We live in an exciting time for superhero movies, but something's missing, and it's getting harder and harder to ignore.
"You've become part of a bigger universe. You just don't know it yet."
That was Samuel L. Jackson, eyepatch, leather jacket and knowing half-smile, telling Tony Stark almost six years ago that things were bigger than he imagined. It was a post-credits teaser, something half the original theatrical audience probably didn't even see, tacked on to the inaugural film of a venture that people weren't even sure would work yet, but it proved to be a mission statement that's still echoing through genre cinema. That scene, barely half a minute long, is to my mind the most important moment in superhero filmmaking since the first time Christopher Reeve took flight in Superman: The Movie.
Ever since then, we've been living in Nick Fury's bigger universe. Iron Man begat two sequels, franchises centered around Captain America and Thor, the tentpole we call The Avengers and, in the months and years to come, Guardians of the Galaxy, Ant-Man, Age of Ultron and whatever Marvel Studios will tell us we're watching in the next few years at San Diego Comic-Con this summer. And that bigger universe concept is no longer isolated at Marvel. At Warner Bros., Batman and Wonder Woman are joining Superman on the big screen. A Justice League movie finally seems inevitable. The movement's expanded to TV, as Marvel keeps pushing Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. and develops new Netflix shows, and Warner Bros. builds its own small-screen superhero universe with Arrow and The Flash. Over at Fox, the studio plans to merge X-Men with the Fantastic Four universe with that franchise's forthcoming reboot. At Sony, Spider-Man's got another movie on the way this year and two more in the pipeline, not to mention planned spinoffs for the Sinister Six and Venom.
That all of this has happened seems improbable. That it mostly seems to be working (at least from a box-office standpoint; we could argue about the rest all day) seems almost impossible, but here we are. The era of the superhero universe on the silver screen is here to stay. But five and a half years after Iron Man, after Nick Fury invited us into his bigger universe, I've still got one big question. I'm not the first person to ask it, or the smartest, and I won't be the last, but I'm lending my voice to it anyway:
Why are the stars of these movies all white guys?
Now, I know this isn't a question you can ask of the entire superhero movie genre. Once upon a time, we got a Supergirl movie, after all. The Blade trilogy was a legitimate hit, and we even got to try out a Catwoman solo flick, an Elektra movie and a Birds of Prey TV series, not to mention Lynda Carter's iconic TV turn as Wonder Woman. That's all well and good, but I'm talking about the era we're living in now, that bold new universe of tentpoles where everything seems possible. It's not without its female heroes, of course. We've got Black Widow, Anne Hathaway's Selina Kyle, Halle Berry's Storm and upcoming new heroines like Scarlet Witch in Avengers: Age of Ultron and Gal Gadot's big-screen Wonder Woman in the Man of Steel sequel. Nor is it without people of color, thanks to the inclusion of War Machine, Storm (again) and Mike Peterson and Melinda May on Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. Plus, we've got a woman, Jessica Jones, and a person of color, Luke Cage, starring in two of Marvel's new Netflix series. That's something, right?
Indeed it is, and I don't want to knock any of those characters, or characters like Lois Lane or Pepper Potts or Falcon, who'll be appearing in the forthcoming Captain America: The Winter Soldier. They all deserve what they have, but at this point, in a world where we are literally going to watch a talking raccoon shoot guns on the big screen in just a few months, they feel more than a little minimized. Let that sink in for a minute. We are now, without a doubt, getting a major superhero film co-starring a talking raccoon before we'll get a solo movie for Wonder Woman or any of Marvel's female heroes. That's more than a little weird.
Team superhero movies are great, but they don't leave much room for anyone but Wolverine or Iron Man to rise above the rest, no matter how much fun Halle Berry's Storm and Jennifer Lawrence's Mystique are to watch. Plus, they're not one hero's story. Everyone has to share. Original Netflix series are great, but they're not blockbuster big-screen debuts, and something about debuting characters there still says "not ready for prime time." Wonder Woman showing up in the Man of Steel sequel is great, but it doesn't change the fact that Wonder Woman is an iconic character whose first big-screen appearance is relegated to a supporting role while Green Lantern got a solo movie first. Seriously, say the words "Superman" and "Batman" back to back in a word association game, and nine times out of ten the next words you'll hear are Wonder Woman, yet somehow Warner Bros. decided it was a safer bet to put Hal Jordan on the big screen first. How'd that work out for everyone?
On the Marvel side, things aren't much better. The only major female superhero in the Marvel universe to this point has been Black Widow, and her last appearance was in a film she had to share with five male heroes. No matter how strong her scenes were, that's rough. This year we get more Black Widow, plus Sharon Carter, but they're still in a movie that has Captain America's name right in the title. We also get Guardians of the Galaxy this year, but that's yet another superhero film where women are drastically outnumbered by male characters and tree people.
And hey, I understand that superhero storytelling has a been a male-dominated field for quite a while. I understand that making movies about Batman, Superman, Wolverine and Captain America is a safer bet. I understand that, at the end of the day, profit is the driving force behind all of these films, whether we like it or not. But come on, we live in a changing world. A space adventure in which a woman is onscreen alone for almost the entire film just scored 10 Oscar nominations. The highest-grossing film of 2013, raking in more than a billion dollars worldwide, was The Hunger Games: Catching Fire, a film very clearly starring a woman that transcended its young adult label and drew in viewers of all kinds. Voices all over the Internet are clamoring for Wonder Woman and Captain Marvel and Black Widow and She-Hulk to get solo films of their very own, and the voices aren't dying down; they're rising.
So, Marvel Studios and Warner Bros. Pictures, my point, I suppose, is this: I'm tired of excuses.
You promised us bigger universes, and you continue to promise us bigger and bigger things in the future, but I've yet to hear anything more than a maybe or a probably or a someday when it comes to a Black Panther movie, or a Wonder Woman solo film. You've ushered in a new era of superhero cinema, but so far that era has been dominated by white, male stars, and while I find almost all of them charming, entertaining and very satisfying, I want something more, and I'm not alone. The comic-book universes I know are filled with characters who aren't white men who are more than capable of carrying a film by themselves, without Robert Downey Jr. quipping over them the entire time. But rather than give any of those characters the solo spotlight, you're giving us a movie featuring a talking raccoon and a talking tree. I'm very happy Guardians of the Galaxy got made, really I am, but that it's happening before Marvel Studios greenlit a film starring a woman or a person of color is just insane to me.
In the beginning, you might have been building your universes on safer choices, on things that you knew would be well-received, and I can't blame you for it, but we're deep into this now. Superhero epics aren't going anywhere, and yet all of the projects we know about so far offer basically more of the same, give or take a few new diverse supporting characters and a couple of encouraging small-screen ventures. So, while I certainly acknowledge that these films may be in the works already and I just don't know about it yet, I have to issue a challenge to both Marvel Studios and Warner Bros. Pictures, the leaders of the superhero cinema movement at the moment (though Sony and Fox are perfectly welcome to participate, too). The challenge is this:
Sometime between now and the end of San Diego Comic-Con in July, announce or confirm, for real, the development of at least one film starring a woman, a person of color, an LGBT person or any combination thereof. I'm talking big screen, and I'm talking lead role. Not the best friend, not the sidekick, not the new member of the white male-dominated team. It can be Wonder Woman, it can be Black Panther, it can be John Stewart's Green Lantern, it can be Storm, it can be Batwoman, it can be Captain Marvel. I don't care, but give us something, because, at this point, it no longer feels like you're waiting for the right moment. It feels like you're putting off the hard stuff, and that's just not acceptable anymore. Setting aside the fact that we know for sure that female-led action films can sell tickets, at some point you have to face the fact that just about every good thing we have in this world is here because someone took a chance and did the work. Spider-Man was supposed to be a throwaway story in the pages of a canceled comic. Star Wars was supposed to be a boondoggle. The Avengers was, at one point, an impossible dream. You've made billions with superhero films now. You've given us the bigger universe. Now it's time to make it more than bigger. It's time to make it richer.
And if you're still wondering why I'm harping on diversity as such an important thing ... well, I have to wonder why you're still reading this. But setting that aside, how about because the majority of the world isn't white men? How about because it would be great if a black kid somewhere could look up at Black Panther or John Stewart or Monica Rambeau on the big screen and see a hero who looks like them leading the way? How about because most of the women I know are ten times stronger than I'll ever be, so perhaps it's time to show them being stronger than their male superhero counterparts for a change? Or perhaps the simplest answer: How about because superheroes are for everyone, everywhere, and it's important to show the world that anyone, regardless of what they look like or who they love, can be not just a hero, but the hero? These are more than just movies. These stories matter to people. If they didn't, they wouldn't have been around for three quarters of a century. So do me a favor, and make them matter more.
It's 2014. It's time. It's past time, and the longer you wait, the less your bigger universes will matter.
(Captain Marvel art by Jamie McKelvie)