The joy in seeing Black Panther in action for a few seconds in the recent trailers for Captain America: Civil War is twofold: It’s just plain fun; and finally, we’re getting a black character who isn’t a sidekick. Coupled with the news of Ryan Coogler directing the character’s solo outing due in theaters February 2018 and Cheo Hodari Coker helming the Luke Cage show dropping this year, it seems that Marvel is finally making strides toward real diversity by giving us characters of color with some interiority. But looking at Marvel’s track record when it comes to race since their cinematic universe kicked off nearly a decade ago in 2008 with Iron Man, it’s easy to be cynical.
The main issue with the few characters of color that can be found in Marvel’s cinematic universe is that no matter how charismatic the actor or how cool the fight scenes they get seem, they’re all sidekicks. Falcon, War Machine, Luis in Ant-Man—the list goes on. Sure, they’re important to their white friend that headlines the film, providing emotional support, wit, and help in a fight. What they don’t have is much characterization of their own. Their characters can be whittled down to a few buzzy personality traits—witty, dedicated, heroic—but don’t seem to be real people with their own lives. Good luck finding any women of color that matter in these films; the closest is Helen Cho (Claudia Kim), the renowned geneticist who appears in Avengers: Age of Ultron.
No matter how radical a director or writer they choose, Marvel films are primarily cinematic puzzle pieces deftly controlled by producers, not filmmakers. As the producers continue to be white men whose interest in diversity is mostly as a buzzword, we can’t really expect the racism of these works to wholly be reckoned with. In a recent interview with MTV, writer Marjorie Liu, who wrote the best take on Black Widow in the graphic novel The Name of the Rose, spoke about the image of Marvel’s comics becoming more progressive which applies also to its cinematic universe: “It’s great we have a female Thor, it’s great we have a black Captain America […] But those are just optics, it’s optics of change… Unless you have the structural diversity, the structural change behind the scenes—more women, more people of color actually calling the shots and editing these books—those optics won’t last.” Even escapist works like Marvel’s tell us a lot about our culture—what we value, whose voices we privilege, and how we imagine our heroes.
At first glance, Marvel’s Netflix shows, Jessica Jones and Daredevil, are leaps and bounds better in terms of representation and diversity than their cinematic counterparts. But we shouldn’t let the gains we’re seeing in front of the camera make us forget how paltry the progress behind the scenes is in the way of diversity. Sure, TV today has powerhouse showrunners like Shonda Rhimes, but if you start combing through the writing staffs of most shows, even when they have several characters of color, you start to notice how disturbingly monochromatic the writers rooms are. Maybe that explains the racial issues that continuously appear on Jessica Jones and Daredevil, two shows with white showrunners, Melissa Rosenberg and Steven DeKnight, respectively, and very white writing staffs. While both shows represent a sign of some progress in Marvel’s depiction of people of color insofar as they directly affect the plot and have some sense of an interior life, both shows still treat them as cannon fodder, belabored sidekicks, and at times rely on a slew of uncomfortable stereotypes.
Jessica Jones is at its best when detailing the ways women are manipulated, abused, and controlled through keenly focusing on its titular character’s hunt to take down the mind-controlling villain (and rapist) Kilgrave. But the intersectionality of its feminism comes into question when we look at the treatment of Luke Cage’s wife, Reva, whose death is explored via flashback. Reva isn’t so much a character but a plot point. She exists solely to create further sympathy for Jessica, create a fissure in her newly formed relationship with Luke, and create a paltry explanation as to why Jessica is able to break the control Kilgrave has over her unlike anyone else who has been under his thrall. She’s just another in a long line of “women in refrigerators” throughout television history. That term was coined by comic writer Gail Simone after a 1994 issue of Green Lantern where the masked superhero finds his girlfriend’s dead body stuffed into a refrigerator. The terminology nods to a discomforting trend of the ways women are “killed, maimed, or depowered” as a way to push the story of a male character forward. Reva may be the first black woman in recent memory fridged in order to advance the emotional story of a white woman. Jessica Jones may be a proudly feminist show, but as carefully as it crafts its white female characters, if it can’t imagine the humanity within women of color, how feminist is it, really?
But Jessica Jones’ most egregious example of its issues with race take the form of Malcolm, Kilgrave’s drug-addicted pawn. In episode three, “AKA It’s Called Whiskey,” race is directly brought up twice: first, by Luke in asking Jessica what her issues are when her mood seems sour; second, by neighboring weirdo Ruben when he offhandedly mentions while carrying Malcolm into his own apartment that everyone is a little racist. Jessica then uses Malcolm to get to the anesthetic she learns dampens Kilgrave’s abilities by taking him to the hospital. Malcolm interprets this as an act of kindness, but he’s really just a means to an end for her. Jessica pushes him into a nurse with a cart using the distraction to slip out with the anesthetic unnoticed. The show doesn’t dwell on how Jessica is embodying Ruben’s words by using how Malcolm is presented—as a black junkie—against him. There is a moment when the two lock eyes after she gets the anesthetic that signals how disappointed Malcolm is by her action. But does the show being aware of this bit of low-key racism nullify it? Though many characters, no matter their race, are brutalized on Jessica Jones, much of Malcolm’s suffering is intrinsically tied to his race—and the show knows this yet doesn’t grapple with it. I wasn’t expecting Jessica Jones to become a treatise on race relations in modern culture, but a show can’t inject such heavy ideas into its framework and not follow through with them.
While Jessica Jones is highly aware of race to mixed results, Daredevil seems oddly mute on the subject—which is especially offensive considering that the main thrust of the show is gentrification. The most frustrating example of Daredevil’s racial ignorance is the treatment of Ben Urich. In the comics, Urich is a hard-edged, smart journalist who interacts consistently with Matt Murdock, aka Daredevil; he’s also white. But the show cast Vondie Curtis-Hall, an amazing black actor, who lends Urich gravitas and a rough-hewn nature. Out of all the characters, it is Urich’s story that holds the most emotional weight. We see him struggling to make ends meet in order to take care of his ailing wife suffering from Alzheimer’s. We see how principled he is as a journalist at New York Bulletin and the glories of his past, which makes the dismal nature of his present all the more stark. Urich has a rich history in the comics interacting with superheroes like Spider-Man and has the connections to expose a variety of supervillains. He is a major aspect of Daredevil’s story, learning about his secret identity and proving to be a great ally—which is why I didn’t expect him to killed off in a way that reads as a cheap gimmick.
What’s worse is that his death isn’t even his fault. Essentially, Murdock’s client-turned-confidante Karen Page manipulates Urich, using his love of his ailing wife, into unwittingly visiting villain Wilson Fisk’s mother in her upscale nursing home facility, instead of respecting him enough to give him the information and let him decide what to do with it. Urich of course protects Karen’s involvement in this even as Fisk beats him to death with his bare hands. Season one showrunner DeKnight notes that Marvel came up with the plan to kill Urich, saying to The Hollywood Reporter, “…killing off Urich was decided before I signed on. […]They really wanted to show that toward the end of the season because we knew we’d get some sympathy for Fisk to have him do something truly terrible that would propel Matt into that final endgame in the confrontation with Fisk.” DeKnight’s quote signals that Urich’s death is really only meant to give Murdock more motivation—as if he needed any more. He’s another black character brutalized to provide emotional pain and motivation for the white lead.
Jessica Jones has a similar dynamic with the character, Detective Clemmons (played by Clarke Peters, best known for his exemplary work on The Wire). The story hits all the same beats: an older, black man and authority figure who is one of the only trustworthy people in his profession. Our heroes need his help in order to take down the main villain. He’s reluctant but eventually joins their side, only to be brutally killed because of it. There’s something disgusting about both shows killing off black characters for cheap shock value with identical story beats.
Then there is the treatment of Claire Temple (Rosario Dawson), the nurse and part-time help for unwitting street-level superheroes. On Jessica Jones, Claire only appears as a glorified cameo at the end of the season, becoming entangled with the titular character when she brings Luke into the hospital. The most interesting moment of her appearance comes in an exchange with Malcolm:
Malcolm: What does that make us…the sidekicks?
Claire: Oh, I’m no one’s sidekick.
This exchange feels both self-aware and condescending because even though Claire doesn’t see herself as a sidekick, thus far Marvel’s television universe definitely does.
On Daredevil, Claire is more important, becoming an integral player patching up Murdock on his many brutal excursions, and occasionally playing with the idea of her as a love interest. But the show is largely uninterested in her as a character. She disappears partway through the season without any fanfare—but not before being attacked by Russian thugs. No matter the extent of their brutality, she still protects Murdock’s identity and retains her wit like armor. Like Karen, Claire is a woman contending with forces far greater than her; unlike Karen, the show never delves into how this brutalization affects her. Instead, it becomes another thing for Murdock to mope over.
Luke Cage bypasses many of the issues the other characters of color face on the show, but even he disappears midway through the season, and there are some uncomfortable racial connotations to his relationship with Jessica that the show glides over. I’m of two minds about Luke’s treatment on the show. On one hand, Mike Colter’s performance has a lot of spark and his rapport with Jessica gives the show some of its best moments. But there’s something about the mix of the camera’s leering gaze, Jessica’s stalking, and the show’s failure to fully imagine its other black characters that leaves me uneasy.
While black and Latino characters don’t fare well on either show, it is the Asian characters on Daredevil that are the most steeped in stereotypes. They willingly blind themselves. They’re expert ninjas (although not expert enough to take down Murdock, of course). They’re inscrutable crime lords lurking in the shadows. The two Asian characters given the most screen time are queenpin Gao and Nobu, a Yakuza member whom Murdock kills. Despite the heavy-handed conversations Murdock has about killing one man for the greater good, the death of Nobu doesn’t seem to affect him. Nearly every “yellow peril” stereotype you can think of is trotted out for Daredevil. There’s a frustrating irony to seeing white men (as creators and characters within the show) appropriate Asian martial arts while treating actual Asian characters as afterthoughts.
These dynamics appear again and again through Marvel’s cinematic and television universe, bringing up a few important questions: What do we really mean by diversity? Is it just seeing characters of color on screen with something to do? Or do these narratives need to privilege their experiences and pain in order for the representation to be meaningful? Yes, both Jessica Jones and Daredevil have people of color, many of which affect the shape of the plot. But these shows trade too much in stereotypes and the silencing of pain people of color deal with to be looked at as straight-up progress. Maybe Luke Cage will right the wrongs of Jessica Jones and Daredevil before it, more fully developing Claire, Reva, and other black/Latino characters. Maybe the upcoming Black Panther movie will prove that Marvel can write black characters with interiority, but if it’s taken Marvel this long to focus on characters of color, can we really trust them to deliver?
Original illustration by Krishna Shenoi.