Entertainment

From Lady Thor to Blade, why Marvel is doubling down on diversity for Phase 4

Lady Thor. Blade. The deaf speedster Makkari. As Iron Man and Captain America step off stage, Marvel's plans for the next phase of films are challenging fanboy expectations while reflecting the growing face of the audience.

Encouraged by the success of Captain Marvel and Black Panther, Marvel is redefining what heroes look like

Actors Natalie Portman and Mahershala Ali. She will play Thor in an upcoming film, while Oscar-winner Ali is bringing the Marvel character Blade back to the big screen. (Chris Pizzello/The Canadian Press)

At the San Diego Comic-Con, Kevin Feige,  the head of Marvel Studios, sent the assembled crowd of loyal followers a signal. The world of Marvel movies is changing. 

For Phase 4, the string of movies and TV shows stretching into 2021, Feige announced a range of new characters and faces: 

  • Natalie Portman taking over for Chris Hemsworth as the mighty Thor.

  • Simu Liu starring in the first Asian-led Marvel movie Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings.

  • Mahershala Ali rebooting the daywalking vampire hunter Blade.

  • Makkari, Marvel's first on-screen deaf hero, appearing in The Eternals.

  • Marvel's first LGBTQ storyline featuring the Valkyrie in the forthcoming Thor film.

  • Anthony Mackie, the next Captain America appearing in The Falcon and the Winter Soldier.

An image of the Thor storyline from 2014, left. The vampire hunter known as Blade, right. (Marvel Comics)

The diversity isn't just on camera.  Marvel has also recruited a range of new voices to direct the next string of films:

  • Chinese-American Chloe Zhao directs The Eternals.

  • Cate Shortland directs the 2020 Black Widow prequel.

  • Japanese-American Destin Daniel Cretton directs Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings.

  • Taika Waititi returns to direct Thor: Love and Thunder.

Comic book writer and academic Anthony Oliveira says he's excited for the new wave of storytellers kicking in the door. "It's well past time and it's nice to see it finally happening."

While Oliveira credits Marvel for reinventing the superhero genre, he says in the past fears about the marketplace resulted in lack of risk taking and a certain blandness. But after the recent string of smashes he's happy to see Marvel "finally spending that cultural capital."

Adapting comic book experiments

The reality is, in the comic book business Marvel has already had this battle, as creators have been experimenting with characters such as an Asian Hulk and a Muslim Ms. Marvel for years. 

It was a 2014 Thor storyline where a cancer-fighting Jane Foster became the Thunder God that inspired director Taika Waititi to put a much anticipated Akira remake on hold.

While a certain cadre of comic book fans will always pine for the classics they grew up with, in the world of global film franchises, diversity is already paying back. 

Take Black Panther, directed by Ryan Coogler, featuring an all-star cast of black actors. Not only did Coogler create a visceral film exploring intergenerational issues of injustice, but the movie centred on an African superhero became the second-highest grossing film of 2018, only beaten by Avengers: Infinity War. 

Director Ryan Coogler speaking with Black Panther star Chadwick Boseman during the shooting of the film. (Matt Kennedy/Marvel Studios)

Oliveira says the success of movies such as Black Panther or the female-led Captain Marvel, which earned over $1 billion, has shown that people are hungry for these stories.

"People are sick of having this monolithic culture that it is no longer reflective of the way the world is. It's time to see people who actually look like the audience"

A panel from the short comic My Drag Brunch With Loki, written by Anthony Oliveira, art by Nick Robles. (Marvel Comics)

Earlier this year Oliveira was able to add his point of view to the Marvel universe with the 10-page story My Drag Brunch with Loki. It featured a causal morning between two gay Marvel characters, Hulkling and Wiccan.

He says the audience response was encouraging, with readers telling him, "Finally a gay person writing about gay characters, right."

Amazing heroes for a new generation

Valentine De Landro is comic illustrator and the co-creator of the Bitch Planet comic series.

The big breakthrough for him was the Oscar-winning animated film Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, which featured Miles Morales, a teenager with black and Latino parents who becomes the next Spider-Man. 

"It wasn't clumsy," he says, "Or forced. Just a really great story with solid leads." 

As young black man, Del Landro didn't have heroes such as that to inspire him. However, this Halloween his son, who happens to also be named Miles, dressed as the new Spider-Man. 

He says, not only has the success of Into the Spider-Verse challenged the idea mainstream movies can only succeed with white male heroes, but he says it sends a big message for the generation coming up, 

"Everybody can see themselves represented on the screen. Some people don't think it's a big deal. But I think the ones that don't think it's a big deal probably already have representation. " 

New views, new risks

The other secret weapon in the growing universe of Marvel movies has been range of flavours, or film styles. 

Former horror director James Gunn brought a scrappy irreverence to Guardians of the Galaxy. Spider-Man: Homecoming was more of a John Hughes-ian high school comedy than a superhero drama. 

Oliveira says the value of bringing new voices into the fold is how they see the world differently. Just as Ryan Coogler infused his experience of growing up in Oakland Calif., into the superheroic story of Black Panther, Taika Waititi approached the story of thunder god for Thor: Ragnorak as a New Zealander with a Jewish mother and Maori father. Look under the laughs and the neon colour scheme, Oliveira says, and you'll find "a narrative about colonialism." 

"Just think of that moment he says when Cate Blanchett's character Hela smashes a mural and shows Asgard's history of beautiful accomplishments is actually a bloody imperialist battle."

But while Waititi had a few successful comedies under his belt before Marvel handed him the keys to Asgard, the studio is making a leap of faith with Chloe Zhao. 

While her last film The Rider was quiet, intimate study about a rodeo rider recovering from a brain injury, she's now helming The Eternals, a vast space opera featuring demi-gods, deviants and A-list actors Angelina Jolie and Richard Madden.

Film critic Valerie Complex is here for it.

"She's coming off The Rider, which is 110,000 per cent different from anything Marvel has done. Putting that into The Eternals is important because so many white male filmmakers come in with little to no experience and are allowed to succeed." 

Of all the Phase 4 announcements so far Complex is particularly excited about the return of Blade.

The 1998 movie about a vampire hunter was seen as a template for modern Marvel era. The new version will star two-time Oscar winner Mahershala Ali. "The thing about Blade,"  says Complex, "is much like Black Panther, his blackness is very ingrained in the character."

Complex attributes Marvel's shift in strategy to the support from the audience, in particular online. "The desire has always been there. Now people can rally each other and spread the world."

But comic fans and creators such as Del Landro and Complex are also noticing another ripple effect, a new wave of smaller sci-fi and superhero stories. There's the critically acclaimed film about family of black women with special abilities called Fast Colour. Look around Kickstarter and you'll find campaigns for a new wave of superheroes stories and sci-fi series, inspired by the success of Marvel's big moves. 

Complex says there's a greater willingness to share your story. "People feel that, this is coming out now. I don't have to be afraid." 

About the Author

Eli Glasner

Entertainment reporter and film critic

Eli Glasner is a national entertainment reporter and film critic for CBC News. Each Friday he reviews films on CBC News Network as well as appearing on CBC radio programs coast to coast. Covering culture has taken him from the northern tip of Moosonee, Ont. to the Oscars red carpet.

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