Marvel and DC – the masterminds behind multiple billion-dollar superhero franchises – have already offered up one blockbuster a piece this year. Marvel’s Logan grossed $565 million and DC’s The Lego Batman Movie a still impressive $292 million. If ticket sales are anything to go by it would seem than these powerhouses have cracked the code for the perfect superhero film. But despite growing budgets and rocketing profits, the most successful superhero films of recent years have also been some of the most criticised and poorly received – last year’s Batman V. Superman has a Rotten Tomatoes rating of just 27% despite grossing over $800 million dollars.
Uninspired plots and shallow characters are hardly original superhero criticisms, but recent years have witnessed such an overwhelming surge in the number of superhero remakes and sequels that plots are being recycled and reused with only the laziest attempts to introduce originality and suspense. And as more and more superheroes are crammed into one film, the chance for each to have their own arc with any depth becomes more and more unrealistic.
But the most popular criticisms of superhero films of late reflects the growing (and now fashionable) awareness of the larger problem of diversity and representation in the film industry. Superhero franchises are no exception to this lack of diversity, instead they illuminate it more clearly than any other genre. Of the 12 Marvel Universe, 10 X-Men, 5 Spiderman, and 2 Guardians of the Galaxy films none are led by a woman, a person of colour, or an LGBT character. Instead the films are dominated by a revolving door of white men who relegate all other genders, colours and sexual orientations to secondary characters without any depth or stories of their own.
Marvel’s Black Widow is the only female Avenger so far and is one of only two Avengers not to have their own stand-alone film (the other being Hawkeye who appears much less frequently than Black Widow who is featured in more Avengers films than any of the other Avengers). Stuck in the background Black Widow has been allowed only the briefest opportunities at character development, and a mixture of poor writing and fluctuating plot lines have only worsened her treatment and limited her ability to attain any depth or independence.
This is at least partly the fault of the reflected lack of diversity in the production teams on big budget superhero films. It has so far been the case that when you put a predominantly white male production team together the story they tell is in turn dominated by white masculinity. Alternatively, a more diverse team reflects the diversity of experiences and cultures in their storytelling and characters and thus their casting.
Profitability is also a major factor in casting white male leads and thus white male production teams. But the myth that action films created and led by women and people of colour don’t appeal to wide audiences, or are not as profitable as those led by white men, has been disproved time and time again – The Hunger Games franchise grossed $2.9 billion dollars, Rogue One: A Star Wars Story grossed over $670 million dollars, and Suicide Squad grossed over $700 million dollars worldwide.
While Suicide Squad received a multitude of criticisms for the poorly executed plot, messy editing, and controversial Joker/Harley Quinn relationship which romanticises a very abusive relationship, it was praised for the diversity of its cast which represented a variety of social and cultural groups and was more representative than any preceding superhero squad.
DC’s next multi-superhero film, Justice League, isn’t shaping up to be quite as diverse as Suicide Squad but it will include Wonder Woman who has been given her own stand-alone film which premieres this June. The film is also directed by a female, and unlike Rogue One where the female who led the film was also the only female in a lead role, Wonder Woman looks to have a promising gender balance. Marvel’s entry in the equality comparisons will be next year’s much anticipated Black Panther film. Not only will it be the first Marvel film led and directed by a black male, it features a cast and production team that are diverse in terms of both race and gender.
But the most optimistic superhero film of the year is undeniably, if somewhat surprisingly, Power Rangers. The updated power rangers are the most diverse superhero squad representing male and female; black and white; Indian, Mexican, American, Australian and Chinese; and introducing the first LGBT superhero and the first autistic superhero. Even more satisfying is that the characters are more than just representations or even worse stereotypes. The female rangers are both female and superheroes, without having to take on an exaggerated or sexualised image of traditional femininity or to completely reject femininity. Equally black power ranger Billy is given depth, background, and plot agency which prevent his role as the films comedic genius from reducing him to the comedy black guy.
Admittedly Power Rangers is directed towards a younger audience, and it has its fair share of teen drama with just the occasional cause to cringe, but the film is more than a cliché encouragement to celebrate our differences. It is an encouragement to be empowered by individuality and not use it as an excuse to doubt or limit ourselves. The films plot is somewhat simplistic and the final victory is assumed from the beginning, but Power Rangers is also the perfect example of strengthening a film through diverse representation. The individual back stories and struggles give the film enough depth to stand on its own, and provide the film with its own individuality and originality. Even more important is the range of role models which the film offers. For the first time an entire generation of children will be able to see themselves in the superheroes they admire.
This is the central crux of the argument for diverse film making; that all people deserve their stories to be told, and to see the stories of people like themselves and to be inspired by the stories that they relate to. Superhero film’s ability to do just that demands that they represent the whole of their audiences rather than just one component of their demographic. If superhero films can redeem themselves and evolve with audience expectations their success may long continue, but if they become outdated, unrepresentative and unable to inspire they fail in the purpose upon which their entertainment value depends. 2017 looks optimistic for its superheroes but there is still a long way to go yet.