It is an undeniable fact that modern cinema is increasingly dominated by comic book movies. These celluloid adaptations of comic book characters plough into theatres, propelled by the awesome power of Hollywood studio marketing machines. From Richard Donner’s Superman in 1978, to Bryan Singer’s X-Men in 2000; from Tim Burton’s Batman in 1989 to Barry Sonnenfeld’s Men In Black in 1997; from any number of unconnected franchise attempts, to the coordinated approach of the Marvel Cinematic Universe and the DC Extended Universe – the comic book movie genre has gradually evolved to become the big ticket item for those production companies lucky enough to hold the rights.
But, what do we have to show for all these decades of growth and development? I’m a life-long comic book movie fan, but casting an honest, objective eye over the genre as a whole leads to something of a sense of disappointment. Up until this summer, this film genre that has become one of the most culturally influential ventures in history has given us – for the most part – only one thing: movies about good men fighting bad men, made by men. Also, those men are mostly white.
Now, here’s the thing. That was less noticeable when studios were releasing comic book movies once every few years – they were exciting, because they were a novelty. Now, we have over twenty comic book movies scheduled for release in the next five years, because Disney and Warner Bros are both in the business of universe creation with Marvel and DC respectively. It is Marvel that has undoubtedly set the tone for the current incarnation of the comic book movie genre – simply by virtue of having been building its cinematic universe for longer. With 2008’s Iron Man, it had a five year-six film head-start on the DC Extended Universe, which began with 2013’s Man Of Steel.
The Marvel Cinematic Universe is rightly celebrated as an incredibly successful business model – truly a ‘how-to’ guide in taking relatively lesser known comic book characters, and turning them into global icons overnight. But, the fact remains that it will have released 17 films before it gets around to having a lead that isn’t white (Black Panther, due for release on February 16th, 2018) and a full 20 before it gets round to having an actual female lead superhero (Captain Marvel, due for release on March 8th, 2019).
Just let that sink in for a moment. Seventeen films – usually at least two each year – about white superheroes saving the universe. Twenty films about men being the saviour. Sure, there’s Black Widow, Scarlet Witch, Falcon, Maria Hill, Black Panther, Hope van Dyne and War Machine – but they are all in supporting roles – propping up the white guy in the lead role, in every film – even when a woman finally gets to be in the title, as in Ant-Man And The Wasp (the clue is in the word “and”). Truly, the only variation between the stories is the hero’s origin. Through accident, design or tragedy, a white guy finds himself with special powers of one kind or another, and has to rise up and selflessly embrace it in order to fight the good fight. Hooray for white dudes – turgidity be damned.