Diversity’s Progression in the Marvel Cinematic Universe

Mural entitled "Wakanda Forever" depicting the Black Panther by Shane Grammer aka @shanegrammerarts, seen at 1335 Willow Street in the Arts District of Los Angeles, California. Photo credit to Grammar on Flickr.

For a 21st century film franchise, Marvel Studios was late to the game in terms of diversity, sexuality and feminism. It took 10 years for the studio to produce a titular hero of color, releasing “Black Panther” in 2018. This film kickstarted the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s diversity and inclusivity efforts. “Black Panther: Wakanda Forever,” the sequel to the 2018 film, releases next week, and the studio has come a long way since the first film.

Before 2018, the MCU was not a diverse franchise. The films included only a couple notable heroes of color and three major female heroes, none of whom were titular characters, among their countless white, male heroes. However, since then, Marvel Studios has been creating more diverse films.

“Black Panther” features the MCU’s first titular hero of color, portrayed by Chadwick Boseman, and the rest of the film’s cast and crew were almost entirely people of color, including director Ryan Coogler — the MCU’s second director of color. 

Point Loma Nazarene University professor of American Literature Karl Martin has written essays about Marvel Comics, including “Black Panther,” and dedicated much of his life to studying under-represented groups in America. He noted the natural flow American culture takes in introducing African American voices first. 

“The first move is to introduce Black voices. We’ve seen this throughout culture, especially in literature,” said Martin.

He also said that this introduction of Black stories in Marvel first occurred in the comics when Stan Lee, who is often referred to as the main creative behind Marvel Comics, created the Black Panther character in the 1960s.

When Martin saw “Black Panther” in theaters, he was teaching one of his literature classes about the Harlem Renaissance. He noticed several similarities between the film’s conflict and the beliefs expressed by essayist W. E. B. Du Bois. In the film, the fictional African country of Wakanda has abundant resources, and Michael B. Jordan’s character, Killmonger, wants the Wakandan king T’Challa, portrayed by Boseman, to share these resources with their Black brothers and sisters around the world, especially in America. W. E. B. Du Bois believed that people of African ancestry with resources living outside of Africa have an obligation to share them with Africans in Africa who don’t have resources.

“It’s fascinating to me how this link allows for cultural discourse that starts with W. E. B. Du Bois to make its way into a blockbuster film,” Martin said. “Marvel does their homework.”

Later in 2018, “Ant-Man and the Wasp” was released, which presented the MCU’s first titular female hero (Evangeline Lilly’s Wasp). The following year, Marvel introduced its first solo lead female hero in “Captain Marvel.” The film was also co-directed by Anna Boden, the first female director in the franchise.

Martin said “Captain Marvel” was a huge step forward for the MCU in terms of female representation. He cited the Bechdel test, which measures misrepresentation of women in film by holding films to three standards — the film must contain at least two women, they must have a conversation and the conversation must not be about a man. “Captain Marvel” passes this test with Captain Marvel and Maria Rambeau, who portray a strong female friendship.

This trend of diversity and inclusivity continued into the majority of films that Marvel put out in 2021. In March, “Black Widow” became the first MCU film to be directed solely by a woman, and it stars two women, Scarlett Johansson and Florence Pugh, as the leads. In September, the franchise introduced its first Asian American director, Destin Daniel Cretton, and its first Asian American hero, with the installment of “Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings.” 

Marvel fan and third-year marketing and organizational communication major Jordan Roby said, “My favorite thing about Shang-Chi was how they developed the characters with their culture to produce an outstanding story about a powerful family.”

November brought “Eternals.” Even though it was a box office flop, almost 10 different racial backgrounds are represented in its cast, and the diversity continues into the crew with Chinese-born director, Chloé Zhao, who is the MCU’s first female Asian director. The MCU sees its first openly gay character with Brian Tyree Henry’s character, Phastos. There is also a deaf character named Makkari who is played by Lauren Ridloff, an actress who is deaf. Fans appreciated that a deaf actress was cast to play the deaf character.

“I was glad to find out that they used a deaf actor for the character since characters and actors don’t usually align,” said third-year biology-chemistry major Sarah Pratt.

In 2021, Marvel Studios also started releasing series on Disney+ which provided more opportunities to further develop existing diverse characters and introduce new diverse characters. Some of these characters include She-Hulk, Monica Rambeau, Sam Wilson as Captain America, Ms. Marvel and Moon Knight.

Marvel Studios’ 2022 films, “Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness” and “Thor: Love and Thunder,” introduced America Chavez, a queer Latina hero, and Mighty Thor, a female version of Thor.

The studios’ last film of 2022, “Black Panther: Wakanda Forever,” will expand the African American cast from the first film, as well as introduce Aztec culture and another Latino actor, Tenoch Huerta. With the success and impact the first film had, viewers should expect nothing less from its sequel.