Back in 2017, The Marvel Cinematic Universe was a pretty, well, white place. Yes, it was still a great, great, great place – and one that had turned the entire movie business on its head – but it was one largely populated by white male characters. The heroic likes of Captain America, Iron Man, Thor, The Hulk, Spider-Man, Doctor Strange et al were hardly equally balanced by Black Widow, Gamora, Nebula, Heimdall, Hogun and Pepper Potts. It’s there, plain and simple: there were very few women, and even fewer people of colour, taking centre stage in The Marvel Cinematic Universe. And people were noticing. Once the initial excitement surrounding these cracking superhero flicks had eased a little, critics started looking for chinks in the armour, and they found an obviously tattered seam very quickly. Where was the diversity?
Producer extraordinaire Kevin Feige – the man responsible for laying out the blueprint for The Marvel Cinematic Universe – was listening, and he obviously felt it in his heart. Feige’s nemesis, however, was Marvel Entertainment CEO Ike Perlmutter, whose lack of enthusiasm for female superheroes was famously exposed during the Sony email hacking scandal, where he voiced his belief that they were box office poison. Feige had to fight to get 2019’s female-led Captain Marvel off the ground. Actor Mark Ruffalo who, of course, plays The Hulk, laid it out in an early 2020 interview with The Independent. “When we did the first Avengers, Kevin Feige told me, ‘Listen, I might not be here tomorrow. Ike does not believe that anyone will go to a female-starring super movie. So if I am still here tomorrow you will know that I won that battle.’”
Feige did indeed win that battle, with a promotion to the position of Marvel’s Chief Creative Officer (from his previous presidency of Marvel Studios) meaning that he no longer has to deal as intensely with Ike Perlmutter. “That was the turning point for Marvel,” Ruffalo told The Independent of Feige’s possible early exit. “Because Kevin wanted black superheroes, women superheroes, LGBT superheroes. He changed the whole Marvel universe. We now have gay superheroes, we have black superheroes, we have female superheroes. No other studio is being that forwardly inclusive on that level. They have to, though. This is the fucking world. The culture is way ahead of the politics.”
With Kevin Feige in more firm control, The Marvel Cinematic Universe has certainly become a much more diverse place. Captain Marvel (along with Warner and DC’s Wonder Woman) proved that guys and girls would rock up in massive numbers to watch a female superhero kick arse, while 2018’s Oscar nominated Black Panther turned out to be nothing less than a cultural phenomenon. Feige and co have continued to up the ante, bringing another female superhero into the spotlight with 2018’s Ant-Man And The Wasp, and greenlighting a swathe of upcoming projects that veer from the previous white male framework: WandaVision and She-Hulk are female-focused TV series for new-streaming-service-on-the-block Disney +; Shang-Chi And The Legend Of The Ten Rings boasts a largely Asian-American cast and crew; Eternals features a gay character and is directed by Asian-American filmmaker Chloe Zhao; and Black Widow finally puts Scarlett Johansson’s eponymous Avenger front and centre, and has a female behind the camera in the form of Aussie director Cate Shortland.
Marvel Studios’ biggest Phase 4 nod to diversity, however, is undoubtedly the character of Ms. Marvel, who will be getting her own show on Disney +. Though there have been prior figures to take on the Ms. Marvel mantle in the comics (including Captain Marvel herself, Carol Danvers), the one hitting the screen will be Kamala Khan, who was created by Sana Amanat, G. Willow Wilson, and Adrian Alphona, and debuted back in 2013. A teenage Pakistani American from New Jersey with shapeshifting abilities, Kamala Khan was the first ever Muslim superhero to topline a comic book, and rates as a major game-changer. “It’s really quite wonderful when I’m at a convention, or just talking to fans who I’ll meet a comic shop, and I see how they’ve reacted not only to Ms. Marvel, but also how they’ve become a fan in very recent years of comics and superheroes,” Sana Amanat told Entertainment Weekly. “So much of what I wanted to do was try to help and make this industry a bit more inclusive.”
That push is now not just happening on the page. It was no accident that Ms. Marvel was chosen to be one of the playable characters in the new video game, Marvel’s Avengers. It’s a high profile inclusion, and it speaks powerfully to Marvel’s commitment to creating a more diverse comic book world. It’s certainly not lost on Egyptian-American actress Sandra Saad, who voices Ms. Marvel in Marvel’s Avengers, and sees the character as a potent antidote to stereotyping. “I am very similar to her,” Saad told The LA Times. “I relate to the struggles of being a first-generation American and growing up as a young brown teenager who doesn’t necessarily fit in and is a little awkward. This is a good role. I’m hopeful that I can continue playing a character who doesn’t play into a negative stereotype, a character who embraces her background. Kamala is Pakistani, Kamala is Muslim, but the game isn’t about her religion, because that’s not what life is.”
Used as an entry point for players, Ms. Marvel is essential to the success and playability of Marvel’s Avengers, and she will likely be taking on a similar position with her own Disney + TV series. A superhero fan-girl who worships Carol Danvers’ Captain Marvel (and gets her powers via a convoluted set of circumstances connected to the intergalactic space warrior), Kamala Khan is all set to become a fan’s avatar in even more powerful ways than teenage crime fighter Peter Parker alias Spider-Man. And the likelihood of Brie Larson’s Captain Marvel crossing paths with Ms. Marvel is almost a given considering the mentor-apprentice relationship that exists between the pair in the comics.
But first and foremost, Marvel Studios looks to be bravely leaning into Kamala Khan’s racial background by doubling down with a very character-appropriate list of players just named to be involved with the TV series. Bisha K. Ali will be the showrunner and head writer, while Adil El Arbi and Bilall Fallah (Bad Boys For Life) have been tapped to direct eps, along with documentary filmmaker Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy, and TV veteran Meera Menon, whose credits include The Walking Dead, The Punisher and Outlander. Ms. Marvel’s racial and religious background will obviously play a huge part in the Disney + TV series, and that makes her one of the most fascinating – and one of the most important – Marvel characters to make their way to the screen. “I feel like she’s the future,” Brie Larson – Captain Marvel herself – told comicbook.com. “So when I’ve been asked about the future of the MCU, or the future of the Captain Marvel series, I want to be with her.”
Marvel’s Avengers is available now. Click here and here for more about the game. If you liked this story, check out our features on Under Screened Marvel Superheroes, the popularity of superhero movies, and Marvel Studios figurehead Kevin Feige.