by Wil Forbis
May 1, 2017
Anyone familiar with my writing knows I’m a big comic book fan. As such, I’ve been a committed viewer of the various Netflix shows set in the Marvel Comic universe, titles like Daredevil, Jessica Jones and Luke Cage.
When the latest Marvel show, Iron Fist, hit the Netflix screen, I eagerly watched it. The Iron Fist character, a martial arts expert who debuted in the 70s, is a favorite of mine. But my reaction to the show was mixed. It maintains the nice blend of action and drama found in the other Marvel shows, but the villains were rather obvious and unexciting (unlike the great villains of Luke Cage) and the absence of Iron Fist’s signature costume bummed me out. (I’d say the best of the Marvel Shows is still the first season of Daredevil.)
During the few weeks that I watched the Iron Fist episodes I found myself browsing the web for critical reaction. I was struck by this Atlantic article that attacks the show on essentially political grounds. Iron Fist’s alter ego, Danny Rand, is a super rich white dude (much like Batman/Bruce Wayne (or Donald Trump)) and the reviewer found this distasteful. She even examined the origin of Iron Fist and found it rife with Orientalism. This accusation is not without merit. The Iron Fist character is a white kid who finds himself orphaned in a secret Asian city in the Himalayas (similar to Shangri-La.) Implicit to the Iron Fist mythos has always been a certain “appropriation” of exotic, eastern culture.
The Atlantic reviewer noted that there had been discussion of making the character of Iron Fist Asian. On one hand, that’s not a bad idea, or at least more plausible. But then Iron Fist would lose his whole “fish out of water” aspect. Part of the character’s design is that he is uncomfortable in the Asian city he grew up in, because of his race, but also in the western world, because of his upbringing.
Is this kind of criticism merely an attempt to apply social justice warrior values to the comic book realm? Maybe, but such critiques are needed. Most of the iconic comic book heroes – Superman, Batman, Spider-Man, the Hulk, Wonder Women, Iron Man etc. – are pretty white bread. There aren’t many people of color (unless the color is green) and few women, gays, etc. (Disabled people are well represented in the superhero ranks, but this is usually because they’ve become powerful cyborgs.)
Over the years, there have been significant attempts to diversify the superhero realm. Many black superheroes have been created such as Luke Cage, the Black Panther, Black Lightning, Blade, the Falcon and more. (Years ago I wrote an article titled “Meet the Blaxploitation Superheroes!!!” that may be of interest.) And there have been several periods in which the role of white superhero was handed to a black character. In the 1980s, the Iron Man armor was passed on to an African American pilot named James Rhodes (played by Don Cheadle in the big screen Marvel movies.) More recently, Sam Wilson, the Falcon took over the role of Captain America. But these changes seldom last and the costume usually returns to the original, Caucasian character.
Female superheroes have been frequently created over the 90+ plus years of superhero history but they are often merely gender swapped versions of classic heroes: Bat-Girl, Bat-Woman, Super-Girl, the She-Hulk, Ms. Marvel, Mary Marvel, Hawkgirl, Spider-Woman, etc. If you’re looking for really iconic, unique, successful female superheroes who have stood the test of time, you’ll only find Wonder Woman and that’s about it.
The number of gay super heroes is also small. I remember when Northstar, a member of the Marvel Comics super-team Alpha-Flight, announced his orientation. The current version of Bat-Woman is a lesbian. But unless you’re a real comics fan you’ve probably never heard of them, which is basically my point.
For some reason, the challenge of creating seminal superheroes that break from the white-male mold has been hard to surmount. Why would this be?
Part of the issue is, I think, that is really takes a while for a superhero to settle in as an icon. Like 80 years or so. Let’s consider five of the classic superheroes. Superman was created in 1938. Batman was created in 1939. Captain America appeared in 1941. Spider-Man and the Hulk arrived in 1962. There really hasn’t been the evolution of a “major” superhero hero in decades*. It’s hard to say exactly why. It may be that some of the heroes created in the past 20 years will eventually come to be considered classics. But I think it was just easier to for characters to stand out when the field wasn’t so crowded. When Batman first appeared he only had to distinguish himself from a crowd of 100 or so fellow costumed vigilantes. When a new superhero appears today he or she competes with thousands of superheroes that have appeared over the years. It’s a tough gig.
* Doubtless many will balk and this statement and point to the Punisher or Wolverine or whatnot, but really? Do any of those characters have the cultural cache of Superman or Captain America?
Secondly, the two dominating comic companies, Marvel and DC, have gone to great lengths to cement the mythos of their fictional universes. (Granted, DC seems to upend it all every couple years but the basics remain in place.) It would be very hard to ret-con the “official” Superman or Spider-Man into a being a black guy.
There have been some recent developments of interest. Marvel’s Thor has become, via a twist of events, a woman. The incredible Hulk is now Asian. But one wonders how long such changes will last.
In the television version if the DC Comics universe, as depicted in shows like Arrow, The Flash, and Legends of Tomorrow, you encounter a lot of diversity. Somewhat obscure non-white superheroes such as Vibe and Vixen have been given major roles. Much of The Flash show’s supporting cast is non-white. The character of Sara Lance (a reinterpretation of the DC Comics heroine the Black Canary) is an out and proud lesbian.
Nonetheless, it feels as if the establishment of a minority Superman or Spider-man is still decades away. At that point, the world may be populated with real superheroes.