Two words about three black guys in CIVIL WAR.
Started this weeks ago, before the IRON MAN news. Incoherent, sorry.
When the Avengers and company first sit down to debate whether to accept government oversight in Captain America: Civil War, the first (somewhat pedantic) back-and-forth goes to Don Cheadle (Rhodes/War Machine) and Anthony Mackie (Sam Wilson/Falcon). They play decorated combat veterans who spend most of their onscreen time as second fiddles to the film’s main characters, Iron Man and Captain America — they’re sidekicks, honestly, and are called on to act as the protagonists’ outboard conscience. But their status as (relatively) ordinary public servants thrust into a superpowered godswar gives them a certain morally elevated status in the storyworld, and the first thing we see when the Plot Engine starts turning is two African-American actors politely but energetically disagreeing — leading the superhero discussion — about a legal/moral matter.
Meanwhile, the ‘Who is this masked man and to whom does he pledge allegiance?!’ character is King T’challa of Wakanda a/k/a Black Panther, played by Chadwick Boseman. He spends the movie as an avenging angel chasing the Good Guys after his dad’s killed, but in the end he sees them ‘consumed by vengeance’ &c &c and finally joins up with Captain America. He is, by a large margin, the ‘coolest’ new character in the film, and the mid-credits scene sets up his solo film (due in, what, 2018?).
I mention this only to make the point that while Civil War — an ‘excellent superhero film,’ though we must avoid making ‘superhero film’ a standard of quality as well as a genre — does require a bit of Africanesque Cultural Mumbo-Jumbo to power its plot, it also casually places three black guys in major roles without feeling the need to be either delicate or ostentatious about it. And this is easier in a superhero film than elsewhere, precisely because of the capes and cowls and rocket packs.
Remember the scene in (the actually diverse-in-conception) Global Frequency, when the parkour runner Sita Patel is climbing up the side of the ferris wheel, and a little south-Asian girl calls out, wide-eyed: ‘Daddy, look. Spider-Man’s a girl! And she’s just like us‘…?
That’s the secret of superhero comix: the costume, the role, is an idea. It’s a dream. The person inside is someone and something else entirely; it could be you, no matter who you are. When these things work, I think that’s why. The story is set up to encourage identification across identitarian lines.
The prominence of three black actors (plus one actress, in a much less interesting stock role) in Civil War is a small step for casting agents everywhere, whatever, but it’s also a reminder of the way these stupid capes and cowls can level the playing field for the people wearing them. The way sports can, or theatre. (You might say superhero stories are a mix of the two — the team’s ‘costumes’ are ‘uniforms’ and so on.) The imagination works in four colours, not two.
But then again: these changes have already taken place, in Perfectly Safe Hollywood Tentpole Films. And yet the world is as it is. Indeed, you might say these changes are one reason why…
Representation is not justice. And though we kid ourselves otherwise, it is not economic opportunity. (The first 15-year-old black female MIT-undergrad miracle child Iron-Man will, I think, be written by Brian Michael Bendis.) I wonder, would you have cared about that character’s story if she were taking over a generic superhero role in an indie comic, and not a Marvel Property?
Come to think of it, would you have cared about Tony Stark’s?
Anyhow, if you settle for comics about black girls written by Brian Bendis then that’s what you’ll get. But you don’t need to.