The Doctor Strange controversy — combined with the push to cast an Asian American actor as the title character Danny Rand aka Iron Fist — has been buzzing for the last couple months. With the release of the first official trailer for Doctor Strange, Marvel’s next would-be blockbuster movie after Captain America: Civil War, the controversy has reached an all time high. So much so that a Marvel spokesperson gave this statement to Mashable regarding the casting of Tilda Swinton as The Ancient One in Doctor Strange:
Marvel has a very strong record of diversity in its casting of films and regularly departs from stereotypes and source material to bring its MCU to life. The Ancient One is a title that is not exclusively held by any one character, but rather a moniker passed down through time, and in this particular film the embodiment is Celtic. We are very proud to have the enormously talented Tilda Swinton portray this unique and complex character alongside our richly diverse cast.
Is this statement true though? Has Marvel Studios really pushed diversity in their movies? Have they increased the visibility of marginalized peoples in their film franchise or television properties? Has Marvel Studios subverted stereotypes? Enough to supposedly excuse recent controversies surrounding Doctor Strange and Iron Fist?
To be sure, we have to take a deeper look into the overall universe of the MCU. From all the phases of movies, to the ABC and Netflix television shows. We have to look into the MCU, bit by bit, and break everything down to to the sum of its parts. Marvel Studios says the films have a strong history of diversity, that the MCU has a “richly diverse cast” in the film franchises. But do the movies truly? Today, we’ll begin with Phase One of the MCU, which kickstarted the juggernaut franchise into what it is today.
The official Marvel Cinematic Universe — in that, movies owned by Marvel Studios, and later Disney, not including anything owned by 20th Century FOX, Sony, Columbia, New Line Cinema, Artisian Entertainment, or Universal Studios — began in 2008 with the release of Iron Man and The Incredible Hulk.
Iron Man starred Robert Downey Jr., Terrence Howard, Jeff Bridges, Gwyneth Paltrow, and Leslie Bibb in leading roles. The other top billed cast included Shaun Toub, Faran Tahir, Clark Gregg, Bill Smitrovich, Sayed Badreya, Paul Bettany, Jon Favreau, Peter Billingsley, and Tim Guinee. Out of a cast of fourteen actors, Howard, Toub, Tahir, and Badreya are the only actors of color who have major speaking roles.
Terrence Howard played James “Rhodey” Rhodes, Tony Stark’s best friend, a pilot in the US Airforce, and an aerospace engineer. Shaun Toub played Yinsen, the kindly captive that aids in Tony’s escape from their mutual captors. Yinsin dies after helping Tony escape, and his death is used as further motivation for Tony to become Iron Man. Tahir and Badreya both played terrorists who capture and torture Tony and Yinsin.
The reason to bring in how these four men — the only four men of color in the entire film with any sort of major speaking role — are portrayed in the narrative is to address how the MCU films have “departed” from stereotypes, or rather, haven’t. Iron Man is still one of Marvel Studios’ highest grossing movies to date. Iron Man, it can be argued, is the reason the MCU exists. The success of Iron Man, and by extension Tony Stark, was key in building the overall success of the MCU. It is one of the staples of Marvel’s cinematic universe, and in the film only one of the four characters of color comes out well.
Yinsin is martyred, playing into the “good person of color” rhetoric as he is the only Middle Eastern character (specifically Iranian) portrayed in a positive manner. One that is climaxed by his willing sacrifice to save the white hero of Tony Stark. The other Middle Eastern characters, Raza (played by Pakistani American actor Tahir) and Abu Bakaar (played by Egyptian American actor Badreya) are terrorists. The other Middle Eastern characters in Iron Man are either victims or terrorists meant to be saved or stopped by Iron Man.
Rhodey is the only character of color in the film that is positively portrayed and a hero in his own right. While he doesn’t don his own superhero suit in the film, he’s still portrayed as a competent and well respected Air Force officer and trusted friend of Tony. Rhodey is portrayed as a heroic figure in Tony’s own life, and a deeply loyal friend. The women in the film — of which there are only two and who both are white — have some struggles in their specific storylines, however.
Specifically the character of Christine Everhart, who is positioned in the narrative to be an personal antagonist of both Tony and Pepper. Though her part is small, her role embodies a few troubling tropes and negative stereotypes about women.
Christine openly challenges Tony Stark’s military and business practices as a journalist before falling into bed with him. This would be fine since it’s clearly a consensual encounter, but then we met Pepper Potts. While Christine is seen wearing nothing but a shirt that’s mostly open buttoned, just covering enough of her underwear, Pepper is in a sensible business suit and tied back hair. They are visual foils of each other that’s emphasized further by the following dialogue:
The “trash” Pepper is referring to is Christine. An obvious subtle dig at her supposed promiscuity. The conversation is designed to showcase that Christine is “trash” while Pepper is the good woman in Tony’s life. She’s respectable, in both her dress, mannerisms, and professionalism, while Christine is not. Pepper judges Tony for his outlandish behavior, but she never outright slutshames him for sleeping with women as she does with Christine.
Tony also belittles Christine throughout the rest of the film. Christine is made to be a devious, sexy vixen compared to the classy, and business minded Pepper. She embodies various negative tropes such as: Fanservice Extra and Hot Scoop. Both tropes reduce Christine to a sexual object, while other tropes she embodies are Romantic False Lead, since she’s positioned as a “bad girl” to Pepper’s “good girl.”
Christine in Iron Man isn’t positioned to be a woman who the audience is made to see as deserving of respect. This is further emphasized whenever she interacts with Pepper or Tony, which isn’t often. Each time in the film, they further disrespect her. This only makes her role that much more troubling.
With only two women, Christine’s role proves Iron Man as a film relied on some frustrating sexist stereotypes to emphasize how Pepper was a strong and capable female character. Ironic, considering Christine is the one to tell Tony about his weapons being sold without his permission, but since her main characterization in the film is to be seen as a catty, trashy reporter with no ethics, this noteworthy scene is often overlooked in favor of showcasing her as a one-dimensional antagonist. There is nothing wrong with Christine being developed as an amoral journalist, female characters can be antagonists and well done antagonists at that. Christine isn’t either. She’s not an interesting amoral journalist, Christine is the “trash” Pepper has to take out after a night with Tony.
Pepper Potts, at least, is shown to be vital to the plot and has a strong relationship with Tony. She’s showcased to be more than a simple assistant, but rather a good friend and confidant of Tony’s. Pepper also aids in defeating the final villain in the climax of the film. Iron Man also resists temptation by giving into Tony and Pepper entering a romantic relationship before either are truly ready.
That same year, The Incredible Hulk was also released. Starring Edward Norton, Liv Tyler, Tim Roth, William Hurt, Tim Blake Nelson, Ty Burrell, Christina Cabot, Peter Mensah, Lou Ferrigno, Paul Soles, Débora Nascimento, Greg Bryk, and Chris Owens as the top billed cast. That’s thirteen main cast members with varying levels of importance within the film.
Obviously the leads of the film are Norton, Tyler, Roth, and Hurt who play Bruce Banner, Betty Ross, Emil Blonsky/Abomination, and General ‘Thunderbolt’ Ross, respectively. They take charge of the story, and have a majority of the screen time in the film. Unlike Iron Man, which had Rhodey playing a prominent role, The Incredible Hulk didn’t have one main character of color in the film who played a major leading role. In fact, the only actors of color in the entire film are Peter Mensah (Ghanaian-British) and Debora Nascimento (Brazilian) who play the small roles of General Joe Greller and Martina. Two actors of color, out of a cast of thirteen, and they don’t even play any sort of major role in the film.
Martina is played up as a sexy Latina stereotype, down to needing to be saved by Bruce from being sexually assaulted by a group of Latino men. Later, when Bruce is on the run he finds himself in her apartment where he stumbles upon her half dressed. Joe Greller’s main role is bringing in the main antagonist, Emil Blonsky.
After The Incredible Hulk, Phase One of the Marvel Cinematic Universe continued with Iron Man 2 in 2010. The top billed cast included fourteen actors. Of those fourteen, only one is an actor of color, the recast James Rhodes, this time played by Don Cheadle.
Rhodey gets the War Machine suit this movie and a piece of the superhero action that drives a majority of the plot. His friendship with Tony is mildly tested as Tony deals with his own interpersonal issues. Rhodey grows in Iron Man 2, becoming both a partner to Tony, yet also separate from him as well. He steals an Iron Man suit, and remodels it to better fit his purpose as an Air Force officer. He provides a contrast to Tony’s anti-government stance and even proves to be more heroic than Tony at one point. Similarly, Pepper also grows, gaining a new position in her life much in the same way Rhodey does. She becomes CEO of Stark Industries and proves to be a very savvy businesswoman. Pepper appears to excel at her position as CEO, and even puts her foot down in the face of Tony’s behavior removing herself from him until he can improve upon his damaging antics.
Christine Everhart, however, doesn’t fare as well as Pepper or Rhodey. One of the only three women in the film her role is small in Iron Man 2 can be summed up in this short exchange between Justin Hammer, Tony, and Pepper:
That’s it. That’s the extent of Christine’s role in Iron Man 2. To be further insulted, and disrespected in an especially sexist manner. No one shamed Tony for sleeping with her, but Christine for two movies now, has been shamed for sleeping with him. Going as far as to discredit her position as a journalist.
Which brings us to the other women in the film. Iron Man 2 features the debut of Scarlett Johansson as Natasha Romanoff, aka the Black Widow. While the interaction between Natasha and Pepper is nice, viewers didn’t get to see them speaking with each other alone. Pepper and Natasha apparently work well with each other, but the film doesn’t dedicate much time to developing that working relationship. Spending more time showcasing Natasha as a femme fatale. From shots that focus on her body, to being introduced by Tony zooming in on her in her underwear.
When Happy Hogan makes a series of sexist comments about Natasha’s workout routine then attempts to engage her in a boxing fight, Natasha reflexively takes him down. Tony’s reaction is to quip “I want one.” The audience is supposed to laugh, because Tony is funny, and Pepper snarks back with a resolute “No.” The narrative doesn’t question Tony speaking of Natasha as an object, just as the narrative also positions Happy sneaking peaks at Natasha as she changes clothes in yet another comedic gag. Perhaps these are small nitpicks, or perhaps they are narrative devices that contribute to the larger problem of media reducing women as sexual objects. Especially when we take into consideration how various promotional posters displayed Natasha in various subtly provocative poses.
This was Natasha’s — arguably Marvel Studios’ biggest female character — introductory film appearance, and upon meeting her the audience is graced with various photos of her in a state of undress for no reason other than for Tony to ogle her. This is supposedly justified because Natasha uses her sexuality to manipulate men, but it occurs again in situations that aren’t manipulative, such as Happy sneaking glances at her changing in his car. Natasha in Iron Man 2 embodies a lot of the Action Girl and Femme Fatale traits. She can fight, so the narrative of the film feels justified in continuously positioning her in sexual ways.
Then there’s Justin Hammer who plays dangerous close to being an evil gay stereotype. Justin Hammer is showcased to be less of a man than Tony in various ways. Visually, he’s slimmer, and more flamboyant in his speech and movements. He’s clumsy, and though Justin states he’s intelligent, he very clearly lacks the same intellect as Tony Stark. In the one-shot, All Hail the King (released after Iron Man 3), Justin is seen with another male prisoner who he calls “babe.”
Justin’s stereotypical flamboyance is used to emphasize Tony’s own masculinity, and desirability. Justin is weaker than Tony in various ways, and his embodiment of gay male stereotypes are only used to further drive that point home to the audience.
After Iron Man 2 came Thor in 2011, which lists fourteen top billed actors in its cast. Out of those fourteen, two are people of color and four are women. Hogun, played by Tadanobu Asano, and Heimdall, played by Idris Elba, aren’t leading characters, but they do play an active part of the plot. Especially Elba, who is able to bring to life a strong, resolute character in Heimdall who was originally white in the comics. Hogun gets less to do, but no less than the other Warriors Three.
Jane Foster, Sif, Frigga, and Darcy all have varying levels of importance and screen time, but their existence isn’t bogged down too much by the more overt sexism that existed in the two previous Iron Man movies, nor are they marginalized (and later forgotten) as Betty Ross was. The character with the most troubling role is Frigga, who garners less recognition as a parental figure than her husband Odin and exists mainly to cheer up her sons or gaze lovingly at her comatose husband. That’s still a step up, however, from the utterly absent Maria Stark who never even warrants a mention when the topic of Tony’s parents arises in Iron Man 2.
Thor makes out better than both Iron Man movies and Hulk, which in a way, is a low bar to set. Thor features four women, but all of them are white and the cast is still majority white with Thor, Loki, Odin, and Jane as the stars of the narrative. It’s a step up from previous Phase One films, but doesn’t necessarily push diversity boundaries.
The next Marvel movie is Captain America: The First Avenger which lists fifteen top billed cast members. Three of those cast members are people of color, one is a woman. Nick Fury, Gabe Jones, and Jim Morita are the only named characters of color in the film with a speaking role. Unfortunately, their speaking roles are extremely short and near minuscule.
Jim and Gabe’s only scenes of note are when Steve Rogers breaks them out of a HYDRA base to rescue James “Bucky” Barnes. Jim has a line where he corrects Timothy “Dum Dum” Dugan (played by white actor Neal McDonough) that yes, he is American, in fact Jim was from Fresno. It’s a good moment that showcases how Asian Americans were a part of the war effort during this time period. Similarly, this is why the inclusion of Gabe Jones is also important.
Gabe Jones has one noteworthy scene where he hijacks a HYDRA tank, and shows off his linguistic skills. It is nice, to see that Captain America’s team of Howling Commandos have two men of color in their ranks. Especially when segregation in the military during the time was still a huge problem. The film never even attempts to touch upon that subject, and the audience isn’t meant to want it too. Since Marvel movies are, at their core, fun action flicks and not emotionally introspective films on the lives of superheroes. The formula works, and at face value, it is nice to see two men of color being a part of a superhero team fighting against a Nazi organization.
Which is why it’s a shame those are the only scenes we see with Jim or Gabe for the rest of the film. Dum Dum and James (not Bucky, this James is French), don’t play a large role either, but that hardly puts things in balance. Not when Howard, Bucky, Peggy, Colonel Chester Phillips, and Steve play such huge roles in the plot. With a cast of fifteen people, some white characters are going to play smaller roles, but only because there are plenty of other white characters who play larger ones.
Nick Fury only shows up for a handful of minutes at the end of the film which serves more as an introduction to The Avengers. Captain America also never features any women of color, even in background roles. Peggy plays the only woman of note in the film, the other is a nameless military secretary (played by a pre-Game of Thrones Natalie Dormer) who kisses Steve and makes Peggy jealous. Aside from her, there are the various chorus girls, the women who fawn over Howard Stark (while Maria Stark remains continuously absent), and the two women who Bucky takes out on a date.
If the question of the time period comes up, the film acknowledges there were soldiers of color within the army during WWII — two are members of The Howling Commandos. The film just doesn’t deem them important enough to emphasize them or showcase them in any sort of larger role. Them or women.
Peggy is positioned as the exceptional woman, the only one worthy of fighting with the men, and is alone in a sea of them. While the other women gush over newly muscled Steve Rogers or dance in a chorus line. Peggy is a great character, she simply shouldn’t be the only great female character in the film.
The final film in Phase One of the Marvel Cinematic Universe is The Avengers. The juggernaut film that brought all their previous heroes together in one huge cinematic event. The Avengers lists fourteen top billed actors. One is a person of color, three are women. There, once again, are no women of color in the film at all.
Nick Fury plays the one character of color in the entire film. Though his part is important, bringing together the Avengers, and finally getting a chance to shine as S.H.I.E.L.D.’s director. Maria Hill plays his right-hand, Natasha pushes forward most of the movie’s plot, and Pepper has a small scene with Tony.
Natasha pushes most of the plot, but also gets called the equivalent of a sexist slur by Loki. She is, however, the one who physically brings all the Avengers in one place and collects them for Fury. She has a sideplot involving rescuing Clint Barton, and is the one to deliver the final blow in stopping the alien invasion. Her role in Avengers isn’t without flaws, but Natasha is an active character in the narrative. Without her, the overall story in Avengers doesn’t work.
However, without the inclusion of any women of color — even playing background speaking roles — The Avengers doesn’t push much in regards of intersectional feminism. Pepper’s overall role is a singular scene that encourages Tony to consider the Avengers initiative. Maria gets to play a no-nonsense and capable second-hand to Nick who isn’t belittled for her working attitude nor sexualized by the narrative or other characters. Nick Fury does showcase thought as a leader, and his connections to Agent Coulson and Maria, while brief, are given emotional weight. Avengers is also the first time the audience was able to see Nick as the Director of S.H.I.E.L.D. and get a taste of the power he welds as Director. However, Nick Fury is the only character of color, and though it’s a good role it is the only non-white character in the film which is dominated by white characters.
There were more aliens in The Avengers than there were people of color or women.
To recap, over the course of five years between 2008 and 2012, Marvel Studios released six movies. Of those six movies, there was only one woman of color, Martina, and she was an unimportant, forgettable character with a handful of lines who played into harmful stereotypes about Latinx women.
In total, there’s been 70 top-billed white actors that have starred in a Marvel Studios film during Phase One. If we remove repeated appearances that number drops to 61. There have been a total of fifteen top billed female actresses in Phase One of the MCU (and only one of them was not a white woman). If we remove repeated appearances the number drops to twelve. The total number of appearances by characters of color is thirteen. If we remove repeated appearances the number drops to ten.
That’s Phase One of the MCU. The statistics become more troubling when you take into account that four out of the ten characters of color seen in Phase One have died. If that was taken into account, the total number of characters of color in the MCU’s Phase One would drop down to a sad six people total. While it can be noted that some white characters have died in the films as well, the amount is a handful at best. A drop in the bucket of 61 white characters total. Even then, white characters have a higher chance of re-appearing across the films — Pepper, Coulson, Loki, and Natasha are all white characters to have crossed over into other films. During Phase One, Nick Fury is the only character of color to appear in more than one MCU film.
Overall, Phase One of the MCU film franchise doesn’t prove itself to be a very diverse franchise overall. A majority of the top billed cast members over the course of six films have been white actors. With only a handful of actors of color included, and only one woman of color. The only character of color that could be considered a lead is Nick Fury. All the women, save Martina, have been white. While sexist and homophobic tropes have inhabited parts of the writing in various Phase One’s films. Phase One had it’s positive moments representation wise, but it certainly could have been much better and sets a rather lowbar for the Marvel Cinematic Universe.
But this is merely Phase One of the MCU, and I want to know if it gets better afterwards. What’s Phase Two like? The ABC shows Agent Carter and Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.? What about the Netflix shows? While Marvel’s spokesperson only talked about the films in regards to diversity, I want to know about the entirety of the MCU.
Phase One is down, onto Phase Two.