Fans act like Marvel Comics can do no wrong. But do they always do right by their Black fans?
It’s no secret that comics in general can do better with Black representation and by Black fans. But when it comes to Marvel the same issues always surface. Whether it’s whitewashing, colorism, queerbaiting, or erasure, these seem to be regular occurrences in comics as well as on-screen. It takes way too long for any leading Black protagonists in the MCU to show up. Previous ones have been relegated to sidekicks and extras. The only exception is Nick Fury. Despite not being a main protagonist in anything, he’s been a key figure in his own right from the start. Of course, it certainly helps that the character was deliberately molded after Samuel L. Jackson in the Ultimate line of comics since about 2000.
We still, as of 2021 have no main Black woman character to headline her own film. Yes, Riri Williams is getting her own tv series, and that is excellent news. But we need films for Black women as well. Certainly, Marvel Studios needs to cast Storm accordingly when she inevitably shows up. But she too deserves her own standalone movie.
A Longtime Fan
I have been a lifelong fan of Marvel Comics. The X-Men in particular was always my favorite since I was a child watching the 90’s animated series. Back when I used to call Wolverine “X-Man” because I could see he was showcased the most. When I discuss these things, I’m not coming from the position of hate. I am coming from a position of love. I love this IP so very deeply. It helped get me through so many hardships in life I could not control. Marvel helped me believe in the impossible. It made me think I might also be a mutant who could manifest powers beyond my wildest dreams.
But even in love and appreciation, there can be drawbacks. As I grew up and began to recognize issues and patterns, I realized that Marvel was not the best it could be when it came to people who look like me. Why was it that nine times out of ten, Storm was the only Black member of the X-Men? How come Falcon had to play second-fiddle to the very white Captain America? Why do so many Black (let alone other) characters come from the cop and/or military backgrounds? As a young Black American, I was taught that cops were not there to protect or serve me. Also that joining the military would lead to my being used for white supremacy, and either killed or broken inside. I still love Marvel, but I can’t ignore the wrong it does, and there’s a lot.
Whitewashing and Colorism
Marvel has an issue with whitewashing and colorism and it’s been ongoing for a very long time. From Sunspot above in two movies to Dr. Cecelia Reyes from the same movie pictured above. To Dani Moonstar in the very same (seriously, what the ever-loving fuck is wrong with Josh Boone and Fox???). To Storm in the Fox X-Men films, (though to be fair Halle Berry wasn’t their first choice, Angela Bassett was, but she turned it down). However, the very unfortunate casting of Alexandria Shipp as Storm in the prequel films was a deliberate choice because “she looks like a young Halle Berry”. As horribly as that went, Shipp’s tone-deaf comments where she was pushing back against accusations of colorism, meant that Storm absolutely must be cast accordingly, or else Marvel Studios will be complicit. The MCU isn’t perfect either as they infamously whitewashed The Ancient One in Doctor Strange.
Unfortunately, whitewashing is not just an issue in screen adaptations and casting. Different comics artists and colorists have come on board to depict characters, lightening characters and often outright erasing their ethnic features. This is a consistent issue with Sunspot (even in the comics), Storm, Bishop, Monet St. Croix, and many others. Even Monica Rambeau herself was once drawn in a way where, while her skin was still dark, her ethnic features were downplayed. Her hair was straightened and her features were Caucasian. She looked like a white cosplayer dressing up as Monica in blackface.
Black Queer Love and Representation
Now, when it comes to Black queer love, we have exactly one example in all of Marvel (if you know of others, please let me know): Ayo and Aneka in The World of Wakanda comic series. Every other Black queer character is promptly put into interracial relationships. And while interracial love is ok too, Black love deserves to be seen and celebrated, and Black queer love as well. Aside from the Wakandan ladies, we also have Prodigy of the X-Men and Young Avengers pictured above (making a pass at someone else’s partner no less, as his coming-out story of being bisexual). He makes a pass at a green alien hybrid who is a white blonde on his off-time, previously dated a Japanese girl, and ends up dating the white/silver-haired brother of the guy whose boyfriend he made a pass at. Not the best in my opinion, but that’s just me.
I just wish that Black queer characters could express interest in other Black people, and not just for love and sex, but even for friendship. Marvel, like a lot of companies, seems to think that Black people don’t like to talk to and interact with other Black people. Why must we always be tokens in majority non-Black groups, spaces, and relationships?
Queerbaiting and Queer Erasure
But what happens if we can’t even get queer representation in the first place? What happens when it gets teased or dangled in front of us but never actually fulfilled? There were many issues with Falcon and the Winter Soldier, but one I feel not enough people are talking about is the obvious queerbaiting in episode 2. We start with having Sam being unprofessionally included in Bucky’s therapy session before being forced to sit uncomfortably close to him, literally knees-in-crotch. Later Sam rescues Bucky and they end up tumbling on the ground, with the men on top of each other. Mind you, Sam still hasn’t truly been confirmed to even be heterosexual in this universe. Sam has had no love interests. He has never expressed any romantic or sexual interest in anyone. There has been no mention of an ex or a lover back home. This is mostly due to Sam’s horrible under-development.
Meanwhile, Bucky has shown interest in women, but aside from a bad date and a random flirty moment with Sam’s sister, there isn’t much. That also doesn’t rule out potential bi or pansexuality or sexual fluidity. It’s no surprise this whole thing happened because Disney has consistently been behind when it comes to queer representation, and the MCU is no exception. The erasure of Valkyrie’s bisexuality reveal in Thor: Ragnorak and the disappointing reveal of “the first onscreen gay character” being a random gay man whose partner died in the snap, played by one of the two directors, no less, are clear indications of this. I don’t ship Bucky and Sam or even care a bit about Falcon or Anthony Mackie (or his respectability politics in real life), but the queerbaiting is still egregious and annoying for those who do ship them and want queer representation.
Black Legacy, Tokenism, and Erasure
Another issue I took with Falcon and the Winter Soldier was the erasure of Isaiah Bradley as the first Black Captain America. Bradley first appeared in The Truth: Red, White & Black where it was revealed that before the Super Solider Serum was perfected and given to Steve Rogers, prototypes of it were tested on Black American soldiers. Numerous mutations and death ensued and Bradley was one of 10 survivors of about 300 test subjects. He was ultimately the only one to survive overall after he stole a Captain America suit and assumed the mantle. The series established that Isaiah indeed fought and was even still a super soldier, but makes no mention as to him actually being a Captain America. Between this and the respectability approach, Sam took to Isaiah’s honest and vulnerable story of his life and experience (he at one point literally tells Bradley “times have changed”).
In the comics, Bradley’s story was inspired by the real-life Tuskegee Experiments performed on Black Americans. Sam’s journey to being Captain America, feels comparatively less impactful. He spent years following a white man around and fighting alongside him. Even worse in the MCU, Sam had little to no character development beyond just that. Even though Bucky has layers and development, Sam had nothing until his series. Sam wearing that costume, while comics-accurate, is grating, especially now as we deal with more and more antiblack racism and anti-Black American sentiment. I personally would have gone with a revamped costume patterned after the Juneteenth flag. But it’s not my character and certainly not my series or IP. For me, Falcon and the Winter Solider will forever be the series when Sam realized he was Black and decided to take up the legacy of a white man anyway.
Don’t Let Them Sit Comfortably, Demand More!
Contrary to popular belief, critiquing something does not make you a hater. You can call out issues and also come from a place of love, hoping you will be heard and changes will be considered and made. Marvel is incredibly popular and its fanbase is plentiful and unrelenting. This is not unexpected, as they have put out some amazing characters and stories across the board. But we have to do better ourselves and we deserve to consume and experience better since we pay for it with our time and money. Many of us invest even more. Comics will live rent-free in my mind for the rest of my life, but I need them and their adaptations to continue earning that privilege constantly.
As we change as a society and learn more about one another and learn to recognize and respect each other’s differences and needs, our media needs to reflect that evolution. We need more gender and color diversity. Also, we need Black cishet, Trans, non-binary, and queer love and relationships. We need more Black friendships, Black joy, and families. And for God’s sake, more Black women in these projects are important as well as starring roles! Everyone can grow, learn and improve, and Marvel is no exception.