, detailing an imminent extraterrestrial attack) or several others could do a little racebending when casting its lead, but we can’t assume that right now. Also there’s Krypton, which is Gotham on… Krypton, but we know absolutely nothing about that.

In this context, where the entire superhero demographic has had little TV representation until this year (and have been a happily diverse lot until then), the arrival of Luke Cage and Jessica Jones might be less of a Big Freaking Deal. Especially when things are so much bleaker on the movie side of things.

Which we’ll turn to now. Just in case the next six years of comic book movies hasn’t been mapped out enough, here’s the future of comic book cinema grouped into the same categories seen above.

Walt Disney Studios

(A couple gray areas: should Batman vs Superman: Dawn of Justice count? It’s not a solo hero film, but both of its title-earning heroes are white males. And what about The Flash, featuring a solo white male lead but played by openly gay actor Ezra Miller? LEGO Batman is also a white/yellow can of worms no one should open).

While TV approaches a near 1:1 ratio of white male:minority/female solo lead roles (5:4ish is nothing to sneeze at), the movies bottom out at a disappointing 2:1. Which was 3:1 before Captain Marvel and Black Panther heroically stepped in to energy blast/panther claw their way to a mildly more diverse movie slate.

It’s a slate that’s been more or less a diversity Hindenburg in the last 15 years. Ready to categorize the last 1.5 decades of comic book films? Excluding adaptations that have absolutely no bearing on superheroes or general action-adventure, of course – Road to Perdition, A History of Violence and their artsy ilk will be excised. Here goes:

20th Century Fox

Just let that slow wave of crushing disillusion wash over you. Forty-five freaking movies for solo white male comic book heroes. Six for everyone else (who’s gunning for a solo role). And suddenly, it seems obvious why the public was hoisting Black Panther and Captain Marvel onto their shoulders and cheering their names like this was suddenly the end of Rudy.

It doesn’t excuse the way Luke Cage and Jessica Jones have been ignored – Marvel’s push for diversity last year was just as valid as this year’s – but last week’s push is aimed toward a market that’s absolutely starved for a bit of casting variety.

The future of superhero diversity is so much more optimistic than its past… but we could always use a bit more. Example: among all the films and series that landed in a Female/Minority list above, there was precisely one with a lead role that was both female and a minority. And it’s the worst possible specimen: Alien vs. Predator, a film that no one liked and even fewer people remembered, that just happened to star Sanaa Lathan as an arctic explorer who blah blah blah let the monsters fight already.

Comic book movie world, consider that your next major assignment. Black Panther and Captain Marvel are great and all, but Black Captain Marvel Panther would be a more profound step in the fight for equal superhero representation. Or at least Ms. Marvel, whose current incarnation is Pakistani-American. Something. Anything, really. Keep pressing on.

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