Something is rotten in the state of Marvel.
If one considers Marvel’s reign as comic-to-film juggernaut as an era beginning with Blade in 1998, and running currently up to Thor: The Dark World last year, it is responsible for a total grossing intake of over $13 billion from audiences around the world. Across the thirty films released in that period, that’s an average of $437 million per film (ranging from Punisher: War Zone with $10.1m to The Avengers with $1.5b).
Quite astounding numbers. But there’s other numbers that I want to look at, numbers that portray a very different view of Marvel’s contribution to cinema over fifteen years. It’s one that others have noticed, one that offers a very narrow vision of who our heroes are, who our storytellers are, and how we condone their portrayal of the world.
A short disclaimer: many of the films in this analysis I enjoy, some of them I particularly love. I come not to praise, nor bury Marvel, merely to cast an analytical eye over their output and see what that tells us.
As this article suggests, there is an increasing clamour from certain sections of the movie-going audience wanting more diversity in the superheroes put on screen. This is not something strictly isolated to comic-book films, but it is an argument highlighted loud and clear by the storytelling choices made by Marvel since 1998.
- 26 white male
- 3 non-white male
- 1 white female
For the purposes of this category, I’m considering who the protagonist is in the film – as they are clearly the ‘hero’ – as some of these films contain more than just one who might be classified as a superhero. It is critical to examine who the protagonist is, given the audience’s relationship to the central character, our understanding and emotional response to the narrative that occurs due to their presence, and also that they often become the publicly promoted image for the film.
In the case of the X-Men series, for the three films that are clearly ensemble films, I’ve made the choice to position Wolverine as the dominant protagonist. Given his dominant screen-time, the devotion to his backstory and emotional resolution that is tied to the conclusion of each of the three films, it’s pretty hard to not view him as the main superhero. This is born out by the continuation of his character in two standalone films.
Still, what we have is white male superheroes occupying 90% of our films, and male superheroes 97%.
Remove the Blade trilogy from this counter – all made pre-2004 and as a trilogy is responsible for less box office than X-Men: The Last Stand on its own – and Marvel is strictly a white-zone. It also begs the question: do any of these characters have to be white? Do any of them have to be male? And don’t give me some claptrap about that’s how they were in the comics, because it’s rubbish. Hollywood has been changing things from its source material since time immemorial, why draw the line here?
But I didn’t just want to focus on who the central characters are. Challenging that will lead nowhere unless we consider more information.
- 27 white male
- 3 non-white male
The lack of female directors in mainstream cinema is not a new topic, yet is is staggering to see it so clearly laid out here. Apparently it is so ingrained into our consciousness that superhero = male, therefore the person in charge of that story must also be male.
For the non-white men who were lucky enough to helm a Marvel film, two of the number are made up by the same person: Tim Story, who directed the two Fantastic Four films. The other was Ang Lee, who made such an impression with Hulk that he wasn’t allowed back for the sequel, nor were any of his casting decisions.
Ultimately, the director though can only shoot (mostly) the script. Marvel, however, have a very inbred relationship with their screenwriters, with several working on multiple films and across multiple franchises, because if it worked once, it’s gotta work again, right?
- 30 written by white males
That is all. 100% white men writing Marvel’s films. This is the narrow, futile vision of Marvel’s cinematic world – it has been left to a few dozen white men to determine the characters, the plots, and the white-male-centric view of superheroes.
If we wanted to change anything, let’s start with the writers. Bear in mind as well, that these films often have multiple writing credits, so it’s not just thirty of them – there’s lots, all telling us the same thing.
Oddly enough, if you look beyond Marvel to Kick-Ass, you find a female writer, Jane Goldman. And yes, you have a male protagonist, but as a superhero he is ineffective compared to the female superhero in the story, who also happens to get the most resounding emotional arc the film offers, culminating in this goddamn awesome scene:
Right. White male superheroes, white male directors, white male writers. Can Marvel offer us anything in the way of diversity? What is their total view of the world, if you consider the Marvel population as representative of their imagination?
30 Principal Casts:
- Total characters: 243
- Male: 184 (76%)
- Female: 59 (24%)
- White: 205 (84%)
- Non-white: 38 (16%)
To be considered part of the principal cast, well, I left that to my judgement. I’ve included, for instance, Ellen Page in X-Men: The Last Stand, even though she isn’t listed as principal in many lists. So you’ll just have to trust me.
The view of the Marvel world is this: 76% must be men. 84% must be white. White male characters make up at least 60% of the Marvel population.
Where are the standouts? There really aren’t any. The Wolverine had above-average female presence (3 out of 9), and also non-white characters (5 out of 9), but given that it’s set in Japan that makes a lot of sense. Even where X2 had better female representation (4 out of 11), it suffered in only providing one non-white character.
The X-Men franchise is an interesting one, in that it is an ongoing series of stories that deal with discrimination. This theme has proven to be powerful for many audiences, and yet without Halle Berry, Zoe Kravitz and Edi Gathegi, the main four films are starkly white. This is despite having characters such as Mystique, who is free to choose her appearance how she sees fit, and as depicted in X-Men: First Class is walking around looking like Jennifer Lawrence. The choice here is to look white so as to fit in. So they are aware of the dominance of white depictions in order to gain acceptance, whilst simultaneously conforming to it.
The Avengers films (including all individual superhero films) are among the whitest, men-iest going around. When there has been a trend bucked it still is disproportionate in how the story is told. In the case of Elektra, it seemed like having a female protagonist stopped the writers and director from putting any other female characters of note in the film, and its poor box office ($56.7m) now serving as the one exception that proves Marvel’s rule that female superheroes don’t work.
So where do we go from here?
With another raft of Marvel films set to be unleashed in 2014 and 2015, guaranteed we’re going to see more of the same. We can but hope that different visions can start to make their way through in the characters we see, the directors who portray them, and the writers who put it all down in the first place.
We can but hope, because these numbers are out of touch with reality.