True diversity in Marvel movies is lacking


Let underrepresented groups play the roles of Iron Man, Spiderman, and Thor

Graphic by Sie Douglas-Fish.

Marvel has missed the mark in achieving true racial diversity. They have made some progress towards greater representation of racialized groups, but still lack in diversifying the main popular characters in the franchise. 

Now is the time to have true racial equity. Let underrepresented groups play the roles of Iron Man, Spiderman, and Thor.

A 2018 study conducted by Forbes states that over 61 per cent of actors in the Marvel Universe are white, and that number increases to a staggering 69 per cent if only main characters are counted. In contrast to that, Fobes found that in the entire Marvel Cinematic Universe, only 20 per cent are of African descent, 5 per cent East Asians, and 0 per cent Indigenous.

By the looks of the previous data, not enough effort is being put in by Marvel to increase these dwindling numbers. Also, unfortunately, as of this moment in time, it looks highly unlikely that characters like Iron Man, Spiderman, and Thor will be played by racialized individuals. 

If these major characters were played by underrepresented groups, would this not give children who look like them the impetus to achieve their life-long dreams? Would it not give them the belief that they can become the next Spiderman, Iron Man, or Thor? I like to think so, but the reality is that it may not happen.

In recent times, positive change has happened in Marvel with the release of the Black Panther franchise. However, unsurprisingly, if you exclude Black Panther as a main character, the percentage of African Americans in the Marvel Universe drops down to 11 per cent. This data suggests Marvel is actually not adhering to its commitment to diversify its franchise, especially the most popular characters.     

For a number of years now, Marvel has vowed to diversify its universe so that they can connect to their global audience. They have made big strides in making new racialized characters like Kamala Khan, a Pakistani-American teenager who has the ability to shapeshift and embiggen. She will be getting her own television series on Disney Plus this summer, Ms. Marvel, and will also play a major role in the sequel to Captain Marvel

I am a Pakistani-American myself, so these are exciting times for me. It makes me happy that an individual who originates from the same place as me can make it big in the Marvel canon. In Pakistani culture, or South Asian culture broadly speaking, women are unfortunately considered to be second-class citizens — dependent on their husband or father. Ms. Marvel would be tackling this archaic feature of Pakistani culture, and most importantly would hopefully help to symbolise empowerment for women in the region. 

Unfortunately, the creation of Ms. Marvel or Black Panther alone does not lead to diversification in the Marvel Universe. There would be true racial equity only if some of the most popular characters, Iron Man, Spiderman, and Thor, were played by visible minorities.    

Only time will tell if Kamala Khan will be considered a major character, with equal footing in popularity and rank to Spiderman, Iron Man, Thor, and Captain America in the Marvel hierarchy. Personally, I would like to see this character in the next Avengers movie. Let’s see what the future holds for this new superhero whose introduction has already broken many stereotypes.   

For many years, I have believed that there will never be true racial representation in Marvel. Introduction of new characters like Black Panther and Ms. Marvel has made me doubt this notion a little bit, but not fully. It will only cease to exist when my favourite characters since childhood, Spiderman and Iron Man are played by someone who looks like me. If not like me, then someone who is not white!

In her undergraduate thesis, Ashley Richards argues that most of the diversity claims at Marvel are a myth — a rosy picture that they are trying to paint about themselves. She accuses Marvel movies like Doctor Strange, who is played by a white actor, of cultural appropriation through the perpetuation of American Orientalism. 

Agreeing with Richard’s analysis, I argue that Marvel needs to resolve these inappropriate tendencies in their movies before committing to diversifying their industry, or at least apologise to the East Asian community about potentially offensive scenes and content. They need to sort out their past mistakes and have progressive change simultaneously.

I truly commend the effort of Marvel’s attempt at diversifying, but I do not agree with the way they are doing it. They have had a good start by introducing new major characters who are visible minorities, but that is not enough. Now is the time to shift into final gear — making Spiderman, Iron Man, and Thor visible minorities. There is absence of true racial equity in the Marvel Universe. It will continue to be like that if radical change does not occur.