Marvel Comics has fashioned itself something of a trailblazer in the world of contemporary comics and film. Beyond the fact that they’ve created their own movie studio and single-handedly brought the concept of inter-universe continuity to the big screen successfully, they’ve also produced some of the most lasting superheroes of color in the history of the medium, including mainstays like The Falcon (the first mainstream African-American superhero ever), Luke Cage, and Storm, and more obscure figures like the Blue Marvel, Misty Knight, and Blade. PoC in their comics have served as leaders of teams like the X-Men, various incarnations of The Avengers, the lofty position of Sorcerer Supreme, and of course Director of S.H.I.E.L.D. I’d be lying if I said that the well of comic book culture isn’t dominated by white men in spandex, but Marvel is inching their way toward diversifying their Cinematic Universe in an organic way.
It all began with a post-credits sequence and an eyepatch. No one expected the first “Iron Man” film, released back in 2008, to be as big a hit as it was. Breaking box office records and quickly becoming the best reviewed film of that year, it was the now famous post-credits stinger that set the stage for events to come. Tony Stark returns to his home and finds Samuel L. Jackson as Nick Fury in his living room, who wants to discuss something called the “Avenger Initiative.” Not only did this reveal the start of inter-movie continuity in the Marvel cinematic canon, but having a PoC Nick Fury, based off of the design of the character created for the Ultimate Marvel line of comics by Brian Michael Bendis, be the one to make the big reveal? Astounding in a world where comic book movies-goers were only familiar with Storm, Spawn or Steel.
The thing that I always enjoyed about the PoC in Marvel’s films is that the movies themselves never feel the need to valorize the characters simply because they’re PoC; there isn’t a sort of mystical standard they have to live up to, they’re not stereotypical, and they’re allowed to be human, even when they’re technically not. Heimdall, gatekeeper of Asgard played by Idris Elba in 2011’s “Thor,” is a character who is simply allowed to be. He devotes himself fully to guarding the gates of Asgard at all costs and is frozen by Loki for his efforts. Though he eventually breaks free and helps Thor to return to Asgard, the film allows Heimdall to be his own person, to make mistakes and learn from them to help save the day. In a world of gods and ice monsters, he’s simply allowed to be human. Idris Elba was at the center of a mini-controversy when it was revealed that he would be playing the Asgardian gatekeeper in 2011’s “Thor.” Racist backlash from the hardcore fan and casual movie-going communities followed, but Elba himself put a stop to it in an interview at Rutgers University on February of 2011:
"We have a man [Thor] who has a flying hammer and wears horns on his head. And yet me being an actor of African descent playing a Norse god is unbelievable? I mean, Cleopatra was played by Elizabeth Taylor, and Gandhi was played by Ben Kingsley."
Elba’s casting reignited the debate on “racebending” in film that was quickly put to bed after the above comment. I doubt Marvel cast Elba because they knew what kind of dust storm it would kick up, but rather because he’s a fantastic actor who had just what Marvel was looking for in a gatekeeper. And his performance and character are two of the best things about the first “Thor.” Elba’s argument for the seamless integration of white actors into traditionally PoC roles is one that Marvel apparently picked up on with both Don Cheadle as James Rhodes/War Machine in “Iron Man 2” and Anthony Mackie as Sam Wilson/The Falcon in “The Winter Soldier.”
And this brings me to “Guardians of the Galaxy,” Marvel’s latest obscure franchise starter that banked just under $100 million this past weekend. Much of the action takes place on the planet Xandar, homeworld of the Nova Corp police force.
And there are BLACK PEOPLE ON THIS PLANET!
Not only that, but one of the Nova Corp members, the first that we meet in fact, is himself black. While the officer doesn’t have a name and isn’t given any kind of backstory whatsoever, the minutia of this officer and another black family appearing in various shots throughout the movie adds to the richly detailed and layered nature of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. It carries on in the tradition of great sci-fi stories like “Firefly” and the new “Battlestar Galactica” and older sci-fi stories like “The World, The Flesh, and The Devil” that acknowledge that PoCs are just as likely to exist in a universe full of aliens and space monsters as they do in modern life.
I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention Djimon Hounsou, who plays alien henchman Korath The Pursuer, who I was particularly excited to see in “Guardians.” Aside from his infamous banter with Star-Lord at the beginning of the film, his screentime is small. I’m more disappointed because I think Hounsou is one of the most underrated actors of his generation and I was hoping we’d get to see more of him and the rest of the Kree alien race. “Guardians” is a light and breezy film, one that introduces and speeds over plot points and new ideas because it’s introducing the entire space section of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. It’s got a lot of ground to cover, but I’m hoping this isn’t the last we’ll see of his character.
Marvel is doing a great job at integrating PoC characters into their Cinematic Universe in the least ham-fisted way possible, but I believe they have a ways to go before they can rest on their laurels. The future is looking bright, though. Chadwick Boseman, known as Jackie Robinson in “42” and now as James Brown in “Get On Up,” is rumored to be playing the Black Panther at some point down the line. Marvel inked an exclusive deal with Netflix last year to air series based on members of the “Defenders,” a street-level equivalent to The Avengers that will include Daredevil, Iron Fist, Jessica Jones, and none other than heavyweight mainstay Luke Cage. With Cage and Iron Fist’s inclusion, it’s likely that Misty Knight, an ass-kicking black female cop with a cybernetic arm given to her by Tony Stark, and romantic ties to Iron Fist, will be introduced and add another powerful woman to the cinematic canon.