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Wednesday, February 28, 2018

Diversity?

As a long time fan, reader,  and collector of Marvel Comics I have to be honest in admitting that my disappointment with their movies has grown as  steadily over the years as has their popularity. Back when I was a kid, with both a live action Batman and Superman show running on air and Marvel offering only a poorly-animated cartoon, it was way easier to be a DC fan. And most of my peers were. But there was something about those Marvel characters that just had a grittier, more ‘real’ appeal for me. 

A lot of the credit has to go to Stan Lee. From the time he first defied his boss and ran a character called “Spiderman” despite being told that it was a terrible idea because NO ONE likes spiders, he consistently broke new ground on every front. He gave his heroes tragic flaws, he had them argue, and he found hero material not just in muscular white males, but with scrawny teenagers, geeky scientists, mutated freaks, women, and even the handicapped. (And this was all in the 1960s!)  And as for racism? Marvel comics tackled such loaded topics as prejudice, affirmative action, ‘tokenism’, the KKK, interracial romance, and Lee even based an entire comic as a color-neutral allegory for the differing ideologies of Martin Luther King and Malcolm X. It was called: 

The X-Men. And while it did not originally boast as diverse a roster as this one that included a strong, Black female, an Asian, a Native American, and representatives from Canada, Ireland, Germany, and Russia..... it did start out with a woman, and a leader in a wheelchair.

And in 1966 Lee also introduced the first Black superhero…...and rather than have him be some subservient sidekick, he made him a wealthy and educated king of an African country famous for its technology. He was called the “Black Panther”.


The first appearance of the Black Panther! Great stuff!!!

Now there is a very popular movie out, breaking all kinds of box office records featuring this character, and while I have always liked the Panther, and am glad the movie is doing well, I am a little disturbed by the characterization of this film as an example of Hollywood “diversity”.

As someone who has seen a very intent policy of diversity evident in so many Marvel movies, I find this recent assessment to be somewhat inaccurate. From what I can see, Black Panther has none of the diversity prominent in so many of the Marvel films that preceded it. Let’s take a short tour of how filmmakers went beyond the diversity already inherent in Marvel Comics to really make sure everybody had some representation in the movies:

Here are a couple of examples of how Stan Lee’s first family of heroes….the Fantastic Four changed things around after being the comic where the Panther first made his debut:


Johnny Storm in the comics.

Johnny Storm in the 2015 movie.

Kelly Washington playing Alicia Masters, shown on the right.

I am a huge Daredevil fan and, while having Ben Affleck play my favorite character was like a punch in the stomach, I was further surprised to see the iconic Kingpin (Wilson Fisk) being portrayed by the late Michael Clarke Duncan. But after watching him, I had to admit it was great casting. Duncan had the size, voice, and commanding presence to overcome any doubt that the Kingpin could be Black. He was the best thing in the movie.


The original Kingpin.



The "movie version".

Then the Avengers came out and introduced Samuel L. Jackson as Nick Fury. And while some might say that in the “Ultimates” series produced years after the original runs, Nick Fury was depicted as African American, for decades before he looked more like this:


How most of America thinks of Nick Fury.



With Doctor Strange, besides getting the title character completely wrong ( since audience’s seem to love snarky quips, a la Robert Downey Jr.’s ‘Tony Stark’, the makers of this film just decided to make Stephen Strange….a man who in the comics is so perennially focused and intense that he seems like he could crack walnuts between his asscheeks….into the surgeon-version of  super-quippy ‘Tony Stark’.) they also managed to……


......"diversify" Baron Mordo.

And have a bald Tilda Swinton play........

....the iconic character on the left.

But while changing things around in these past instances served to diversify the film without really altering anything crucial, Thor gave an example of the most absurdly forced substitution. Based on actual Norse Mythology, Heimdall is a Norse god who is quite solidly Scandinavian.....


Illustration by Emil Doepler. ca. 1905. Walhall, die Götterwelt der Germanen.

 and yet…..


......actor Idris Elba on the left, got to portray the comic character on the right.

They also made Hogun Asian…..but this is a bit more understandable since “the Warriors Three" were fictional creations of Marvel and not based on actual mythology. Even in the comics, Hogun is from a ‘far off land’.....so why not an Asian one? 



Hogun is on the right.

But even as a fan of Idris Elba, and someone who appreciates a bit of diversity, a Black Heimdall kind of irritated me. But what the heck. No biggie right? It’s Hollywood and diversity is the watchword of the decade. 

So then what happened to Black Panther? Where’s the diversity? Every character is exactly the color and ethnicity they were back in the comics! No changes at all!




Now, it could be argued that the story takes place in an African country so it makes sense that they’d all be Black…...but Thor is based on actual Scandinavian mythology and we still got some change-ups there. And Wakanda is not a real country….so why not have an Asian woman as one of the dora milaje at least? It would work. The dora milaje were supposed to be chosen from outside of Wakandan tribes…...so why not WAY outside? That would at least follow the pattern of 'diversity' employed in Marvel's previous ventures.

Now I don’t really care if the Black Panther movie has kept the ethnicity of their characters as originally conceived. Hell, given what I’ve already shown, it’s kind of refreshing…….but isn’t it a bit hypocritical to have a fairly monochromatic cast being touted as a testament to diversity? If a movie had a cast that was almost entirely white who would dare to praise it as ‘diverse’? Doesn't 'diverse' mean VARIED?

And there is another point that keeps coming up in the myriad of fawning reviews and that is that this is the first time a Black character has been depicted as self-assured and in control…...a confident badass as it were. First time? Really? How about:


And Snipes made THREE of these.....all way before Black Panther. Anybody want to tell this guy he's NOT a Marvel Comics badass?

And why is it that when a white hero is portrayed as square-jawed and smooth, and as aloof and self-assured as a super-powered James Bond…..the character comes off like an asshole? If you like that sort of thing, you’re probably a DC fan.  Instead, Marvel people tend to like their heroes a little flawed, slightly insecure, and not always perfect…...or anywhere near perfect. In fact, these ‘flaws’ were what made Marvel characters so great. Being a Marvel hero always had some tragic downside. But now for a Black hero to be depicted this same flawed and human way is somehow demeaning? If we have to see everything from cast diversity to character portrayals in polarized qualifiers where one set of rules applies to one ethnicity and another set to the other…...just how close to true equality are we? Or ever will be? And so, in that light, is “Black Panther” really the breakthrough critics are claiming it is? Or just one more example of how screwed up things still are? Something to think about as we close out Black History Month.

10 comments:

  1. I think this all boils down to how society, particularly white society views non-whites. As "other". White is seen as the default, and anything else is notable. Which is why the "other" is treated as "other", treated differently. Diversity only counts if you're not a white male. It should mean varied, but I don't think people think of it that way.

    Also, Blade is high up there on my list of favorite characters. <3

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    1. You are absolutely correct. That is EXACTLY what this boils down to. Unfortunately until we get past this duality, not only will there be only superficial, cosmetic progress.....but those looking for any excuse to scream "reverse discrimination" will continue to have plenty of fodder to support their not-so-nice agenda.

      In this case, all the reviewers need do is use a different word to praise the Black Panther movie. Call it 'empowering'. Call it 'proud'. But you can't honestly say it's 'diverse'.

      And after all the 'breakthrough' films by Black directors for the last five decades....how can we keep playing this card with any credibility? It's kind of insulting to those past achievements and does more to call out a racial difference when the true measure of racial equality is blurring .....and finally erasing.....that perceived difference, until it all comes down to talent and creativity, no matter what color skin it's emanating from. The types of reviews I have seen have done nothing to achieve this.

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  2. I don't have much to say on this one, as I (a) haven't seen the movie yet; and (b) had not seen the reviews that praised it on the basis of diversity. I will say, however, that your post is a great reminder of how right you are that Stan Lee was so, so far ahead of his time. I do agree that Marvel is getting a little over-exposed at this point. On the other hand, Logan was very good, and Deadpool was one of the funniest movies I've ever seen in my life, and I am not a big Ryan Reynolds fan.

    You also remind me just how dreadful DC is. I tried to watch Dawn of Justice on an airplane ride, and I finally just shut it off and read a book while consuming cheap wine. Just totally awful on every level. Christopher Nolan's take on Batman was appealing, and Christian Bale does a good job with flawed characters, but that is really it for DC. One interesting, flawed character, and a whole bunch of awful, one-dimensional characters.

    Now, Wonder Woman on the other hand . . . As I have posted before, Wonder Woman is filled with all sorts of kinky BDSM stuff. So, while I can't say I loved the comic books or even the recent movie, at least the story behind its conception piques my interest a little.

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    1. I want to see Wonder Woman based on what I've heard.....but after so many disappointments with Marvel, I no longer rush to the theaters. I just wait until they hit Netflix.

      Ironically, as a Marvel fan and a DC-denigrater ....ironically my favorite superhero movie of all time is based on a DC graphic novel: The Watchmen. Everything a superhero movie should be...........but rarely is.

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    2. To clarify, the movie Wonder Woman did not have kinky BDSM stuff. As a whole, it was OK but nothing special, in my opinion. I was referring to the kinks in its original conception: https://www.vice.com/en_us/article/exmj5w/matriarchal-utopia-bondage-fetish-feminism-wonder-woman-999

      I haven't seen Watchmen, but will try to remedy that soon.

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    3. Thanks for the clarification. I'll be in less of a hurry now. LOL

      As for Watchmen, try to see one of the director's cuts.....even though it makes the movie very long....it's worth it. The story was written by Alan Moore who also wrote V for Vendetta. It's a complex story with lots to offer. It also has one of the best opening credit montages ever put together. It also stayed remarkably close.....with one big exception that I actually think was more economical.....to Moore's original story.

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  3. wonder woman was good enough for its entertainment value... but you've gotta watch it with a cup of salt. there were moments when i found myself asking why didn't she just this or that..

    i find that the word "diversity" in hollywood speak is just code for "black". I don't mean to offend anyone but it seems to be more and more obvious that that's what it means.

    but i shall wait for BP to be available at no cost to me. I don't think I'll be rushing to the cinema anytime soon.

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    1. A lot of these movies need a cup of salt........and too often it feels like that salt is being rubbed into a paper cut! LOL Whenever I ask, "why didn't he/she just ......?" Rosa replies: "Because then they wouldn't have had a movie." ;-)

      And yes, 'diversity' has become a code word......but not just in Hollywood. When I worked in HR for a certain retailer, they used 'diversity' the same way.

      You don't need to rush to watch a movie.....you have enough adventures to make your own! LOL

      All the best, my dear!



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  4. Crimson Kid (C.K.)May 17, 2018 at 9:13 AM

    Interesting analysis of the "X-Men" dynamic, the concept that Professor Xavier represents Martin Luther King, Jr., while Magneto's approach is parallel to that of Malcolm X.

    While I enjoyed "Wonder Woman" despite its historical inaccuracies, I certainly wouldn't have minded seeing a touch of the implicit kinkiness found in the comic-book character.

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    1. That admission came directly from interviews with Stan Lee himself, so I can't take credit for any astute analysis ......this time. ;-)

      To see my take on Wonder Woman, just check April's Wonder Woman post.

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