There’s No Such Thing as “Diverse Superhero Movies”

Ava

Photo by Mariemaye, Wikimedia Commons

The Wrap reported last night that Marvel is eyeing Ava DuVernay (late of Selma, one of last year’s eight Oscar-nominated Best Pictures) to direct one of its “diverse superhero movies,” either Black Panther or Captain Marvel. Here are some thoughts, exasperated and intrigued alike, about this news.

Ban the phrase “diverse superhero movies” immediately.

To invoke a graduation speech cliche, the dictionary defines the adjective “diverse” as “including representatives from more than one social, cultural, or economic group, especially members of ethnic or religious minority groups.” “Diverse” is not a stand-in for “nonwhite.” Genuine diversity encompasses a variety of groups or ideas. Marvel’s terminology classifies movies with nonwhite, nonmale leads as diverse. It’s great that Marvel wants to make movies about nonwhite, nonmale superheroes. It’d be even better if they acknowledged that diversity describes a particular collective body of work, not a halfhearted nod to institutionally disenfranchised minorities.

Photo by BagoGames, Flickr

Photo by BagoGames, Flickr

Go Ava!

Selma was my second favorite movie of 2015. I was one of the many Internet observers howling when the Academy passed DuVernay over for a Best Director nomination in favor of vanilla alternatives like Morten Tyldum. And I’m eager to see DuVernay’s still-developing talents applied to a variety of genres, styles and budgets. Setting aside the fact that she’s one of the only black female directors with any clout in the current Hollywood system, DuVernay is a strong talent who makes films I want to see.

But…

At the rate it’s going, Marvel will be producing every Hollywood film released in the year 2025. “Superhero movies” and “blockbusters” are quickly becoming interchangeable terms. It increasingly seems like the only route for a talented up-and-coming director after making a film that critics like and audiences champion is to graduate to the vaunted ranks of directing a superhero movie.

That’s a double-edged sword. On the one hand, hiring distinctive directors like DuVernay makes the likelihood that individual Marvel movies will be compelling on their own higher. On the other, if Marvel continues on its path of assimilating directors like Joss Whedon and the Russo Brothers into its “house style” in order to maintain continuity throughout the Marvel Cinematic Universe, DuVernay’s singular vision might be squandered. It remains to be seen whether there’s still ground to be broken in the superhero genre, at least as Marvel conceives it. But an Ava DuVernay superhero movie is still a superhero movie. We’ve seen those, and we’re going to keep seeing them. What else is there?

Photo by BagoGames, Flickr

Photo by BagoGames, Flickr

But seriously, “diverse superhero movies” is gross. Stop it, Marvel.

The bloom is starting to come off the Marvel PR rose. Avengers fans pilloried Joss Whedon and company for the portrayal of Scarlett Johansson’s Black Widow in Age of Ultron. The upcoming release of Ant-Man will revive the murmurs about the creative difficulties that led to Edgar Wright’s unceremonious ouster. And the parade of white male leads is becoming harder to ignore the longer it goes on while Black Widow plays second banana to all of the other Avengers. Today’s news about “diverse superhero movies” further proves that Marvel needs to reorganize its approach to public relations. Superficially nodding towards diversity and committing to it are two very different things. Pretending to do the second while actually doing the first won’t help anyone in the long run.

Maybe Marvel doesn’t care. Its movies are making zillions of dollars at the box office (although Age of Ultron is running slightly behind its predecessor, at least domestically). Plans are already in place for more Thor, more Captain America, more Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., more Agent Carter (by Marvel’s standards, a “diverse” television show because it has a female lead), more Daredevil, more Guardians of the Galaxy, much more Avengers. Nothing in the financial records will give Marvel any indication that change needs to happen. It’s up to fans and critics to bang the drum. We don’t want “diversity” – we need diversity.

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