“Missing the Point: Race in the Cinematic Universe of Marvel Comics”

by

Le’Trice “The Black Lady Nerd” Donaldson

 

A few years ago while a graduate student at the University of Memphis, two white male graduate students held a conversation in our office and hypothesized that what the world needed was an alien race to invade so humans can unite against them and possibly enslave them. They quipped that it would be the perfect way to end racism in the world according to them because all people would have a common enemy in the invading alien race. A week or so later, the graduate students brought in a speaker from the school’s EEOC department and the two students get reprimanded by the department chair. If one were to examine the plots of several of most popular comic book-based blockbuster films over the past few years, this was the plot of these movies. The idea that the only common cause to unite all humans would be based in fear and hatred is an incredibly telling commentary on our society, yet this is the common trope used by these films.

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Marvel comics have dominated the genre for the last twenty-five years. Their comic books are so successful and they have launched two of the highest grossing film franchises of all time with the X-Men film universe and the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Therefore, it is not a great shock that with the great proliferation of these comic book films and television shows; they instigate a new and tremendous influence on the world around us, yet the writers and artists gain their plotlines from the political milieu they experience. The average film audience has no idea that these films are born out of a trailblazing tradition of comic books meant to parallel our society and provide a magnified lens of the racism, oppression, and discrimination that permeates throughout our society. The sociopolitical activism of the mutant leaders both hero and villain represent a dynamic that needs to be examined on such a powerful platform of these comic book cinematic adaptations. Chris Claremont, writer of the Uncanny X-Men rightly noted, “The X-Men are hated, feared, and despised collectively by humanity for no other reason than they are mutants. So what we have here, intended or not, is a book that is about racism, bigotry, and prejudice.” [1]

 

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The Marvel Cinematic Universe and the X-Men Universe present the world where the vast majority of the heroes are white, heterosexual, and cisgender men. The villains are typically alien/mutant other who cannot conform and want to destroy humanity. nuance or complexities to their cause. The X-Men comic first debuted on September 1, 1963. Jack Kirby and Stan Lee’s agenda was to present two polarizing figures that presented a very clear villain and a distinct hero. The comic debuted at a time in American history where oppressed peoples throughout the country were standing up challenging racism and discrimination. Hence, the disappointment in the X-Men film franchise for glaringly glossing over and ignoring the history of the comic. The majority of the film’s producers do not explore the dangers of racism and oppression over a minority group. Bryan Singer, director of several X-Men films and Stan Lee assert in countless interviews that Professor Charles Xavier (AKA Professor X) and Erik Lehnsherr (AKA Magneto) are modeled after Civil Rights leaders Dr. Martin Luther King and Malcolm X. “Malcolm X is Magneto and Professor X is Dr. King! And Black people were mutants”[2] Why is it so important for the creators, directors and even actors of these films to invoke these two men? Watching these X-Men films one would never know that mutants were born out of a revolutionary movement against oppression meant to symbolize for the gaze of the masses,  African American people. The X-Men films are watered down, white washed storylines and their interpretations of King and Malcolm are one-dimensional simplified stereotypes. They are presented within a cinematic universe that does not allow for the adaptability of disenfranchised oppressed minority groups, which the original comic book characters were designed for.

 

malcolmmagnetoArt by John Jennings

 

The most famous X-Men, Wolverine, can be characterized as a celebration of white violent masculinity.[3] Wolverine played by Hugh Jackman is a white, heterosexual loner with a tortured soul who only wants to live in peace. He lives by a simple code of right and wrong and will kill anyone who violates this code. He is very much a John Wayne cowboy type figure.

 

The plots of the X-Men films essentially are centered on the dichotomous relationship of Professor X played by Patrick Stewart/James McAvoy and Magneto played by Sir Ian McKellan/Michael Fassbender. In the mind of the white writers and actors starting from the Martin/Malcolm framework allows audiences to conceive that the message of Magneto/Malcolm the villain and Xavier/Martin the hero translates to how the two leaders operated in reality. Magneto becomes a mutant terrorist, who will do whatever it takes to preserve a future for all mutants so they can live safely without fear of violence from humanity. In the films, there is no real explanation behind Magneto’s motives of violence. The hero of the X-Men films is always the Professor X and his conformist assimilationist ideology, which has the X-Men always sacrificing everything to protect humans and prevent a race war between humans and mutants and portraying all mutants opposed to Professor X as evil.

 

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The characters in the Marvel Cinematic Universe do not fair any better than the X-Men. Captain America (AKA Steve Rogers) when he first appeared in March 1941 represented the ultimate American patriot. He volunteered to be experimented on to become a super soldier and does everything for his country. His origin did not change much during the film adaptation. Yet, Captain America progressed in the comics as the world changed around him. At times, Rogers is disillusioned with American military and foreign policy. In the comic, Sam Wilson (AKA Falcon) appears as the first African American superhero without the racial reminder “Black” in his name in 1969 in Captain America issue #117. Wilson’s role initially was to help Rogers with his struggles and disappointment with the policies of the American government toward powered individuals by being his partner and helping him fight crime. The Captain America films have Sam Wilson/Anthony Mackie as a one-dimensional sidekick that follows his white hero Captain America/Chris Evans, all over the world. Captain America: Civil War film released this summer has (and has grossed over one billion dollars worldwide). It centers on a dispute between Iron Man (AKA Tony Stark)/Robert Downey Jr. and his team against Rogers and his team because of Team Rogers refusal to register, sign the “Sokovia Accords.” The accords are a law issued under the authority of the United Nations requiring individuals with abilities and superhero technology to register, comply, and act only when ordered to by the UN. The point of the Marvel Comics crossover series Captain America: Civil War storyline in the comics demonstrated the real consequences and dangers of losing one’s civil liberties and freedoms reflecting laws similar to the Patriot Act. However, none of this is explored in the film. Instead, the audience is subjected to jokes, action sequences, and witty banter about a subject matter that warrants a much more nuanced handling of the material.

 

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The question, I am posing is why? Why would films based on content meant expose people to issues of anti-racism, marginalization, and activism fail so completely in their adaptations? Lawrence Baron in “X-Men as J-Men: The Jewish Subtext of a Comic Book Movie,” argues that it is the goal of the creators to teach compliance and assimilation, “the cartoonist and film director of X-Men are all Jewish Americans who sought acceptance and social mobility through assimilation.”[4] Stan Lee and Jack Kirby both changed their names from their birth names Stanley Lieber and Jacob Kurtzberg. Xavier’s dreams (King’s Dream), in the films, are constantly portrayed in very black and white terms. The films do not allow for gray areas. To achieve Professor X’s dream, mutants must assimilate, comply, and cooperate with same people who seek to oppress them. In the MCU, all those who oppose federal authority become fugitives and are arrested, sending the message that either compliance or else.

cyclops-vs-avengers

As the counter arguments to the mutant registration acts and “Sokovia Accords” are held by some of the most popular or interesting characters, the readers of these comics are allowed to empathize with these alternative sociopolitical opinions, and hopefully make connections with different types of oppression and marginalization, which actually exists in societies around the world. These issues represent an opportunity for films to both entertain and teach. The activism and struggle used in the comics to fight against mutant registration acts and the Sokovia accords represent an opportunity for these films to highlight the different types of oppression and marginalization, which exists in societies around the world. The failure of the producers of these franchises to take advantage of abundance sociopolitical storylines proliferated throughout these comics. Further, exacerbates the failure of these franchises to both their white male and non-white male fans by neglecting to examine holistically the social and gender issues like they do in the comics. Let’s hope in the future they decide to not characterize their audience as young white men who think the best way to unite humanity is through oppression and violence. As a lifelong comic book and movie fan, I can only hope they prove me wrong.

 

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[1] Demby, Gene. “Who gets to be a superhero? Race and Identity in Comics.” Npr.com

http://www.npr.org/sections/codeswitch/2014/01/11/261449394/who-gets-to-be-a-superhero-race-and-identity-in-comics (Accessed on October 30, 2016)

 

[2] Clark, Djeli Phenderson. “On Malcolm, Martin and that X-Men Analogy thing.” Pdjeliclark.wordpress.com

https://pdjeliclark.wordpress.com/2015/02/21/on-malcolm-martin-and-that-x-men-analogy-thing/ (Accessed on October 30, 2016)

 

[3] Neil Shyminsky, “Mutant Readers, Reading Mutants: Appropriation, Assimilation and the X-Men,” International Journal of Comic Art Vol. 8, No. 2 (Fall 2006), 389.

[4] Ibid: 393.

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