As comics become a larger part of our mainstream culture, the general public is coming to grips with the style and substance of comic books and their creators. For many in the general public, comics are just small books with a lot of pictures. While that public may understand on a basic level that these creations are allegories and metaphors for real-world issues and ideas, they largely see these books as derivative superhero stories with a bit of clever writing mixed in for good measure. When they watch a movie based on these heroes, they then assume the same and process them in a similar fashion. For the public, comics are an escape and that translates to the movies. These translations from book to screen are a fantasy-based reality, unlike anything we’ve ever seen in cinematic history because now the Marvel Cinematic Universe has become a thing unto itself.
Because the films have done so well, they have given a boost to the comic readership. People who once read comics but stopped reading either due to money, time, or other factors are now rekindling their love of comics and sharing it with their children. People who never read comics before are trying to figure out where to start. They are picking up new books and new characters, growing and diversifying both the readership and the books themselves. That diversity has affected things in several ways. Much like Yggdrasil, the diversity has branched out to the different realms of comics; television, movies, novels, comics, and merchandise.
With that growth, MCU architect and Marvel Studios President Kevin Feige have said diversity will be a key part of Marvel’s future. After 20 films, Marvel Studios finally had a female-led film with Captain Marvel. The outcry over this grew as Brie Larson stepped into the role and began her promotion for the film. Campaigns were launched against the film because of her promotional tour and people began twisting Larson’s words as a means to boycott the film. The internet exploded with anger and people began screaming about “social justice warriors” invading their good-natured comic book movies.
Much of the anger centered on a couple of notions. The first was that Brie Larson is a man-hater. The second notion is that comic book movies don’t need social justice warriors, the politics are ruining the movie-going experience, and Larson needed to be more humble (read: quiet) and less political about her role as Carol Danvers. It was a combination of ill-informed opinions meeting weird reimaginings of comics. I mean, to complain that social justice is ruining the Captain Marvel movie-going experience? Did the loudest complainers even read the books before going to the movie?
Here’s the thing: It doesn’t matter what your politics are in this situation. That needs to be said right up front. For the purposes of what I am about to say, your personal politics don’t matter one iota, which is not to say they have no value at all. What I’m saying is that they are irrelevant to the crux of this article. This is largely because it’s not a matter of personal politics, this is a matter of historical record. What Marvel is doing with their films is nothing more than following the heart, intent, and purpose of the source material.
When it comes to Marvel comics and the MCU, these characters were created by proponents of social justice as a means to explain social injustices. To phrase it another way, Stan Lee, Joe Simon, Jack Kirby, and Steve Ditko were fierce proponents of equality and egalitarianism. Stan Lee literally wrote a column titled “Stan’s Soapbox” in which he opined on the social justice issues of the day. In fact, he told readers many times, and in many different ways, that hatred, bigotry, sexism, racism, and the like all had no place among Marvel’s readership under Lee’s stewardship. They didn’t want them.
They created these books as a safe space well before we called them such things. Marvel still reprints those columns in their books to this day, while Feige continues to say that the movies will become even more diverse. They’re not injecting personal politics into the films; they’re literally following what the “founding fathers”, if you want to call them that, outlined in their personal constitution for the product. The idea that Marvel deals in social justice are based on historical evidence, which means it’s not a plan by Marvel to inject their own beliefs into things, whether that’s Marvel Studios or Marvel Comics.
This is usually where someone would bring up the comics and talk about stuff like “All-New, All-Different” events where Marvel rebooted the characters and replaced them with more representation. The understandable backlash there came from the fact that people were pushed, and many times forced, into reading a version of the character they had never read before. Jane Foster became Thor, Laura Kinney became Wolverine, Amadeus Cho became the Hulk, and so on. I get that many people just wanted to read their preferred version of the character, but far too many people acted like this was going to be a permanent thing with their heroes. They were dead wrong.
Acknowledging that many characters were switched around to draw in new and diverse readership, some of these characters have gone on to become some of the highest-selling characters in Marvel Comics. There must have been some desire for people to read these books. Marvel also eventually churned out books based on the old versions of the characters and those were available while the new books had time to shine. To phrase it in another nerd language, think of it as Marvel putting the shine on their diverse characters early on to build them up and give them a pop, even as it was always a promotional move. Eventually, the story would return to the status quo, but then we’re going to have an expansive new roster that everyone can enjoy, plus some cool stories along the way.
A small point on that last matter: People were very split on Jane Foster as Thor. Many people questioned what Jason Aaron had done. Now that Aaron has finished his run of Thor and the entire story stands as one half-decade long love story, Jane Foster as Thor was but a blip and it enhanced the overall “War of the Realms” story that Aaron cleverly spent time setting up and seeding. Jane Foster played a huge role in that story and will continue to do so going forward, so her time as Thor was almost needed to set up a much larger narrative that fans are now calling the greatest run of Thor ever. Perhaps if they had given Aaron the benefit of the doubt from the get-go, Jane Foster could have lived her best life as Thor without the animosity.
If readers should have taken anything from Aaron’s handiwork, assuming they hadn’t from Stan Lee and others before him, diversity has always been central to Marvel’s ethos. They created these characters with social issues on their minds. The X-Men, for instance, have always represented oppressed individuals. Typically called “mutie” as a derogatory term to describe them, the X-Men have found ways to work with and against the Avengers. Wherever the X-Men go, they’re the target of elimination. They’re an abomination to humanity and must be erased. These concepts of hatred and oppression apply to many different types of people, meaning they are universally understood concepts.
“Stan’s Soapbox” was chock full of appeals to decency, morality, and compassion. Lee espoused love for your neighbor. He demonstrated respect and empathy for those different from you and lived by many other ideals. Lee was branded a social justice warrior from day one. It’s weird to see people worship Lee’s creations and completely ignore the purpose, intent, and ideals behind the characters they love. When Marvel decides to go directly to the source material, that material is rooted in social justice. These characters existed as a way for Ditko, Kirby, Lee, and Simon to “do something” about the problems of their day, which happened to be Nazis, women’s empowerment, Vietnam, and civil rights. We’ve seen almost every one of these in an MCU property to date, save for Vietnam, but that’s been replaced by the war in the Middle East, so you just call it a wash.
So many different types of folks read comic books. There’s no denying that, just as there’s no denying the nostalgia fans have for their favorites. Any changes to those are bound to make people unhappy. Marvel has since retooled their main continuity again and many of those characters have been recalled to the background or smaller books. Some of those characters have even been depowered or retooled. They served their purpose in their time, anyway, by bringing in new readers and creating several lasting heroes that fans rather enjoy.
Regardless of your political leanings, look at the facts of the situation and ask yourself if you see that Marvel is just doing what they’ve always done. They used to, and still do, preach diversity. It came from the heads of the industry, then as now. It also took 20 films for a female to get her first movie and it will take a few more for a second. The irony of this is that Black Widow has been with the MCU since the beginning, but she’s coming second and is already dead, making the film a prequel. It’s not like Marvel is completely changing the game yet.
While we don’t fully know what’s yet to come, we got a better picture at SDCC 2019. Simu Liu recently cast as Shang-Chi, was introduced at said event. We also know a little about The Eternals, at least the vast majority of the cast. There will be a Black Panther 2 and Doctor Strange In the Multiverse of Madness will feature Scarlet Witch in a planned horror film. There are a lot of moving parts and fans will have to wait to find out what Kevin Feige has planned at D23 in August. But we already have Jane Foster cast as Mighty Thor, Sam Wilson as Captain America, and an LGBTQ+ King of Asgard, who will be seeking her queen in Thor: Love and Thunder. Given this, it’s pretty speculative right now to talk about how the diversity and social justice content in comics is “killing the characters” or whatever it is sites like RedState usually say.
Even when Feige announces the future of Marvel Studios, there will likely be a ton of consternation if he delivers on his promise to diversify the landscape of the MCU. There will be fan hop-offs, but there will also be significant hop-on and new fans. Shang Chi is going to destroy the box office. What’s great about the character is that he is just an ordinary dude with badass skills and he can fill the leadership void left behind by Captain America’s retirement. Shang Chi is going to be marketed at the Chinese, but that doesn’t change the fact that for Asian-Americans seeing one of their own leading a movie in a billion-dollar franchise, well, quite frankly, it’s going to make some of them cry. All Marvel had to do was bring to life one of their most iconic characters and stick to the source material.
I hope you understand that comics and social justice cohabit a space in the aether in perpetuity, this means they are going to appear in the movies since the movies use the source material. There’s no separating the two without intentionally ignoring a central component of the comics itself. It’s removing what makes that character special, or even what made that character tick in the mind of its creator and imposing upon it a system of belief that is antithetical to their creation and purpose. It’s fine to have an opinion. I believe in listening to different points of view, but if we’re going to have these conversations, there have to be some ground rules and understandings. Other points of view can argue against it, but the arguments behind those perspectives must acknowledge the fact that the creators were interested in social justice and equality.