Warner Bros. and DC Expose Marvel's Achilles Heel: Diversity (Opinion)

Wonder Woman, Cyborg et al reveal Marvel's fondness for white men called Chris
Wonder Woman, Cyborg et al reveal Marvel's fondness for white men called Chris

In the quasi-arms race of superhero movies between Marvel Studios and Warner Bros.’ DC Entertainment properties that exists primarily in the minds of studio executives and passionate comic book fans, Warners is playing catch-up in almost every way: Marvel has captured the hearts and minds of the audience to a greater extent, as well as having a significant advantage in terms of box office. It’s also the studio that has successfully pioneered the shared universe concept in movies to such an extent that it’s even referred to as “the Marvel method” by most.

When Warner Bros. announced 10 DC movies this week, however, it managed to take advantage of Marvel’s one obvious, awkward weakness — and even though there was no mention of it in the official announcement itself, it was something that was immediately noticed by fans on social media:

In one fell swoop — the simultaneous announcement of Wonder Woman, Cyborg, Shazam and Aquaman, giving Warners one female-led superhero movie and three lead by non-white actors — Warner Bros. managed to stop looking like a Studio-Come-Lately, and instead look like one willing to take more risks than Marvel in terms of diversity.

Read more Six Years of Marvel and DC's Superhero Movies, Explained

It seems almost ridiculously obvious to point out that this is far more about Marvel’s problem than any great strides being offered by Warner Bros. Six of the 10 new movies are still anchored by white, straight males, after all — although, if the two Justice League movies feature Aquaman and Cyborg, they’ll be more diverse than The Avengers or Guardians of the Galaxy; of those two teams, there’s only one person of color on either, and that color is green. Interestingly enough, the response from fans appears to recognize this fact, and instead of being positioned as “Well done, Warners,” it’s far more “Marvel, it’s time to get your act together,” as can be seen in the tweets above.

(It’s worth noting, perhaps, that Warner Bros. isn’t actually the first studio to announce a solo female-led superhero movie for the first time since 2005’s Elektra — that would be Sony, which announced plans for a mystery project with a female lead back in August, potentially for 2017 release alongside Wonder Woman. Of course, with two different studios having announced such a plan, that only underscores Marvel’s timidity on the matter.)

Pointing out Marvel Studios’ lack of on-screen diversity is nowhere near a new phenomenon. As ComicsAlliance’s Andrew Wheeler has memorably pointed out, “If Marvel makes Thor 3 [as its first 2017 release], it will have made ten movies headlined by blond white men named Chris before it makes one movie headlined by someone who isn’t even white.” While not besmirching the talent or integrity of Chris Evans, Chris Hemsworth and Chris Pratt, that’s taking lack of diversity to admirably comic levels.

Additionally, the studio’s lack of a movie with a female lead — specifically, a Black Widow feature starring Scarlett Johansson, although fans would also accept a Captain Marvel movie, or even a Squirrel Girl one by this point — has been commented on to such an extent that Marvel Studios president Kevin Feige recently weighed in, saying that he “very much believe[s] in doing it” in concept. “I hope we do it sooner rather than later,” he added at the time, while simultaneously pointing out that Marvel’s ongoing successful franchises make finding slots for new characters and concepts challenging.

Read more Could Fandom Shame Marvel Studios Into Being More Diverse?

That is somewhat of a smokescreen, in terms of excuses. As this summer’s Guardians of the Galaxy shows, Marvel has no problem introducing new characters and concepts — in fact, we’re due to have one per year for the next couple of years, with Ant-Man coming next year and Doctor Strange landing in 2016. In both of those cases, however, Marvel is sticking closely to white male leads. (Admittedly, the lead role in Doctor Strange is not cast, and it’s not impossible that Marvel will choose to break with tradition and cast a non-white male as its Sorcerer Supreme — but, given some of the actors rumored to have been considered for the role, that doesn’t look likely.)

Of course, there’s still an obvious opportunity for Marvel to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat on the subject of diversity in casting. Both Wonder Woman and Sony’s mystery Spider-Man project are scheduled (in the latter case, rumored) for 2017 release, and Marvel has an unnamed project scheduled for release May 5 of that year — almost two months before the June 23 bow for Wonder Woman. What if it snuck in a female-led movie just under the wire in order to be “first”?

Similarly, Aquaman isn’t due until July 2018, and there are three unknown Marvel projects scheduled before then. Black Panther, Falcon or even an upgrade from Netflix to theaters for Luke Cage could help Marvel become the first studio to put a superhero of color on the big screen since 2008’s Hancock — if it wanted to.

That, ultimately, is what this comes down to: what Marvel wants to do. As arguably the most successful movie studio around these days, and one that has demonstrated no problem in convincing mainstream audiences to accept a dancing tree and a talking raccoon as heroes, it’s not a question of whether Marvel could make a movie with a woman or person of color in the lead role, or even could make such a movie a hit. It’s a question of whether that’s something that the studio is interested in doing. Whenever Marvel announces its next projects — something which may be sooner than later, given this week’s Warner Bros. schedule announcement — we’ll get the answer to that question.