By TYLER BREITFELLER
The Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) has done a stand up job of taking the company’s previously B-list names and turning them into commercial gold. If someone would’ve told me that Iron Man would be headlining the biggest films of the decade, I probably would’ve asked, Who?
At its onset, Marvel Studios pushed the boundaries, giving films to obscure comic characters. They stretched their roster from the World War II super soldier Steve Rogers (played by the relatively unknown at the time Chris Evans) to Thor, the Asgardian god of thunder. With a host of well-developed plots, intense action and clever dialogue, the films soared to the top of the box office year after year. The plan was to introduce each hero on his own before throwing them together for a crossover hit, all while introducing more characters, ever adding to their expanding universe. It was genius, a cinematic universe that was new and exciting and bold. At first, anyway.
Since it struck commercial success, Marvel has fallen into a rut. For over five years, the universe has been led by a slew of buff, tortured white guys. Of its eight solo-led movies since 2008, not one has had a female or hero of color as its focus. Despite the fact that the Avengers’ sole female member, the spy, Black Widow (played by Scarlett Johansson), seems to be the character stitching the Marvel Universe together, jumping from title to title, she has yet to receive her own film. Fans have repeatedly rallied for the MCU to expand its cast’s diversity, even appease them with a Black Widow film announcement, but Marvel Studios president Kevin Feige is consistent in his answer: “The timing just isn’t right.” The studio seemed to have found time on the horizon, however, to announce plans for Black Panther, a film focusing on the African king T’Challa, and Captain Marvel, its first female-led feature. Coming nearly a decade since the MCU’s inception, these hopeful prospects are too little too late.
Another exciting update for the non-white-male crowd was the announcement that the second Avengers ensemble piece, Age of Ultron, would be featuring two new faces: Wanda Maximoff, the Scarlet Witch, and her twin brother, Pietro, also known as Quicksilver. First introduced in 1964 as the children of infamous X-Men adversary Magneto, Wanda and Pietro are of Jewish and Romani descent, and two of the most powerful mutants in existence. Two non-white powerhouses and one was a female? It seemed too good to be true. And when casting news got around, that’s exactly what it turned out to be. In November 2013, it was confirmed that Elizabeth Olsen and Aaron Taylor-Johnson, two more white actors, would play Wanda and Pietro.
The people behind Age of Ultron — the director, the casting director — made a choice. The twins have been in comics for 50 years and have always been Romani — an Indo-European group that is not white, and has faced, and continue to face, extreme ostracism, persecution and violence for not being white. Of course, hailing from comic books, the two have been drawn by many different artists who have given them many different features. Wanda in particular has been subject to many artists’ ideas of what is beautiful, and has, throughout the years, had hair both curly and straight, every eye color and light or dark skin depending on the day, the series and the colorist. When it comes to Pietro, sometimes he has a small nose; sometimes it’s more hawkish. In the ’60s and ’70s, both Wanda and Pietro were drawn very pale and could pass as white, but in the last 20 years the trend has been to draw them both with darker skin and features reflecting their ethnicities. The director, casting director and other minds behind Age of Ultron made a choice between all of the different possibilities for depicting these characters, and they decided to go for white-passing Maximoffs, played by white actors. Adding the Maximoffs to the roster was a perfect opportunity to have heroes of color, played by actors of color, who could have promoted positivity for an ethnic group that gets almost no representation in current films.
The twins’ Jewish heritage comes from their father, who anyone that has seen an X-Men film knows as Magneto. However, since Marvel Studios doesn’t own the rights to his character, a man whose entire motivation was formed by his time in Nazi concentration camps as a child, they won’t be able to explicitly include the influence he has on his children. No big deal though, right? The Maximoff twins could easily be the children of any other Jewish man or woman and have the same heritage and principles driving them forward.
Well, while nothing has been specifically stated on the matter by Marvel, one thing has been confirmed: As of Captain America: The Winter Soldier, the two are in the care of HYDRA, a terrorist organization hailing from Nazi Germany. What’s worse, according to Taylor-Johnson, the two volunteered to be experimented on and used by the group. In the film, they face the Avengers as members of the terrorist group. The film’s writer and director, Joss Whedon, has taken two strong, complex, ethnic characters and turned them into troubled neo-Nazi youth. This was a choice that was made and, frankly, it was an uninspired, distasteful and mean one. There are a lot of unburied bodies in Europe of Jewish and Romani children who were killed in the name of furthering Nazi science. There are still a lot of survivors today who carry the memory of those experiments either on their own bodies or in their memories. None of these people ever “volunteered” for experimentation. None of them ever went to the Nazis because they were “angry” and “wanted revenge.”
The MCU is one of the fastest growing franchises in the world, and it’s coming up on becoming the highest grossing film franchise of all time. Shouldn’t it be expanding its diversity rather than appealing to the same old standard? The misrepresentation of the Maximoff twins is incredibly important, chiefly because there is no other representation of their group. By whitewashing the characters, the MCU is taking away every little Romani child’s chance to look up at the big screen and see someone just like them accomplishing something great. By serving them to HYDRA as test subjects, the MCU is pouring salt in the wounds of every family that still feels the pain of the Holocaust, of crimes committed and of lives lost. And by okay-ing this, the big men in charge, from Whedon to Feige, have let their true colors show. Sorry guys, but whitewashing your minority characters to avoid racist implications only makes you more racist.
People love superheroes. They’re a reminder of all that we can accomplish, that everyone is superhuman in their own way. Proper representation in these films could make a difference to one child, or it could change a generation. It could give people a stronger sense of identity, an affirmation of themselves. It could give children someone to look up to, a reason to expand assumptions of their own capabilities, a reason to reach to achieve more. But while the MCU has come a long way in many aspects, its handling of representation is far from acceptable. I would say I have high hopes for its next phase of films, for T’Challa, King of Wakanda, and Carol Danvers, the strongest being in the universe, but I think by now I’ve learned not to get my hopes too high. HYDRA and Marvel’s writers could be lurking around any corner.