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.
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.
......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.