Marvel’s Problematic Road to Diversity

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[Editor’s note – Warning this piece contains spoilers for the film Ant-Man.]

During one of the post-credit scenes in Ant-Man, Hope van Dyne (Evangeline Lilly) triumphantly exclaims “It’s about damn time!” upon hearing that she will indeed be getting the one thing she has craved for the entire film. The moment is meant to signal a giant step forward for the Marvel Cinematic Universe. A self-congratulatory, and applause inducing, acknowledgement that the MCU is finally moving out of the dark ages and embracing more gender equality on the big screen. While it can be argued that Hope is unfairly pushed to sidelines for most of Ant-Man, her future presence will raise the total number of female heroes in their cinematic stable to five.

The fact that it has taken twelve films to even reach that number is more shameful than the pop stars caught behaving badly on TMZ.

It is no secret that Marvel has been slower than molasses in coming to terms with the fact that males will spend good money to see female driven action films (e.g. The Hunger Games, Lucy, Divergent), there is another culturally significant undercurrent that Ant-Man brings attention to as well. What is most fascinating about Hope’s statement is not that she has longed for this day come, but the fact that it can be applied to race as well.

The thing that struck me the most while watching the film was not the bite size action, which is admittedly fun, but rather the multicultural casting. If felt like one of the few blockbuster this season, without the words “fast” or “furious” in the title, to display a culturally diverse world.

For a company that has spent the last year and a bit playing with notions of gender and racial equality in the comics – by having a female Thor, a Muslim-American Captain Marvel, a Black Captain America, and a Black/Latino Spider-Man – the representation in film has been lackluster at best. While they have revolutionized how franchises are now built, Marvel still seems to be clinging to the outdated notions of what audiences expect when they go to the movies. It is the template that not only presumes audiences worldwide will only see films with white male leads, but also perpetuates the stereotypes that women and minorities are most appealing in the roles of the love interest and sidekick respectively.

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Despite this baffling logic, which seems more well-suited for a time when Leave it to Beaver was considered cutting edge television, to its credit, Ant-Man feels like one of the few Marvel film to truly encapsulate the multicultural tapestry of the modern Obama generation. The film provides images of minorities as scientists, well-to-do families enjoying a wholesome family barbecue, and even as officers of the law. Though such diversity should be commended, it also exposes an inherent problem in Marvel’s quest for cultural harmony.

In building its cinematic universe solely on the backs of pre-existing characters, rather than creating new ones, Marvel has placed themselves in an awkward corner. Not only have they exposed the limitations of their roster from an ethnic standpoint, as there is only a handful of minority heroes they have the film rights to, but it also highlights their inability to incorporate fully realized non-comic book characters into their universe. As a result, they have inadvertently created a cinematic realm where minorities have no other purpose but to either prop up the central hero or serve as the comic relief. Ant-Man is a perfect example of this.

We are first introduced to our hero, Scott Lang (Paul Rudd), while he is engaged in a scuffle within the confines of a prison whose inmates are predominantly minorities. What looks like a fight at first turns out to be a weird “last day of jail ritual” in which Lang must knock out a large African-American inmate…a task that very few are successful in doing. Of course Lang fails, as he has not yet learned how to throw a decent punch, but gets the respect of the inmate who will be spending the rest of his days in prison repeating this same ritual. A similar scene is echoed later on when Lang, now in full Ant-Man attire, goes on his first real mission and encounters the heroic Falcon (Anthony Mackie) at one of the Avengers’ facilities. Thinking that Lang is an intruder, which technically he is, the two men battle in a sequence that is meant to show that Lang now has learned the skills that make him worthy to be an Avenger.

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Unlike in prison, Lang is victorious this time around and ultimately earns respect from Falcon, the latter of whom is reduced to sheepishly asking his security team not to tell Captain America of his embarrassing defeat. This post-fight moment is played for laughs, and aims to highlight Falcon’s lighter side. However, the only reason the scene even moderately works, if you can ignore the fact that he is keeping a major security breach hidden from his fellow heroes, is the fact that audiences got to see Falcon do actual heroic things in Captain America: The Winter Soldier.

The rest of the culturally diverse supporting players do not have the luxury of pre-existing backstories. They are never developed into anything more than walking punchlines, individuals whose sole purpose is to look worse than the “hero” at all times. It is why Lang’s fellow thieves are bumbling nitwits and the cops are laughably bad at their jobs. While Luis (the always great Michael Peña) is amusing in doses, he is so thinly constructed that even his moment of “culture”, at the local museum, does little to curb the fact that the audience is frequently encouraged to laugh at the stereotypes of the “other”.

Louis represents the lovable criminal who has no real impact on the MCU whatsoever. His actions do not carry the same weight as the four principle leads or the business suit wearing villains – why Marvel, a global corporation, keeps mining the well of big business being evil is beyond me – all of whom are Caucasian. Despite being on opposite sides of the law, police offers such as Paxton (Bobby Cannavale) and Gale (Wood Harris) are on the same insignificant slope as Luis. They are cops who frequently get distracted while on the job and do not seem to even grasp the basics with respect to proper police work. While interviewing Hank Pym (Michael Douglas), their biggest lead in locating the fugitive Lang, they not only both get distracted by the fact that their car is being stolen, but pretty much give up on Pym altogether. When they eventually catch up with Louis’ associates, one of whom stole their vehicle; they neglect to handcuff them before running towards an even bigger incident.

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Though Paxton gets a few scenes to show his life away from the job, Gale is essentially an accessory who occasionally chimes in facts about their investigation that ultimately get forgotten as the film progresses.

While these moments may seem insignificant in the grand scheme of Marvel’s cinematic opera, they speak to a greater problem in the MCU. Marvel is now in a phase where building anticipation for future films trumps creating individual films that feature diverse and interesting characters.

With only a handful of heroes who are either female or visible minorities, audiences are sadly left to seek out representation of themselves in the supporting roles and in the extras in the background of scenes. All they find though are buffoons and disposable individuals whose arcs can be summed up in one sentence.

Ant-Man is by no means a racist film, as I stated above its quest for diverse casting should be commended. If anything, the film is an important first step up the ladder towards an era of equality when people of all sexes and ethnic backgrounds are so common in the MCU that audiences do not even think twice. A time when fans will not need to wait six more films before the much touted likes of Captain Marvel and Black Panther the first female and non-white led movies, within the MCU, to come down the cinematic pipeline. However, Marvel needs to start doing a better job of displaying more well-rounded and diverse characters in their constantly expanding universe.

Better yet, why not do something truly bold and introduce brand new culturally diverse heroes into the Marvel Cinematic Universes. Characters who will leave a unique and interesting mark on the Marvel landscape, rather than simply being the constant butt of jokes.