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The overwhelming whiteness of superhero movies

What do Iron Man, the Hulk, and Captain America all have in common?


Feliks Garcia

Internet Culture

Posted on Apr 24, 2015   Updated on May 28, 2021, 11:55 pm CDT

Next week, fanboys and fangirls will be champing at the bit next week to get a seat for Avengers: Age of Ultron, which hits theaters May 1. I’m definitely excited to experience the fun and sass of Joss Whedon’s return to the Marvel Universe. Whedon’s movies have everything you could want in a Hollywood blockbuster: action, suspense, laughs, and the destruction of a major metropolitan area. Even the worst Marvel movies—which, for my money, are the Thor films—are still pretty entertaining, or at least a great ride.

For all the movies’ merits, however, it’s impossible to ignore the overwhelming white maleness of the Marvel Universe—and every other superhero movie, for that matter. The leading characters in literally every Marvel film are, you guessed it, white men: Iron Man. White. Captain America. White. Thor. White. Most of the X-Men. White. Hulk. Green, but still, he’s a white dude. Don’t front like green counts.

Sure, you have Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson), War Machine (Don Cheadle), Falcon (Anthony Mackie), as well as Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson), Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow), and Peggy Carter (Hayley Atwell), but their storylines all function in service of the leading (white male) characters. Nick Fury functions more as an expository character, at best, and a plot device that links the Marvel movies.

Hollywood superhero stories largely ignore the role of the outsider in the storyline and how these outsider stories align with overall struggles people of color face in the U.S.

Their storylines all function in service of the leading (white male) characters. 

In a conversation with Vulture’s Abraham Riesman this week, the Atlantic’s Ta-Nehisi Coates addressed how he identified largely with the outsider elements of Marvel characters in the comics as a child. “[You] pick up X-Men, right, and you see all these weirdos and freaks, you know? And you think, Oh, man, that kind of rings true for me. When I was a kid, I didn’t even think of Peter Parker as white.” Peter Parker, the teenage photographer who moonlighted as Spider-Man, was not defined explicitly by his race, Coates explains. Spider-Man, for all intents and purposes, could have been black under the mask.

Tell that to the hordes of pitchfork-wielding fanboys who threw vitriolic shit fits over the prospect of Community’s Donald Glover even auditioning for the role in 2010. The very prospect of a traditionally white character being black was enough to inspire racist rage in the comments sections. Then they cast Andrew Garfield as the next Spider-Man, the nerds quieted down, and those movies sucked.

Sony’s doubling down on yet another reboot, and once more, they’ve short-listed five “babyfaced white boys” to tell Spidey’s origin story…again.

Without the context of the struggles that people of color have faced not just in the U.S., but globally, many superhero and sci-fi stories would lack richness. Junot Diaz, Pulitzer Prize-winning author of The Brief and Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, explained this idea at length on the Fan Bros podcast in 2013:

Look, without our stories, without the true nature and reality of who we are as People of Color, nothing about fanboy or fangirl culture would make sense. What I mean by that is: if it wasn’t for race, X-Men doesn’t make sense. If it wasn’t for the history of breeding human beings in the New World through chattel slavery, Dune doesn’t make sense. If it wasn’t for the history of colonialism and imperialism, Star Wars doesn’t make sense. If it wasn’t for the extermination of so many Indigenous First Nations, most of what we call science fiction’s contact stories doesn’t make sense. Without us as the secret sauce, none of this works, and it is about time that we understood that we are the Force that holds the Star Wars universe together.

The invisibility of characters of color in superhero movies is indicative of a problem that goes beyond the problem; instead, it lies in the hands of Hollywood studios. As I’ve previously written for the Daily Dot, people of color make up the majority of the movie-viewing audience in the United States, and the argument that casting actors of color isn’t marketable no longer holds water. It never did, but now that Furious 7 is in the “Billion Dollar Club,” that myth has finally died a violent death.

Omitting people from color from these colossal movies where only white people can save the world suggests that they have little value in the world, little merit besides supporting the status quo, and no agency outside of this context. To deny that agency and to privilege whiteness in film is the very essence of white supremacy. When Hollywood continues to tell the story of the white savior beyond the context of the superhero film, perpetuating secondary—and even subservient—portrayals of people of color, their humanity is devalued, just as it has been throughout American history.

Hollywood superhero stories largely ignore the role of the outsider in the storyline.

The comics themselves have been better at making room for a diverse cast of characters. For instance, the 1980s X-Men, Ta-Nehisi Coates describes, “had a black woman—not just a black woman, a woman who was born in Harlem, a woman who was African-American and whose mother was Kenyan—leading their most popular title. And then when she lost her powers, she was still kicking ass. Like she still had enough to whip Cyclops’s ass.” At this point, Hollywood would never consider recentering the X-Men around Storm, letting Wolverine be the de facto lead instead. Can you guess what race he is?

But Avengers will still be fun, there’s no doubt about that. It’s just going to take a major shift of power in Hollywood to actually get a team of superheroes that looks like the rest of us. Of course, by then, will we even want to see another superhero movie?

Feliks Garcia is a writer, powerlifter, and foster of homeless cats. He earned his MA in Media Studies from the University of Texas at Austin and previously edited CAP Magazine.

Screengrab via Marvel/YouTube

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*First Published: Apr 24, 2015, 3:00 pm CDT