This summer has been a pretty big one for nerd culture so far. Nerd Christmas came and went with this year’s San Diego Comic-Con”: “Ant-Man” premiered; the trailers for “Superman v. Batman,” “Suicide Squad” and “Deadpool” were officially released; Channing Tatum did not leave “Gambit”; and “Fantastic Four” is coming out this week. As a nerd, there’s really no such thing as a dearth of this type of material anymore; it’s all around pop culture, for better or worse. And even for all of the differences between these decidedly nerdy things, one thing remains a constant and shared experience: the absence of women of color. More specifically, the absence of women of color in prominent roles. (Amanda Waller’s role in “Suicide Squad” would be an exception, but at the same time, she’s not really IN the Suicide Squad team.)
In a few weeks, the CW’s digital platform, CW Seed, will be premiering a new series starring Vixen, a DC Comics African superheroine. Naturally, the initial news of The CW picking up a Vixen television series was met with excitement and buzz. But the other shoe dropped almost immediately when it was also revealed that the series would be an animated series on CW Seed. Keeping in mind that this show was from the same creative minds behind “Arrow” and “The Flash” (both on the CW and both set in the same universe as “Vixen”), as well as the upcoming “Supergirl” (CBS) and “Legends of Tomorrow” (The CW) — all live-action superhero shows on major networks — this news instantly became “one of these things is not like the other” in the worst way possible.
Executive producer Marc Guggenheim spoke to Comic Book Resources soon after to discuss the idea of a live-action Vixen series: “We always say ‘never say never,’ and if the character resonates with people, that would be wonderful. I would love to be in a position where CW said to us, ‘Hey, we want a ‘Vixen’ live-action show.’ That’d be wonderful. We’ll have to sort of see how things play out.”
In defense of the decision to take the animated, web-series route with “Vixen,” it’s something that will draw eyes to CW Seed, which the CW has been trying to do for years. Plus, micro-budgets are CW Seed’s bread and butter, and in a story that relies heavily on magic, that cuts production costs way down.
But the implication of Guggenheim’s quote is that the CW didn’t want a live-action Vixen for fear of the character not resonating with the viewing audience — which is questionable, because the CW took a chance on a niche (to the general public) superhero like the Green Arrow and then, by extension, The Flash. And CBS is now taking a huge chance on “Supergirl,” a character whose biggest moment in mainstream pop culture had been a ridiculous movie from the ‘80s. The question of whether or not “a character resonates with people” is inherent in all of these projects, and yet the one starring an African female superhero is the one that comes out on a secondary platform with a wait-and-see attitude. Yet, on the other hand, if a live-action version does happen, the powers that be have their bases covered with Megalyn Echikunwoke already cast in the role. So why wait?
Over on the big screen, Halle Berry has gone on record as saying she would be up for a live-action standalone Storm film, but the fans would have to “speak up” to Fox for it to possibly happen. Storm is one of the most interesting and popular X-Men characters from the comics, yet she’s never been given a real spotlight in the feature films, not even with Halle Berry, who was once one of the biggest actresses in the world, in the role. Berry was also the lead of the abysmal “Catwoman,” which killed a lot of her momentum — even though everything about that film, from the story to the writing to the decision not to use an established “Catwoman” was destined to fail. On the flipside, you have Ben Affleck, who led the Evanescence-heavy flop known as “Daredevil” and has ended up being Batman in a huge franchise.
All of these issues have been raised time and again. As far as legitimate reasons for the absence of women of color in prominent roles in comic book-based media, those remain to be found. “Black girl nerds,” specifically, do exist — there’s even a whole Twitter and website about that “phenomenon.” Yet despite that fact women of color have a stake in comics, there was only a focus placed on an off-site, at a San Diego library during Comic-Con.
Vixen is a definitively African character, and that’s a part of everything about the story. But what about the concept of race-bending white female characters? Lois Lane could easily be a woman of color, as could Wonder Woman. In fact, that would probably add layers to the already rich characters. When the question of the absence of women (or characters at all) of color race-bent into prominent superhero roles (or even just as love interests or sidekicks) comes up, “purists” cry out: “That’s not how it was in the comic.” But at the same time, said purists endlessly praise the Christopher Nolan Batman movies — movies where Nolan went out of his way not to make a “comic-book movies” — so that couldn’t possibly be the real reason.
“Tradition” is an excuse that has led to far worse consequential situations, but in a world where preexisting female characters of color can’t get the focus they deserve, the alternative of race-bending seems to be one of the only options.
Even behind the camera, the role of a black woman with regards to this world of superhero movies and television is called into question. When Ava DuVernay spoke to Women & Hollywood’s Melissa Silverstein at the 2015 BlogHer conference, she talked about why she wanted to work on “Black Panther,” only to then pull herself out of the running: “For me, it was a process of trying to figure out, are these people I want to go to bed with? Because it’s really a marriage, and for this it would be three years. It’d be three years of not doing other things that are important to me. So it was a question of, is this important enough for me to do? At one point, the answer was yes because I thought there was value in putting that kind of imagery into the culture in a worldwide, huge way, in a certain way: excitement, action, fun, all those things, and yet still be focused on a black man as a hero — that would be pretty revolutionary. These Marvel films go everywhere from Shanghai to Uganda, and nothing that I probably will make will reach that many people, so I found value in that. That’s how the conversations continued, because that’s what I was interested in. But everyone’s interested in different things.”
The reach of Marvel films — and now, comic-book adaptations in general — is important to note because any story can really be told. And this isn’t a finger-pointing conversation, but it is one of questions. Because really, it all boils down to why? Why aren’t chances being taken on women of color in these roles, and why are are these even considered “taking chances?”