Diversity in the Superhero World

Posted: July 21, 2011 in Uncategorized

Strong female heroes don't get much stronger than Velvet


I’ve been thinking about heroes recently.

I guess that shouldn’t be too surprising considering I’m going through the edit and layout period for the next Cobalt City anthology. Plus, Timid Pirate has been working behind the scenes to line up their catalog for 2012. And then there’s a summer full of superhero movies, San Diego Comic Con starting today, and the big DC 52 roll-out next month.

Superheroes. I can’t escape them. Nor would I want to.

But what I would want is something I’m unable to find in the big superhero machine. And that thing is diversity. The subject came up on this blog the other day and sparked a conversation thread that I’ve seen repeated over and over and over again. Here are my thoughts on the matter diversity in this movie genre. And, just like any of my thoughts, I’m going to start by breaking the problem down.

There are essentially three kinds of movies in Hollywood. Let’s take it for granted that if any established hero from the DC/Marvel stables gets turned into a movie, it’s going to be done by Hollywood. Safe assumption. As much as I’d curb-stomp a baby duckling to see the Nigerian film studios make a Black Panther movie, it’s a pipe dream. That leaves the three Hollywood options: Indie, Mid-list, and Blockbuster.

Indie isn’t going to happen. These are franchise characters, and the companies that own the Intellectual Properties (IP to you hipsters out there), want more control than they’d be able to exercise with an indie film maker. Plus, the budget limitations place real restrictions on what characters they could spin out in this market. (Dream Indie project would be Robert Carlyle as John Constantine, shot in London for under $10 million, and give it to James Wan to direct. Or Jason Statham as Union Jack, directed by Guy Ritchie in that same price range.)

Mid-list is an option, and one that they’re already started to explore with B and C-list characters. This has proven to be a mixed bag. Sometimes you end up with something much better than expected (as in the Blade movies), and sometimes you end up with garbage (I’m looking at you, Jonah Hex). The temptation here is that some studios figure that the characters aren’t quite canonical enough, so they make changes, dress it up into a standard action movie in spandex drag. For every director who has a love of the project and character, you have one more just cashing a check to turn out whatever the studio wants. The mid-list does have some advantages, though. It isn’t a huge investment by Hollywood standards, so they can take risks on characters and still have a halfway decent budget to play with. You could make a great Luke Cage movie with Isaiah Mustafa for that kind of money, or Black Panther staring Djimon Hounsou. Or give the ladies some love and make She Hulk or Birds of Prey. This is all viable on this kind of budget.

Finally, we get to the blockbuster, which is where these things have been going for a while. The biggest reason is likely to create a tent-pole franchise like Batman or Harry Potter. Give the audience one huge spectacle movie every year or two, and it will make back that enormous investment for A-list actors, effects, etc. But for this, the studios figure the bigger the name recognition, the bigger the potential audience. See, it’s not just about making a great movie that the fans love. It’s about making the movie that the widest segment of population will love. Watchmen is a prime example of this. It was made with almost slavish devotion to the source material, with actors cast because they could act, and not because of name recognition. It cost a fortune to make and market. It was not considered a financial success. And a large part of this could be due to the fact that comic book lovers know and respect the source material, but Watchmen doesn’t have a widespread appeal/recognition. Not like Batman and Superman and, yes, Wonder Woman.

That’s the problem with Wonder Woman. She’s doomed because of name recognition. But at the same time, she has no definitive origin story beyond “From a land of Amazons sent into man’s world.” The finer details have changed too much over the decades. That makes it very difficult (as Joss Whedon found out, no doubt), to pin down one vision of Wonder Woman and say “This is the story we need to tell.” But at the same time, she’s a recognizable IP which is money in the bank, so they have to make a big movie and do it right. And they have to be reasonably sure that they’ll make back their investment.

So how do you make back that investment? Action movies starring women do poor at the box office, historically. I don’t really know why. And you’ll need a big name actress to get asses in the seats, but you also need one who can do the part convincingly. And that, my friends, is a hard nut to crack.

Go check out the Wonder Woman movie discussion and you’ll get a much more detailed analysis. Mostly this has been a way at getting to the real issue. Superhero action movies have been, for the most part, a white boy’s club. A large part of that is due to the simple fact that most superheroes are white males. There are exceptions, and those exceptions have already been turned into a bevy of bad movies that did poorly at the box office.

It’s too easy for the studios to look at failures like Catwoman or Elektra and say, “Clearly, people don’t want to pay money to see female superheroes.” I argue that people just don’t want to see shitty exploitation films. Hollywood has already screwed up so many of the very few recognizable female characters, and with the exception of Blade and Steel, they haven’t even scratched the surface minority characters. There aren’t that many around, after all.

Let’s take a moment to look at the numbers from the new 52-title launch from DC. Considering solo books only, we have six staring women, and five staring minority characters (Voodoo counts in both, for 10 total). Solo books staring white dudes have double that number. The other 32 books have teams of some stripe. Another interesting note, ethnic diversity means one Hispanic and no Asians or First Nation peoples. And if anyone out there knows of a Muslim superhero, or Arabic, I’d love to hear of it.
I’d encourage readers who appreciate diverse heroes to check these books out when they launch. (For your reference, they are in no particular order: Voodoo, Wonder Woman, Supergirl, Batwoman, Batgirl, Catwoman, Batwing, Mr. Terrific, Static Shock, and Blue Beetle.) Heck, at $3 each, that’s only $30 for the whole diversity package from DC. What a bargain! And if they’re any good, continue to support DC’s efforts with your loyalty to the books by buying, reading, recommending them and bloging about them. Because sales are the only thing that matters in this biz.

So that’s the state of the industry.

Thankfully, it isn’t the state of Cobalt City. I’ve written four novels in the world, half of which star Manuel de la Vega and his panda sidekick Snowflake. The other books, the Protectorate Novels, feature a diverse cast with strong female characters.

And next year, Timid Pirate plans on publishing 5 long-form projects. Among those, only one features a white male protagonist. Three of them will feature strong female heroes that really excite me. And better yet, they aren’t derivative of active male counterparts.

It makes me wish I was writing for the Cobalt City universe next year, but there’s nothing in the works yet. There are just too many other irons in the fire for other projects. But at least I can help shepherd the flavor of Cobalt City, and that’s a different and even more fulfilling goal.

And who knows…maybe I’ll write that story I’ve been thinking about with the young Iraqi boy who discovers his powers after moving to the city? It’s a big city. Anything can happen.

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Comments
  1. Hey, thanks for the link! I’m interested in your evaluation of the three levels of movie-making … it does seem as though the mid-level would be the way to go, and might mean that a decent female superhero movie would get made (or some other minority … I’d totally watch either Mustafa or Hounsou in a heartbeat), but I also agree that Wonder Woman herself is sort of a “big name” that trends more to blockbuster. Perhaps that’s why there’s not been a movie yet, eh? Thanks so much for reading!!

  2. Thanks for getting the dialogue rolling with your Wonder Woman post! There may not be a live-action movie coming down the pipes anytime soon, but at least the animated one that they produced a year or so ago was pretty awesome, and much grittier and darker than I would have expected from a cartoon!

    I’ve been hearing rumblings from the Marvel Studios development team that they plan on exploring the mid-list movies a lot more aggressively. They’re developing scripts for Black Panther, Doctor Strange, and (so rumor would have me believe) Iron Fist. And the multi-picture contract that Scarlett Johansson signed to play Black Widow suggest that there might be a solo movie down the pipes that showcases the character much better than Iron Man 2 did.

    One can hope.

    But I imagine my dream Huntress movie staring Erica Cerra (Detective Jo Lupo on Eureka) is unlikely to ever happen.

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