Postcard: Washington, DC

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 15 November, 2014, 8:16pm
UPDATED : Saturday, 15 November, 2014, 8:16pm

DC Entertainment and Marvel Studios delivered Christmas to comic book fans in October by announcing 19 new superhero films for release between 2016 and 2020. To those impressive numbers, add promised offerings from Fox (which holds the licence to Marvel's X-Men and Fantastic Four franchises) and Sony (with rights to Spider-Man).

The surge in comic book-based movies sits on a proven track record: four of the top 10 grossing films this year at the US box office - which also have huge audiences abroad - are based on comics including Captain America: The Winter Soldier and Guardians of the Galaxy.

What is striking about the upcoming slate is that it is finally bringing gender and racial diversity to the big screen after a nearly decade-long absence: Wonder Woman will receive a feature film in 2017, joined by Black Panther, and Marvel's female powerhouse, Captain Marvel, in 2018.

In 1997, former NBA player Shaquille O'Neal broke the race barrier in bringing comic book character Steel to movie life, and was followed by Wesley Snipes' Blade vampire hunter trilogy. Helen Slater was the first female headliner with Supergirl in 1984, but it was another two decades until Halle Berry played the lead in 2004's poorly reviewed Catwoman. Yet almost none of the movies since then - including the two dozen comic book films of the past two years - has had a woman or non-white man as a leading character.

The struggle to portray the full diversity of the US is nothing new for the source material for these adaptations, the great American comic book. Will Eisner gave the lead in The Spirit (1940) an African-American sidekick named Ebony White. But with his pronounced lips and thick accent, Ebony embodied offensive stereotypes already thrust upon the black community in vaudeville, film, and radio.

Eisner' peers largely decided to avoid depicting people of colour. But no representation may be as bad as misrepresentation. And although superheroes had arrived on the scene with Superman's debut in 1938, it would be another quarter of a century before a hero of colour would appear with the Black Panther's premiere in 1966.

The superheroines fared only slightly better. Wonder Woman may not be the first female superhero, but she is the only one with a nearly continuous publication record stretching from 1941. Superheroines continued to populate the pages of mainstream comics, but mostly as token members of an entourage, such as Sue Storm of the Fantastic Four. In fact, publishers have had difficulty producing sustained runs of titles with female stars.

Interestingly, the modest number of diverse role models has not dissuaded fans of all backgrounds from embracing the narratives of personal struggle and ultimate triumph popularised in superhero films. Despite the fact that the characters are portrayed by stereotypical white men on film, the impact of the narratives is so powerful that people transcend ethnic and gender limitations, and embrace the embodiment of the ideals these characters represent.

Historically, superheroes have enjoyed their greatest popularity at times when national confidence is under strain. In American comic books, the superheroes' popularity peaked during the second world war, enjoyed a renaissance during the turbulent 1960s, and are now meeting a new hunger for heroes as the US faces military threats from radicalised groups, renewed tension with cold war adversaries and shadowy cyber-attacks.

In this new climate, can we look forward to a culture in which portrayals of super-powerful people from minorities become standards in the mainstream? On the one hand, such heroes can become even more potent icons for a new generation that expects diversity. Or perhaps they will not resonate in quite the same way that icons such as Captain America do? The latter outcome would be a shame.

As much as we malign the mass media for their shortfalls when it comes to recognising and representing the diversity of American culture, those creative forces now calling the shots within these corporations may be on to something with this line-up of films.

It would have been safer to have filled these slates with even more white, male superheroes, given the public's appetite for them. But appetites do change with time, and perhaps the highly diverse fan community will be looking for a wider palette of superheroes to admire - at least by 2017.

Washington Post