‘The Avengers’ and Race: What’s at Stake in Our Cultural Mythology

When Marvel first announced the reboot of all of their film franchises (known as the Marvel Cinematic Universe), fanboys reacted with all the giddiness of a puppy at a door with a leash in its mouth. Finally, they were going to have a good Hulk movie and definitive films for Iron Man, Captain America, and Thor.

Marvel spared no expense and brought in some top-tier talent: Jon Favreau, Robert Downey, Jr., and Terrence Howard for Iron Man (2008); Edward Norton, Liv Tyler, and Tim Roth for The Incredible Hulk (2008); Kenneth Branagh, Anthony Hopkins, Chris Hemsworth, and Natalie Portman for Thor (2011); Hugo Weaving, Stanley Tucci, Chris Evans, and Tommy Lee Jones for Captain America: The First Avenger (2011); Joss Wedon, Samuel L. Jackson, Scarlett Johansson—and the list of big names that Know What They’re Doing could go on forever.

The casting seemed perfect: of course, Robert Downey, Jr. is Tony Stark. If you could put Ed Norton in an action movie, you’d have to make him a brooding wanderer who doesn’t actually have to fight anything (the same goes for Mark Ruffalo, I guess). Who better than Kenneth “no-really-call-me-Laurence-Olivier” Branagh to direct the Shakespearean royal family drama Thor? And why wouldn’t you sign Samuel L. Jackson to a ten-movie deal for which all he has to do is be badass?

Now, Internet, don’t murder me, but the casting is where I’m a little disappointed because it’s almost too perfect. It’s the twenty-first century and all, and it would have been interesting to see some changes with the characters’ races. Other than Blade, Halle Berry’s Storm, a few other fringe X-Men, and Will Smith’s Hancock, can you think of any non-white superheroes? And I know we’re living in a post-“Racist-HungerGames-Tweets” and post-“Donald-for-Spiderman” world, but would any of the characters really be affected if you changed their race?

Okay, then. Roll call: Who are the Avengers?

Tony Stark/Iron Man: The precocious, wisecracking misanthrope. He’s basically Science Genius Roger Sterling (Mad Men’s John Slattery, who either cleverly or coincidentally, was cast as Tony’s father Howard Stark in Iron Man 2). He inherited a massive business from a man who helped win World War II and saved Captain America—you couldn’t have more advantages in life. Stark plays a centuries-old archetype: the brooding, misunderstood troublemaker, who drinks himself to death, doesn’t share his feelings, but somehow is still brilliant, moral, and world-saving (Byronic hero). He’s James Bond, Batman, Blade, and any other character who’s ever ripped off Lord Byron. It’s a bit of a privileged archetype, but it works for all races. Of course, it would be impossible to imagine a nonwhite person building an empire like Stark Industries in twentieth-century America, but isn’t that the culture we’re trying to move away from?

Steve Rodgers/Captain America: He’s tall, broad-shouldered, punches Hitler and a dude who’s worse than Hitler (damn, comics are intense). He also properly parts his boyish, sandy-colored hair because he’s a member of the Greatest Generation, and they do things right. He wants so desperately to defend his country that he tries to enlist in the army four times, despite a myriad of physical ailments. He’s constantly pushed around, but he never backs down from a fight. He’s discriminated against because of physical things he can’t change. You know who this sounds like? Pretty much any non-white person in America. To be fair, Captain America is set before the Civil Rights Movement, so a non-white man on a propaganda poster wouldn’t go over too well. It would also seriously step on Martin Luther King, Jr.’s and fellow civil rights activists’ historical legacies. But none of this changes the fact that Captain America represents a ridiculously outdated idea that the symbol of America has to be Aryan. The President’s black. Is it so radical that Captain America could be too?

Thor: A god directly pulled from Norse mythology. But yo, Idris Elba’s in Thor. Just saying.

Bruce Banner: A mild-mannered doctor, a profession not known for having non-white people. When he gets too angry, though, he turns into a violent, near-mindless Hulk. This is a personality he can’t control, and most tellingly, his skin changes to green. I know that one of the reasons that his skin becomes green is because comics need as many bright colors as possible, but it can’t be ignored that he spends pretty much his entire life trying to avoid the terrible fate of becoming not white.

Hawkeye: One of the members of the team without any superpowers, he’s less an Avenger and more of a S.H.I.E.L.D. operative. The World’s Greatest Marksman, he uses a bow and arrow, and it can’t be ignored that the longbow was pioneered by the British. He could very easily be played by someone of a different race.

Black Widow is the Action Chick. She’ll kill Bill (probably through autoerotic asphyxiation) while keeping her hair perfect and her breasts heaving like a Victorian on a fainting couch. This is an archetype that frequently involves non-white people, but Action Chick is pretty much never the hero of a big-budget blockbuster. In the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Action Chick is played by Scarlett Johannson. This makes sense, as Black Widow’s backstory involves her being Russian. Her backstory could certainly be changed, but I understand why it wasn’t.

In The Avengers, all of these white heroes assemble into a superhero supergroup and save the world from aliens. Their boss is Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson), who is played by Shaft, which means the movie bats .142 as far as minorities are concerned.

Speaking of the movie, I think that it’s awesome. The performances are great, the story is tight, there’s room to expand in the sequels—it’s a perfect summer blockbuster. This article, indeed, isn’t a screed against the movie or comics. What I’m saying is probably best reflected by the Jeremy Lin craze, or “Linsanity,” as the internet and ESPN dubbed it.

Jeremy Lin is a San Francisco-born Taiwanese professional basketball player, who went from Harvard to a bumpy NBA career: he was un-drafted, then played one year with the Golden State Warriors and a few weeks with the Houston Rockets, and then became a desperation-move-turned star with the New York Knicks. He set New York and the entire NBA on fire by leading the Knicks (whose two best players were injured) on a seven-game winning streak and establishing himself as an NBA star.

Lin is the first American-born Asian player in the NBA, and Grantland’s Rembert Browne describes the joy of seeing his Asian-American friends’ euphoria at watching Lin: “. . . my friend Andy Suzuki hadn’t seen Lin play. As I showed him the highlight reels . . . I saw him swell up with pride in a way I’ve never witnessed. He couldn’t believe what he was seeing, and as he reenacted some of the moves in his living room, I pictured a seven-year-old Andy, in his driveway, mimicking Jordan, but quietly wishing he had a Jeremy.”

Kids look up to sports heroes and comic book heroes more than anything else. When you play sports— and you don’t have to be a child to do this—you yell out “Jordan!” after a jump shot or “Messi!” after a goal scored.

Children pretend to be superheroes all the time as well. You think there’s not a black kid wishing he had a version of Spiderman to mimic where Peter Parker was played by Donald Glover?

Look, I’m not calling the Avengers, or The Avengers, or any part of the Marvel Cinematic Universe racist. What I’m saying is that the MCU is in a unique position to completely reshape people’s view of superheroes. Film is one of the primary mediums through which the culture at large understands these stories, but the ridiculous financial success of these movies proves that American culture is hungry for them. Why shouldn’t it be?

Superheroes are American mythology. They’re like Greco-Roman, Norse, or Hindu gods, but they’re uniquely American: these heroes get their talent through hard work (Iron Man), pure determination (Captain America), or a government operation gone wrong (Hulk). They’re a major representation of American pop culture, so shouldn’t they reflect American diversity?

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  1. Nice article. We have seen Iconic comic book characters depicted as different races before–Nick Fury, Captain America, Blade, Kingpin–and each had different levels of success. I think we might finally be at a point where moviegoers can accept the likes of Bishop, Falcon (one of Cap's closest Avengers), Mandarin (though Ben Kingsley is slated to play him in Iron Man 3), Black Panther, Luke Cage, Silver Samurai, and so on.

  2. Jordan Giarratano

    I understand where you are going with this article, but I find it flawed. While discussing which superheroes should have their race changed by producers, you neglect to mention that Nick Fury was white from his origin in the 60's all through the history of the Marvel Universe. He was cast as a black character, presumably to add diversity to the series and also because Sam Jackson was a dynamite choice for the role. You are complaining about something they already did. In addition to that, Fury is not just a black stereotype or Shaft redux. He's a character in an important lead role that shows courage, intellect, guts and patriotism AND in one way or another, he appears in most of the films. He's not just a token black, he's vital to every character's story. They did the same thing with the X-Men franchise, although Storm was already a black character, they brought in a quality actress to portray her and gave her a leadership role. I find it odd that you are upset that only 14% of the Avengers are black when, according to the 2010 census, 12.6% of the population is black (http://quickfacts.census.gov/qfd/states/00000.html). Not every piece of pop-culture needs to be a statement, especially when it's clear the producers considered the value of adding diversity to the obviously ultra-white source material.

  3. Mike Mierendorf

    That was a well thought out and supported argument. Kudos sir.

  4. Blade has always been black in the comics. And Captain America has been played by two white actors in live action films. I don't know what you're referring to.

  5. The "Truth: Red, White & Black" arc featured Isaiah Bradley, a black "Captain America". While he wasn't THE Cap, he was another supersoldier created during WWII. It was a pretty cool story arc, worth picking up if you can find it anywhere. Blade has been black in the comics, but was a lighter tone–almost caucasian–in the 90's Spiderman animated series.

  6. butterbeanbulls

    Jordan, you're right–Nick Fury is a well-thought out, three-dimensional character. The Shaft line was a throwaway joke, and not my best. But I'm not trying to argue that every piece of pop culture needs to be a statement. Nor I am I arguing just for more black superheroes–but more Hispanic, Southeast Asian, Asian, etc be represented. You're correct that the producers considered the value of adding diversity to ultra-white source material. It's ultra-white because the Golden Age of Comics ended nearly a decade before the Civil Rights Movement. The US is becoming more diverse than ever (http://www.census.gov/population/www/pop-profile/natproj.html), and it's my hope that this–again, uniquely American–paragon of pop culture continues to find ways to reflect that.

  7. Jordan,
    I think your comment was well spoken and right on the mark. There is one thing you may wish to know. Nick Fury was redesigned as a black character in the Marvel Ultimate line of comics. Specifically he was modeled after Samuel L. Jackson. Jackson agreed to this, with the proviso that he be cast to play Fury in any movie version. The choice has worked out well. It is interesting to note that in the game MARVEL: Ultimate Alliance, the player can actually play as either the original version of Fury or the Ultimate version! 🙂

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