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-Hunger–Games-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?