We are living in a golden age of the superhero genre. We’re averaging four films a year and they all strive to be artistically distinct from each other while being profitable for their respective studios. Whatever your personal thoughts on the superhero genre are, it is important to note that with this degree of success, there is a lot of potential. Because superhero films are almost always guaranteed to make their money back, studios are willing to take risks that they might not be prepared to with other blockbusters. In fact, the popularity of superhero films has directly allowed the rise of minority visibility in genre filmmaking, both in front and behind the camera.
Being a minority artist in western culture has always been difficult. Every decade has offered a unique set of challenges for marginalized artists trying to get their work seen. One of the biggest challenges in the 21st century is the segregation of genres. The idea that certain genres of film or literature or whatever are unofficially considered ‘off limits’ depending on your racial or gender identity. Women, LGBTQ+ persons, people of color and more are seen as being less knowledgeable about certain genres. In reality, not only do minority fans of genre entertainment exist today but they have always existed. Furthermore, there are minority artists who love those genres as much as any other creator and want to lend their unique voices to those genres. This segregation of genres is harmful to potential minority writers of genre fiction because it bars them from the kind of jobs they can get later on. I myself have dealt with this particular barrier in many forms.
This is one of the reasons I love the Marvel Cinematic Universe.
Marvel Studios went from “Iron Man” in 2008 to “Black Panther” in 2018. One of the biggest black casts in Hollywood blockbuster history, written and directed by Ryan Coogler, a black man. What happened in those 10 years? Well, the Marvel Cinematic Universe is the passion project of producer Kevin Feige. Known as a smart producer and a huge comic book fan he’s also been an advocate for minority voices within genre entertainment for decades. As the Marvel movies earned higher and higher returns Feige used his position to push his superiors at Disney to greenlight projects and casting that some at the time considered “risky.” The two that he fought for the hardest were “Captain Marvel” and “Black Panther.” Not only did he want them to get made but he wanted minority creators behind the camera on both projects. Along the way Feige had every excuse in the book thrown at him: “Superhero movies based on black people or women don’t sell as many toys,” “Every superhero movie starring a woman has bombed before.” But eventually both “Captain Marvel” and “Black Panther” got made. With both films being so successful they crossed the 1 billion mark at the global box office.
The long lasting effects of both of those victories cannot be unstated. In an interview iconoclast black filmmaker Spike Lee talked about how “Black Panther” struck a massive blow to many racist notions in Hollywood, namely that films helmed by black directors won’t play as well overseas.
Additionally every successful Marvel or DC film helmed by a minority filmmaker is a huge boost to their careers because not other studios feel more confident in entrusting them with high budget projects, not just blockbusters but personal passion projects and other films as well. Taika Waititi, a biracial Polynesian Jewish filmmaker from New Zealand, got his passion project “Jojo Rabbit” greenlit because of the huge boost to his career he enjoyed from Marvel’s “Thor Ragnarok.” Guillermo Del Toro, an immigrant filmmaker from Mexico, won Oscars for best Feature Film and Best Director for his passion project “The Shape of Water” after decades of directing blockbuster comic book movies.
The future continues to look bright for minority representation in genre fiction, at least in the superhero genre. “Eternals,” “Black Widow,” “Wonder Woman 1984” and “Birds of Prey” will and are all directed by women. “Birds of Prey” is especially exciting to me: a big budget R-rated superhero film that it is produced, written, directed and mostly starring women. This is unheard of for the genre and it will be fascinating to see what further opportunities this cast and crew will be able to go on to do with this project on their resumes.
When a movie set in a fantastic genre helmed by minority persons does well at the box office it strikes the blow against the idea that certain groups don’t enjoy genre fiction, and further helps to create a world on film as naturally diverse as the one we actually live in.