Racebending Breaks Down Marvel’s Diversity Problem

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, β€œThe 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 β€œsource 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. TC Mark


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  • Ziri

    Surely Raza should be in the “Supporting Characters Played By Men Of Color” category? What’s up with that?

  • MM

    Why haven’t Marvel took a chance on Runaways? It has black man, an asian chick (as the leader), a latino boy and a genderqueer who switches from black man to white man (he’s an alien). (This is the full team)

    Please put the Runaways in production PLEASE.

    • http://gabydunnthoughtcatalog.wordpress.com Gaby Dunn

      Dude, they keep putting Runaways on hold. It sucks.

      • http://www.bradleysands.com Bradley Sands

        (It’s not letting me post/only reply. Weird)

        Marvel’s comic characters may be diverse, but their solo titles lack diversity. Throughout the years, the X-Men titles are pretty much the only places where various female characters are constantly in the spotlight.

  • http://twitter.com/jadika Jade Thompson (@jadika)

    Absolutely. I couldn’t agree more with your thoughts.

  • tnpb7d

    Very true, maybe now that Joss Whedon has signed a 3 year exclusive contract with Marvel we’ll see some change! We know Joss loves his kick-ass ladies!

    • AF

      Whedon may be great with female characters, but not so much in including Asian representation in a Sino-dominated future world *ahem Firefly*

      • Yiwen

        We can be pleased at least that he is more than aware of that shortcoming, and that he apologized for it (sort of) in his song “Nobody’s Asian in the Movies”.

        I’m dying for a Wonder Woman movie (helmed by Whedon). Also, as someone mentioned before, a Runaways movie would kick massive ass.

      • alex wojtak

        Joss Whedon copped to this way back in his Buffy days. Sunnydale was pretty monochromatic. a line from Mr Trick, a black vampire, went “Not exactly a haven for the brothers. Strictly the causasian persuasion here in the dale.”

  • yosoyrichie

    i think this speaks more for the market rather than the producers. just saying.

  • mademoiselle

    I think the problem is the American audience in general, which is basically the target of these blockbusters. The thing is this sort of movie making aims for the big bucks, so they have to play it safe. Playing it safe means having well known faces on the screen, who cares if it hurts cultural suscpetibilities. So thats what you have, the same people over and over and over again on the big screen. Sometimes they manage to pinch in a tad of minority and everyone’s happy.

    To me the most obvious indicator of this situation is the constant need to make remakes of other peoples/countries movies. I am thinking about the millenium saga because it is the most recent, but we can keep it swedish and go to let the right one in, or even japanese horror movies and several others. Even british TV shows that, for effes sake, share the same language. Weird languages and foreign features on the screen just don’t stick with the American audience, and that is a shame because currently there are AMAZING movies being shot in Europe, Asia, Africa and South America. Beating the crap out of the old chewed out american blockbusters, if you don’t mind me saying – but I don’t want to generalize here, there are great movies being made in America too.

    But this to me is the most shocking, because these marvel comics and superhero sagas are american phenomena, so it is natural that they should be americanized, it is actually expected. It is also kitschy so more to the point.

    Ramble ramble.

  • http://ishismdotcom1.wordpress.com drishism

    Great points! I have noticed it before in movies. I am currently in the Philippines, and my wife and I have noted how much of the clothing advertising is done in stores featuring white American actresses and white women models, even though we rarely see any white people here.

  • Tee

    Very interesting piece although I would venture to suggest that the issue at hand is more of a coincidence and result of Hollywood politics rather than an intentional barricade to diversity. Main characters should stay true to the original comic and as we all know the majority of Marvel superheroes are White. However the supporting characters are usually up for grabs and simply go to the best actor for the job. I mean didn’t Thor make a buzz worthy move casting an African-American for the role of a Nordic God?

    I think the goal should be to produce movies based of off stories that are more ethnically diverse to begin with; like that awesome sounding Runaways comic. This is my first time hearing about this; I would so watch that!

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