The Current Crop of Superheroes Is Different Than the Last, but Is It Enough?
They've given female characters larger and more complex roles. It’s as if superhero stories have taken a page from their own characters: Adapt or die.
After what feels like an eternity, superhero movies have begun to evolve. In the wake of the ’90s giving us films defined by quirky sensationalism (here’s looking at you, Batman Forever), the 2000s went on to deliver anti-heroes and tortured protagonists thanks to The Dark Knight and various Spider-Men. (Pick a Spider-Man, any Spider-Man—there are no fewer than 42.)
But the 2010s have been different. Superhero stories have consistently centred around Big Tough Men saving damsels in distress. Sure, sometimes the damsels actually help with the saving—but if they do, they do it despite having an interior life that isn’t exactly rich. Now, though, Wonder Woman, Black Panther, Avengers: Infinity War and the upcoming Ant-Man and the Wasp and X-Men: Dark Phoenix have given female characters larger and more complex roles. It’s as if superhero stories have taken a page from their own characters: Adapt or die.
And thank God. Because as recently as 2015, Black Widow was still being bumped from toy sets in favour of her male counterparts. And while her own solo movie is still a long way off (if it happens at all), you can at least buy a tiny plastic version of her (#progress). This is good because Black Widow isn’t just an ass-kicking, hairstyle-changing Hulk whisperer; she’s an important teaching tool.
“Superhero stories can be tools that get average people identifying more personally with current events.”
“Superhero stories can be tools that get average people identifying more personally with current events,” explains culture writer Devon Maloney. “They frame real issues in a more dramatic, exciting context that allows catharsis. People can experience the problem being worked through in a ‘safe’ space.”
Jonny Sun, the writer, illustrator and creator behind @jonnysun on Twitter, agrees. “At best, superheroes tap into our social and political zeitgeist and allow us to see, process and discuss topics that may be difficult to address directly, without the lens of fiction or myth,” he says. “I think our definition of who a superhero is always expands and is always being made more inclusive of different identities, cultures and representations.”
Which, according to Black Panther’s box-office records or Wonder Woman’s gargantuan success, or the hype that surrounded Avengers: Infinity War, is absolutely right. There are only so many times we can watch tortured, sad, white, cis men tell us how hard their lives are.
I didn’t grow up watching superhero movies. Star Trek, yes. Star Wars, absolutely. The first superhero movie I saw in theatres was not one of the genre’s best: Batman & Robin was disappointing for personal reasons, too. The movie introduced Batgirl, a female superhero portrayed by Alicia Silverstone (a.k.a. Cher Horowitz, the star of Clueless), arguably the greatest superhero of all. I was at the perfect age to be inspired by a female hero, but somewhere in between the bat-nipples on George Clooney’s suit and Mr. Freeze’s (played by Arnold Schwarzenegger) refusal to say any line that didn’t include a pun, the opportunity was lost. Batgirl was just another empty gimmick in a film stuffed with them. I avoided all superhero anythings until 2008’s The Dark Knight wherein Heath Ledger’s Joker injected some much-needed complexity into the superhero universe.
But even the Joker was a scarred man in an emotionally scarred man’s world—another male character who got to be complicated and tortured and dark while Rachel was strapped to oil drums and killed off so Aaron Eckhart could become Two-Face. This has always been the trope that keeps me at bay: Men get to be flawed, and women have to redeem them or die to inspire them. And while Marvel and DC have obviously worked hard to elevate female roles, traits and histories, it still took until 2017 for a female character to earn her own starring vehicle (unless you count 2005’s Elektra, but who even remembers that one?). The next one? 2019’s Captain Marvel.
I was at the perfect age to be inspired by a female hero, but somewhere in between the bat-nipples on George Clooney’s suit and Mr. Freeze’s (played by Arnold Schwarzenegger) refusal to say any line that didn’t include a pun, the opportunity was lost. Batgirl was just another empty gimmick in a film stuffed with them.
“I think a lot of things still need to change, primarily when it comes to representation,” offers Maloney. “For decades, comics engaged with issues like authoritarianism and oppression through the eyes of white male creators who themselves did not experience much of that oppression. There’s a reason why there have been so many WW II plots and allegories in the genre over the years and why it’s darkly hilarious that so many white dudes are not acknowledging and condemning the neo-Nazis in our midst now.
“Now we’re seeing a shift—but nowhere near at the level where we’re actually engaging with these issues in any useful way on a large scale because we simply don’t have enough people of colour, white women and LGBTQIA+ folks framing the conversation. When we have 25 Black Panthers—and we’re definitely getting there, if slowly—then we might be at a point where the genre is making an important impact on our conversations about current events.”
And that’s the thing about representation: It’s not just about one movie or one story or one cast. After all, Black Panther wasn’t groundbreaking because of the number of black actors in it (though we certainly need more black actors and actors of colour in starring roles); it was groundbreaking because its characters were more than just their race. Which is what true representation looks like: not people of colour, women or LGBTQ folks simply existing onscreen. It’s about making them real, believable, complex characters with agency—and not just in supporting roles but as leaders of their own vehicles. White, cis, hetero men are not the only ones whose stories deserve exploration.
That’s the thing about representation: It’s not just about one movie or one story or one cast. After all, Black Panther wasn’t groundbreaking because of the number of black actors in it; it was groundbreaking because its characters were more than just their race.
“[Comics] do the work that all good fiction and art do,” explains Sun. “Through symbol, metaphor and all the tools of fiction and storytelling, comics allow us to wrestle with ideas that we may not be able to address directly. Additionally, when it is an inclusive and accessible medium, graphic storytelling has allowed us to experience stories, ideas and perspectives from an expansive range of artists and voices, and we are all better for it.”
And this is true: Superheroes are for everyone, and representation matters. (It’s also genuinely profitable, provided it’s done well.) And that’s why the changes we’ve been slowly, slowly welcoming feel so overdue—because they are. And while, yes, we need to see more stories that centre around women, we also need to see ones that celebrate different types of women. We need more superhero stories that revolve around black women and women of colour. (The time for a stand-alone Storm is now.) We need more superhero stories revolving around queer women. Around trans women. Around non-binary women. Because it’s not just about representation; it’s about education—about redefining what a superhero is and about using superheroes as a means of pushing the mainstream toward acceptance and understanding.
And the thing is, Maloney is right: We can celebrate the well-deserved success of Black Panther and the impending release of X-Men: Dark Phoenix—and even next year’s Captain Marvel (starring Brie Larson). But the fact that we’re talking about these movies in surprised and purposeful ways suggests that this evolution is still such a novelty that we’re tragically far from representation as an actual norm. After all, Han Solo managed to get his own stand-alone movie and Princess Leia was the one who watched her home planet blow up and didn’t even shed a tear.
It’s not just about representation; it’s about education—about redefining what a superhero is and about using superheroes as a means of pushing the mainstream toward acceptance and understanding.
Which isn’t to say we should vanquish all stories starring male leads from our hearts and our minds. (I get it: #NotAllHeroes.) But instead, we can begin to actively engage with the heroes and stories that celebrate diversity and gender equality and aren’t only cast with actors who look like the anchors of a golf channel. We can buy tickets, we can attend screenings and we can ensure that by doing these things, we will make studios aware that should they cast outside the cis, white, hetero box, we will be there to celebrate it.
Provided, of course, the push for representation in genre films doesn’t feel like a “project”—or, worse, like a self-congratulatory celebration of wokeness. There is a difference between tokenism and representation. Representation can’t be used as a kind of test to prove (or disprove) the importance of diversity. Black Panther was great and made a lot of money. But even if it had failed, both artistically and financially, that shouldn’t mean that all other diverse-superhero movies will.
There is a difference between tokenism and representation. Representation can’t be used as a kind of test to prove (or disprove) the importance of diversity.
And as exciting as any of the above-mentioned movies are, they’re not enough. While revolutions tend to be notorious for taking their time, the most memorable superheroes have taught us to abandon standard protocol for the greater good. Which, in this case, is even better superhero movies.