A few weeks ago, Marvel Comics announced that two of its most popular series would soon feature an African-American Captain America and a female Thor. Mass hysteria immediately ensued online.
Some insisted that a female Thor isn’t congruent with the traditional Norse mythology that inspires the character (though apparently flying around New York and hanging out with The Hulk is totally fine). Others argued that women are incapable of possessing the fundamental characteristics of a “true hero”. Some particularly brave keyboard warriors have even gone so far as to assert that it “seems like Marvel is trying to exterminate all straight white males from existence”. Considering that non-white, female characters remain staggeringly few and far between, Marvel has got a long way to go indeed.
Thankfully, despite the petulance demonstrated by some of their readers, Marvel writers seem to get it. The recent announcements have not just been the start, but the continuation of an increasingly diverse comic book tradition. For decades now, the X-Men have been a fairly obvious metaphor for the experience of the queer community. In recent years, the comics have moved beyond metaphor, presenting us with (among other things) openly queer characters, an all-female X-Men team, a predominantly non-white Mighty Avengers team, and a teenage, Muslim Ms Marvel. One needs only skim the letters page of any given comic to see an outpouring of gratitude and excitement from readers who finally see themselves reflected in a way they can be proud of.
When representation is done right, it’s worth celebrating. But it’s crucial, tempting as it is to laud any step in the right direction, that readers’ praise isn’t unconditional. The success of Marvel’s more diverse ventures is, at its core, a financial success. Should the impending debuts of the new Thor and Captain America see a significant drop in sales, it’s almost certain Marvel will hastily return to their traditional, non-threatening cash-cows.
In fact, as the new inclusivity is almost certainly a temporary story arc, one can’t help but wonder whether it’s a progressive move at all, or simply a publicity stunt with no lasting impact. After all, for all the writers’ protests that the changes are here to stay, there’s truth in the running joke that only Uncle Ben stays dead in the Marvel Universe. The original Captain America and Thor won’t even have to beat death to return, however, as they’re not being killed off, but merely depowered. In fact, they will continue to feature in comics, raising the troubling possibility that their newly diverse counterparts might just exist to further the character development of the traditional and beloved straight white men.
Only time will tell, and it will depend greatly on the quality of the writing. Writing can make the difference between a tokenistic and a three-dimensional depiction of a character, and we can only hope the writers at the helm do their new characters justice. When diversity in media is done right, it delivers compelling and refreshing storylines, affirms the identities of those it reflects, and provides a platform from which discussions can be launched and, perhaps even minds changed.
In the battle for more diverse representation, the new Thor and Captain America should be welcome allies, but their presence should not be accepted without question. Ill-represented groups don’t just have the right to be seen, but also the right to be depicted properly, with ongoing storylines that represent their full, nuanced and complex lives.