Race, gender and the Marvel Cinematic Universe

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Does Captain America: The Winter Soldier get the race and gender balance right where other superhero movies have failed?

Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you’ll know that Captain America: The Winter Soldier was released in cinemas across Europe last week. The sequel to 2011’s Captain America: The First Avenger aims to set the bar high, and the final product does just that – it’s a superhero film that ends up being much more than just some huge dude flying through walls, pummelling the enemy and getting the girl. Even more so, the film stands out for other reasons entirely. How gender and race are handled on the big screen are two age-old discussions, and both subjects can easily be applied to the superhero sub-genre. And Captain America: The Winter Soldier nails the race and gender balance pretty well.

Marvel, like the film industry in general, has a long way to go in terms of representation, but The Winter Soldier is a good start

The Winter Soldier is the first Marvel Cinematic Universe title to feature more than one prominent black character – Nick Fury (played by the omnipresent Samuel L Jackson) has his character and screen time greatly expanded from where he has stood in other Marvel titles. Meanwhile The Cap receives much-needed help from Sam Wilson, aka the Falcon, an ex-army paratrooper played by Anthony Mackie. Steve’s right hand is also the deadly assassin Natasha Romanoff/Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson, making her third MCU appearance). That’s not all – coming to save the day are not one, but two more female characters: field agents Maria Hill and Sharon Carter. Instead of having three female characters running around screaming or waiting for a man to save them, it’s these three who tend to be the ones doing a lot of the saving.

It’s a good start. I use the word “start” as Marvel, like the film industry in general, has a long way to go. To turn the good that MCU has done on its head, the studio could’ve started doing this from the get go when it launched in 2008. However great it is to see these characters on screen in The Winter Soldier, it can also be argued that Natasha, Maria, Sam, Nick and Sharon are all just there to aid the strong white male character when he’s in need. Although Steve Rogers, as well as Iron Man and Thor, save their ‘sidekicks’ and supporting characters (War Machine in the Iron Man series, Jane, Sif and The Warriors Three in Thor), these others are just there to make the respective heroes look even greater than they already are, while the protagonists hog the glory.

More on Cap 2: Does it contain a rare world-building blunder from Marvel?

the winter soldier chris evans scarlett johansson

Marvel has done a great job building a universe and creating films that almost everyone wants to see. One thing that the studio is known for is teasing future projects years in advance while tying everything together into a neat yet strong vibranium bow. The studio has announced that it has two projects scheduled for release in 2016 and 2017, and more coming beyond. Only one has been formally announced (it’s a third Captain America film), but be willing to bet that those will include a sequel to Thor: The Dark World, and a Doctor Strange origin movie.

It shouldn’t be unprecedented now to see Falcon, Nick Fury and three more-than-capable female characters in the same feature

A huge question mark still hangs over what that third property is. Rumours have been swirling for years regarding standalone features for Black Panther and superheroine Captain Marvel, but neither movie has come close to fruition – yet. Also, depending on who you believe, Black Widow may be heading to our screens solo in a few years (as a character who has appeared in supporting roles three times, it’s about time). But as for the eagerly anticipated Avengers: Age of Ultron, coming next year? Johansson will make an appearance, but don’t hold your breath for Falcon’s return: when speaking to Yahoo!, Anthony Mackie stated “I haven’t got a phone call from anybody…so I’m guessing I’m not in it.”

Although sticking to two projects a year is a smart move for Marvel, it also means that the wait time for movies starring Captain Marvel, Black Panther and Black Widow may be a lot longer than some are hoping for. Marvel (and its Cinematic Universe) is on the right track, but there’s still much to be done. I’m not the only one to point out how unprecedented it is to see both Falcon and Nick Fury in addition to three more-than-capable female characters in the same feature, but it shouldn’t be unprecedented by this stage. By now, it should be the norm.

 

More on Marvel equality: Marvel’s women are more than just eye candy

 

All images: Marvel

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