Skip to main content

Expert Analysis

Shang-Chi | Marvel’s New Diversity Reflects The Fans... At Last

This article has been handpicked by us because like all great Companion pieces, it offers a fresh lens through which to rediscover your favorite sci-fi stories.

It first appeared on The Conversation and is reprinted here by the kind permission of its author. Thank you for reading and supporting original writing and analysis. 🙂

Back in May, the trailer dropped for what will be the 26th movie in the Marvel Cinematic Universe franchise: Eternals, directed by Chloé Zhao. Opening with a dreamy, misty shoreline, we hear Skeeter Davis’s The End of the World. An ominous spaceship appears over the ocean, and the Eternals begin to prepare for the impending battle.

This year, Zhao was only the second woman (and first woman of color) to win Best Director at the Academy Awards: a reminder of Hollywood’s entrenched gender and race biases. The cinematic world of Marvel, which began with Iron Man in 2008, has been similarly male and white.

Of the 24 Marvel films released so far, just two have been directed by a woman (Anna Boden, who co-directed Captain Marvel with Ryan Fleck, and Cate Shortland who directed Black Widow) and two by people of color (Ryan Coogler for Black Panther, and Taika Waititi for Thor: Ragnarok).

But things are changing.

In September, Destin Daniel Cretton’s Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings will showcase a predominantly Asian cast, where superhero Shang-Chi (Simu Liu in the character’s film debut) encounters the terrorist group Ten Rings.

Zhao’s Eternals, to be released in November, will see an immortal alien race forced out of hiding after thousands of years in a quest to save humanity. Starring a multicultural, ensemble cast including Gemma Chan, Salma Hayek, and Angelina Jolie, Eternals will feature Marvel’s first openly queer superhero — Phastos (Brian Tyree Henry) — and deaf superhero — Makkari (Lauren Ridloff).

Asian American – his mother is Japanese American – Cretton has said:

“Growing up, I didn’t have a superhero that looked like me and it’s really exciting to give a new generation something I did not have.”

Destin Daniel Cretton

Owned by Disney, Marvel Studios is an entertainment giant, which has grossed over $22.5 billion at the global box office. Its investment in more diverse stories, characters, and directors is clever marketing. But it is also an indication of the dynamic relationship between one of the world’s biggest film franchises and its fanbase, and how they both sit within the broader culture.

Marvel, like all film studios, has found itself creating popular culture during a period of great social and political upheaval. Global movements such as #MeToo, #BlackLivesMatter, and #StopAsianHate have been a clarion call for social justice.

These movements have exposed and challenged discrimination and violence against marginalized groups, including exclusion from representation on screen and behind the scenes.

Pressure from #MeToo activists has seen Hollywood hire more female filmmakers since 2018. In the wake of #BlackLivesMatter’s growth in 2014 came #OscarsSoWhite in 2015, a movement that led to a remarkable change in the diversity of filmmakers — and the recognition they received.

Knowing their audience

2018’s Black Panther broke new ground with its all-black lead cast and Coogler as the franchise’s first African American director. Making $1.34 billion at the box office, it is the second highest-grossing Marvel film in the US.

2019’s Captain Marvel, the franchise’s first standalone female superhero film, with its first female director, made US$1.13 billion (A$1.45 billion) at the box office.

This year we had a black Captain America for the first time in the Disney+ spin-off series The Falcon and the Winter Soldier. Directed by Kari Skogland, the series was the streaming service’s most-watched premiere ever at the time (eclipsed only by Loki, which was directed by another woman, Kate Herron).

This casting, and the story the series told about race, resonated with viewers who were frustrated and angry at the criminalization and disempowerment of black men playing out time and again in the news media.

This is not to suggest Marvel is radically undoing the biases of society and the film industry, smashing stereotypes shored up by centuries of patriarchal or colonial domination. That would be an insurmountable challenge even for The Avengers.

Rather, Marvel’s increasingly liberal steps stem from an understanding of the power of the people. The franchise’s continued success depends on remaining culturally relevant and, crucially, not underestimating what its audiences want — and who its audiences are.

Familiar tropes of Asian-ness will appear in Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings (Shang-Chi’s powers are, of course, martial arts skills). But by handing over the keys to Cretton and his culturally diverse creative team, we can expect Marvel’s first standalone Asian superhero film to be a nuanced, multifaceted depiction of Asian cultures and identities not seen before in the genre.

As an immigrant female director and Marvel enthusiast, Zhao perhaps epitomizes the future — and logical endpoint — of Marvel’s quest for inclusion and diversity.

“I’m not just making [Eternals] as a director, I’m making the film as a fan.”

Chloé Zhao

Dr. Christina Lee is a Senior Lecturer in Literary and Cultural Studies, Curtin University, Australia. Her published writing includes Spectral Spaces and Hauntings, Violating Time – History, Memory, and Nostalgia in Cinema, and Screening Generation X – The Politics and Popular Memory of Youth in Contemporary Cinema.

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license and with the permission of the original author. Read the original article here.

Recommended Articles

Looks like you’re using an ad blocker that may prevent our website from working properly. To receive the best experience, please make sure any blockers are switched off and refresh the page.