Avengers: Endgame executive producer on its 1st openly gay character and a more diverse future
Warning: Minor spoiler for Avengers: Endgame
Avengers: Endgame features the first openly gay character in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, a move that is "incredibly important" to the franchise, says one of its executive producers.
The character, who is unnamed and played by Endgame co-director Joe Russo, appears in an early scene in which a support group is grappling with the loss of half of humanity after Thanos wipes out the population in a single snap.
Russo's character talks about his first date since losing his male partner, and is on screen for only a few moments.
Despite the brief screen time, Victoria Alonso — who along with Kevin Feige and Louis D'Esposito make up the triumvirate of executives making the decisions at Marvel Studios — told CBC Radio's q that it's a significant moment as they move to reflect the world more inclusively.
"You know what, Thanos didn't discriminate," she said during a stop in Toronto ahead of the Endgame premiere. "He came and he hurt everyone, so why wouldn't you have representation?"
Russo, who played the part, told Deadline that "representation is really important."
"We wanted a gay character somewhere in [the films]."
Russo added that it was vital that he, or his co-director/brother Anthony Russo play the part, to underscore Marvel's commitment and "focus on diversity."
However, ahead of Endgame's wide release Friday, some critics decried that casting decision and the scene's subtleness in a film with so much going on.
"While the scene features a gay character in a casual, realistic way, it also feels tokenistic," wrote the Daily Dot's Gavia Baker-Whitelaw. "Instead of giving the character a bigger role or hiring an openly queer actor to play him, the Russos made this all about their own 'integrity.'"
'A level of responsibility'
Alonso, who is openly gay, says that diversity has become ingrained into the culture at Marvel, which takes its influential role as a cultural tastemaker seriously.
"I think there's a level of responsibility that comes from being one of the very few that get to hike that mountain and everyone is watching," she said.
While some Marvel actors, such as Brie Larson and Michael B. Jordan, are active supporters of measures like an inclusion rider — a clause that requires fair representation between gender and race on major films — Alonso said no Marvel picture has ever used one.
"We are dedicated, we're active, in trying to have balance crew and cast" she said, noting Black Panther's 14 department heads that were female and Captain Marvel's 12.
Diversity is a keyword for the studio that, just a decade ago, began by releasing a barrage of male superhero-driven films, including Iron Man, Captain America, Thor and The Incredible Hulk, becoming one of the most profitable franchises in the process.
It's their choice. We can't shove it down your throat.- Victoria Alonso, executive producer, Avengers: Endgame
Alonso joined Marvel as co-producer on 2008's Iron Man, and says she was the only woman in the room at the time. Since then, Alonso has worked on every Marvel film, climbing the ranks to executive vice-president of visual effects and post-production.
"I never wanted to be the only woman and there's times where I remain to be the only one," Alonso said. "It depends on how fast people want to measure change, but change is happening."
When it comes to casting roles, she said they challenge themselves.
"Does every character that is written as a white man have to be a white man, or could it be a black man?" she said, mentioning the character of Nick Fury, played by Samuel L. Jackson.
"With Nick Fury, it was never intended to be an African-American playing the part. ... I think it's important for people to demystify the fact that the only people that can have the power is a white man."
Mixed fan reaction
As Marvel Studios grew more and more successful, it started introducing more diverse characters, but it has not always been well-received by fans.
When Black Panther was released, which featured a main cast and director who were black, critics orchestrated a campaign to sabotage its Rotten Tomatoes score. Similarly, Captain Marvel was smeared ahead of its premiere — a practice known as "review bombing." In response, Rotten Tomatoes shut down the ability to comment on a film before its release.
Marvel can likely expect more of that as it introduces its next phase of titles, which includes a Black Panther sequel, Shang Chi, the first Marvel film focusing on an Asian superhero, and a solo film for Black Widow, the Avengers character played by Scarlett Johansson.
"I think for the hardcore fans that do not want to accept it at the moment, I think we will continue to honour the story and hopefully, they'll come along for the ride," Alonso said. "But if they don't, that's OK too. It's their choice. We can't shove it down your throat."
Correction: An earlier version of this article stated that Black Panther was the first major studio film to focus on a black superhero.