The New Marvel?
There has been a lot of recent controversy concerning the “Hollywood” whitewashing of casting for films. The role of Allison Ng being played by Emma Stone has been highlighted multiple times as well as Jake Gyllenhal’s portrayal of the Protagonist of the Prince of Persia. I am sure that these stars played their parts passionately and were reasonably lauded for their acting. The problem however lies in the decision to cast these stars in roles that should have been played by racialized persons. Recently, #starringJohnCho caught some momentum bringing to the forefront Hollywood’s discriminatory stance on casting Asian leads. One example of this Hollywood discrimination was Aaron Sorkin being quoted as saying (paraphrased) “there were no Asian male actors to play the main lead of his movie,” a movie that featured an Asian lead character. However, a lot of commentators and writers have written about this problem and as such, I will try not to retread on treaded ground. Instead, I would like to talk more specifically about Marvels recent efforts in tackling this issue and how they have diversified their characters.
Before beginning, I want to explore why diversification is a good thing for a big content creator/owner like Marvel. In an increasingly globalized world, more and more peoples from different cultures are becoming interconnected. Whether we try to resist it or embrace it, other cultures will come into our lives. Different foods, languages and perspectives. These elements can be extremely useful for the development of new creative content. New ideas, worlds and inspirations can be drawn from these different people and in our liberal west, many people are genuinely interested in learning and experiencing new unique environments and content. Secondly there is huge economic potential for Marvel to expand their audience base to people across the world. Marvel can see an economically beneficial incentive by bringing in more racialized relatable characters to which people on the other side of the world can enjoy. At the end of the day, Marvel is a private for-profit corporation. Financial incentives reign supreme. Although Marvel has given many people a chance to escape reality, Marvel is still driven by what can or may contribute to what will be financially successful for their company. And increasingly, companies are driving to access the East Asian, and especially the Chinese markets.
So what has Marvel done so far? Let’s start with the more “negative” aspects of their recent decisions. The first thing that comes to my mind is the disappointing decision to keep Iron Fist as a Caucasian male in the Netflix series. It is not the fact that a Caucasian male is a kung fu master but the context in which the Caucasian male gains his powers. Assuming the Netflix series will be staying loyal to the original source content, Danny Rand will visit and train with extra-dimensional beings with very Asian (Chinese) sounding names. At the end of his training, he becomes the recipient of the power of the Iron Fist. In a way, his whole story is sort of like Pocahontas where a white man comes into a Native American conflict with settlers and saves the day. That is where I have a problem. Of an entire race of extra-dimensional beings, to whom the power of the Iron Fist belongs, the most worthy member is the man who comes from a foreign land. So why do I have a problem with Iron Fist if many other Marvel comics have similar plot tropes as Iron Fist?
Until very recently, I did not know that Dr. Strange had his origin story rooted in East Asian culture. It was only when a friend of mine introduced me to an article chronicling the possible transformation of Dr. Strange from being a stereotypical East Asian man to a “normal” looking Caucasian man. An article in the CultureWarReporters references Kurt Busiek hinting that Dr. Strange may have started out as an Asian person. In Dr. Strange’s origin story, he finds an ancient Asian mystic who gives him the powers to become the hero we know as Dr. Strange. Sound familiar? His transformation is finely detailed in that article so if anyone wants an interesting read, they should definitely hit that up. So why did I bring up Dr. Strange? Well, before my friend even brought it up, I was content with what Dr. Strange was and I still am. As the embodiment to the arcane world, Dr. Strange was in the most basic form, a wizard. And wizards are pretty much relatable to any culture. It is only when a story reeking of old world appropriation, such as having a Caucasian being the true and only hero of a society that is profoundly identifiable as “Asian”, do my nerves get bothered. In an increasingly diversifying world, where many Asian North Americans are looking for their role model in Hollywood, Marvel had one of the greatest opportunities to create one in the Iron Fist Netflix series and failed. I have always liked Marvel for providing nerds like me an out in a world too serious. And at the same time, I have embraced Marvel’s decision to shape its characters on the social issues that we face in the contemporary world. Failing to reshape one of their most easily “shape-able” characters completely frustrates me. It sucks when you can only count the number of big time Asian American actors/actresses on one hand.
However, at the same time, Marvel deserves a lot of points for creating something entirely unexpected. The new Hulk, or rather, the Bruce Banner replacement is Amadeus Cho, the eighth smartest person in the world and an Asian American. Although the Hulk has played a supporting role for a lot of recent comics, he is also one of the biggest faces of Marvel comics. Especially after the Avenger movies. I am superbly impressed by this decision as we now have an Asian American character who not only fails to fit the Asian stereotypes (Super Smart with Mathematics and Sciences (he is, but he’s only the eighth smartest), good at Kung Fu, wears glasses (probably), and plays a musical instrument) but is in almost every way, just a normal Asian American teen. Now this sounds completely bland, but outside of Glenn from The Walking Dead, there are very few major characters who portray the kind of normal bland life many Asian Americans live. Many of us (us being Asian Americans) are just average functioning people with some lingering elements of our forebearers’ culture (considering close to 6% and 15% of the populations of the U.S. and Canada are Asian-North American, Asian-North Americans are usually a dominant portion of urban populations – urban centres allowing the greatest access to comics and other nerd materials). And this is exactly how Amadeus Cho is portrayed. This follows very closely to Marvel’s attempts to change their heroes to better reflect modern day America, examples being Kamala Khan, the new Ms. Marvel and Miles Morales, the new Spider-Man. And just as Marvel deserves points for the Amadeus Cho Hulk, it deserves points for changing those other characters as well. However, it is not just Marvel changing their characters. The big rival, DC Comics, recently announced the New Superman would be a Chinese teenager from China, named Kenan Kong. Although this Superman may live in an environment where all of DC’s main heroes/heroines are Chinese (a Chinese Batman and Chinese Wonder Woman; say what?), it is still a radical departure from the norm. So does this diminish Marvel’s achievements of creating more racially representative characters in the Marvel universe? I would argue that it does not. In fact, this across the comic’s board shift to more racially representative casts of superheros and superheroines could be a result of Marvel’s initiative, which began a few years ago.
What can Marvel do to better increase their target market scope without antagonizing any audience members? And in the same vein, what can Marvel do to prove that they are ready to enter the new millennium (16 years late is better than never)? Marvel and DC Comics have done many alternate universes in recent years. Even more recently, however, they have begun amalgamating all of their alternate universes, through Battle World or Convergence. In many of their alternate universes, the alternate versions of their superheroes tended to be of a racialized or other minority of our population. When those events concluded, many of us readers were surprised that the alternate versions would continue on in the new universe. I personally thought the alternate versions of the superheroes would just be discontinued in some way or form. This was a very creative way of bringing many of the racialized and minority characters that we know now. Marvel should not do this again, as repetition, though sometimes successful, can be very boring. Instead, perhaps Marvel can bring in new characters who are racialized and/or a member of the minority while retiring older characters with similar powers. In this way, although the new characters are copies of the older characters, they are not. The older characters can serve as mentors to the newer characters as they tackle the problems that face many youth and young adults in our current world (There is something similar that is happening in DC’s new Rebirth comics!). This could be a way for Marvel to symbolically embrace the new and the old worlds of comics by re-inventing the classic characters we know. Marvel can also change characters who exist in “improper” worlds, such as Iron Fist, to better fit their mold. As Iron Fist exists in a mythically east Asian world, it may be more fitting to introduce an Asian character who may be out of touch with his heritage who is the next person to receive the power of Iron Fist. Seeing a character who has conflicting identities in this world would reflect many of the problems that youth face in the present. Furthermore, with increased immigration from other countries, such a character would be significantly relatable to new immigrants as well as second or third generation North Americans.
I am optimistic that Marvel will continue following its trend of introducing more racialized and minority characters that are more reflective of the modernizing world we live in. Not only would this be beneficial to Marvel as a profit driven company, but this can raise the hopes of not only the racialized/minority audience members of Marvel’s products, but this could potentially reflect on the positivity of the new generation of young comic readers. And remember, John Cho can always star as the male lead. #starringjohncho