I love comics. And I am a lady. Often, this leads to the discussion of female characters in comics, which is a conversation I am fine to have and have even joked about right here on TC. (See: So You’re A Female Character In A Graphic Novel. Now What?)
Twice, I’ve had thoughts about the lack of diversity in, specifically, comic book movie adaptations. Once was when I saw Thor, which takes place in New Mexico but somehow doesn’t have any Latino or Native American characters, and once when I wondered why there was no standalone Black Widow movie (which is being remedied now so hooray!) This morning, I read a really interesting breakdown of the problem on a site called Racebending titled “On Marvel, Mandarin and Marginalization.”
The piece is pinned on the announcement that Ben Kingsley, who famously played Gandhi in the titular film, was cast as the villain The Mandarin for the upcoming Iron Man 3. The Mandarin is a fu-manchu sporting villain born out of the fears of Red China. He’s exactly what he sounds like — Mickey Rooney in Breakfast at Tiffany’s-style. As director Shane Black put it, “The Mandarin is a racist caricature.”
The author of the piece, Marissa Lee, explains it, better than I could, here:
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.)]
This Kingsley casting news becomes a jumping off point for a perhaps more relevant question: What’s up with the lack of diversity in Marvel comics films?
Another thing of note: Marvel has no upcoming films where the main character is a woman or person of color, even though there are plenty of comics to use as source materials. As Lee rightfully points out, Ant Man and Rocket Raccoon are prioritized over Luke Cage and Blank Panther. How does that shake out?
I love Marvel. I think their work is great. I also think it’s only fair to consider that when these comics came out, white male superhero leads were the status quo. The movies remain faithful to the comics. Fair enough. But the comics have way more women and people of color than the films do. Fans must have noticed that. The most obvious switcheroo is, as Lee points out, the use of the new Agent Phil Coulson (who ruled, but anyway) over the usual Agent Jimmy Woo in The Avengers. And of course there’s Nick Fury, Heimdell, Warhammer and Falcon (which Lee also acknowledges).
What about Mantis, an Asian female superhero? What about casting a Latina as Maria Hill, a role that went to Cobie Smulders? Where was James Rhodes during the attack on New York City? These are all questions Lee asks in the piece that I found incredibly valid. She ends by saying:
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.
Read the whole piece here.
I thought it was a really interesting take on diversity in comics. Clearly, there are some missed opportunities here. I’ve certainly felt, as a female comics fan, that women are not represented in the Marvel films as much as they could be. It’s important to show a diverse world that reflects our own with heroes from all races, ethnicities and genders. At the very least, Lee’s article made me think about a universe that I love so much, and about how much merchandising and the majority male audience influences what comics make it as movie adaptations.
My next thought was: Remember the way women rallied around Bridesmaids in an effort to prove that female audiences will come out and support female-helmed movies? And that hopefully opened the door for more women to make and star in more awesome stuff because there’s a proven market for it? It’s a cycle. Maybe we (women, female comic books fans, and everyone) need to do that again, send the same message to Marvel — this time, for the Black Widow prequel.