Marvel rolled out its newest slate of movies Tuesday, and my Twitter feed has been exploding with excitement over two of the titles in the mix: “Captain Marvel” and “Black Panther,” which will finally bring superpowered women and people of color to a big screen environment long dominated by white men in ridiculous uniforms. (Marvel’s television slate, which includes four series in development for Netflix, has been more representative.)
As an advocate for diversity in media, it is nice to know that the people who found a way to make an animated dancing transplanted seedling look completely adorable have finally bestirred themselves to put a black man and a woman in costumes and endowed them with the power to punch things very, very hard. But as someone who loves action movies, I find myself reserving a considerable amount of enthusiasm until I have a chance to see the final results.
The formative movie-watching experiences of my teenage years and young adulthood involved standing on a line that wrapped around the block in my small town to see “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon,” an action movie where the fights all were a matter of expressing the characters’ tenderest, rawest feelings about love and parenthood. A cornball classic like Michael Bay’s 1996 movie “The Rock” may be profoundly silly. But as Dr. Stanley Goodspeed, Nicolas Cage’s cool scientist, and John Mason, Sean Connery’s elegant prisoner, went to war with Brigadier Gen. Frank Hummel (Ed Harris), the resulting mayhem was all about the three men’s personal styles and the clash between science and raw force.
What these films taught me is that violence is personal. When combat is hand-to-hand, the way each person fights reveals the core of their character. And when the scale of mayhem is grand, that says something about their relative callousness, sensitivity and priorities in the response. Sure, these movies proved that their heroes were competent and important. But they had other things to say as well.
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Marvel’s present crop of superhero movies has occasionally managed to use violence to help understand the men and women who deploy it, and who they think is worthy of protection or an anonymous death. Anthony and Joe Russo’s “Captain America: The Winter Soldier” is the best example of this approach, with its genuinely painful-looking, one-on-one fights and its muddled but sincere effort to turn its conclusion into a meditation on the moral limits of the use of force by the state.
But there is a disturbing sameness to the finales of many of its films, whether they focus on one superhero at a time or a whole assemblage of them, and whether the setting is a major American metropolis or a fictional, far-flung planet. Some of this is due to the same second unit directors working on multiple superhero movies and doing what they know time and time again. And some of it is due to a timidity, a sense that if superheroes (or even ordinary old Starfleet crews) are not rescuing an entire city from imminent destruction by alien invaders, crashing starships or even just brawling supervillains, they must not be so super.
Ushering T’Challa (who will be played by Chadwick Boseman) and Carol Danvers into this pantheon raises, in its own small way, an important question about the purpose of diversity.
Is the point of getting women and people of color (not to mention LGBT people and people with disabilities) into positions traditionally occupied by white men to prove that women and people of color can succeed in those positions on precisely the same terms? Or is it to change those roles and those institutions, to demonstrate that the way things have always done is not the only way they can be done?
If “Black Panther” and “Captain Marvel” tell the same stories, with the same stakes expressed in the same way by the same second unit directors, that will be fine. Part of the point of fantasy is to throw off the preconceptions that shackle us, to imagine what the world would be like if women were not considered weaker and less effective than men, or where the use of force by black men was presumed to be legitimate rather than criminal.
But, oh, would I love to see Marvel (and DC) make movies that not only accept a wide range of superheroes, but also show some imagination about what it means to be super, and some more visual panache and variation in expressing it.
We have had a period “Captain America” movie, so why not a period movie about Black Panther rejecting Western help to protect his kingdom of Wakanda from the Nazis, a subject handled nicely in animated form? (The answer, of course, is that Marvel is really running a giant television series, rather than a movie franchise, and wants audiences to feel that they have to see every installment or they will miss out on crucial elements of the story.)
And if Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) can learn that it is more virtuous to be self-sacrificing than to show off, it would be fascinating to watch Carol Danvers use her abilities to control heat and gravity to ends other than simply making things explode. What if superheroes could build things instead of just destroy them?
By now, we are all thoroughly convinced that a man can fly. It is time for Marvel and all of its superheroes, men and women, black and white alike, to amaze us again.