How White-Washing Superhero Films Misses The True Point Of Comics

by Sara Li
Marvel Studios

After moving to the United States at the age of 6, without knowing a single word of English, I first found my niche in the back corner of the Wichita Public Library.

It was an area of the building that was barely lit, and it had more dust than sanitarily recommended.

It wasn't the lure of Sylvia Plath's unabridged journals or even the easy appeal of the children's section that drew me back to that building day after day. Instead, it was this collection of comic books that were tattered, torn and utterly abandoned by the frequent cardholders of the place.

At the time, I didn't know what a single word on those pages meant, but I can still recall the long days spent in my corner, as superheroes and supervillains darted over the flimsy pages. I made up the stories in my head because at the age of 7, what was already established didn't matter to me.

Mary Jane Watson was the leading lady in my universe, and Barry Allen was my favorite drug addict. My world as a young child was consumed by the vivid panels of the comic universe, and to this day, I wouldn't have had it any other way.

As I grew older, my love for storytelling didn’t stop.

I eventually learned the actual narratives of the comics, and I invested myself in the origin stories and alternative universes of each character. I earned myself a sufficient lack of friends and a stack of comic books tucked away in my bookshelf.

As a child who had been unfathomably lonely, I always found comfort in the idea that anything is possible in the comics. A radioactive spider can transform lives, girls can be just as strong as the boys and good guys will always save the day.

I needed the reassurance and optimism contained in the pages of my favorite stories. Comic books taught me how to be brave in times of distress, and that even an unhappy teenager in Kansas could transform herself to be something of a supergirl.

When Hollywood finally chose to tap into the wealth of profit that was the comic book franchise, I couldn't have been more thrilled. It didn't matter to me, initially, that the stories were altered or plotlines were changed. I was just thrilled to witness some of my favorite tales brought to life on the silver screen.

But as movie after movie came out, I was starting to become uneasy with some of the casting choices and character creations.

It started with Christopher Nolan's decision to white-wash Ra's Al Ghul, one of the most notorious villains in DC-verse, by casting Liam Neeson rather than anyone of actual Middle Eastern ethnicity. It continued when Benedict Cumberbatch was selected to play Dr. Strange, with Tilda Swinton rumored to be cast as his formidable Tibetan mentor.

My frustration with Hollywood's blatant racism and lack of concern for actual diversity finally boiled over when Sony was exposed for only wanting white males to play the role of Peter Parker.

All of this doesn't point toward a simple coincidence within the entertainment industry. This is the forced erasure of POC and LGTBQA roles in a franchise where diversity and representation are celebrated.

By ignoring these crucial notes, Hollywood is completely missing the objective of what it means to fight injustice.

Even Andrew Garfield, who played the role of Peter Parker before Sony decided to reboot the series for the umteenth time, addressed these long-time concerns of the fanbase:

[Peter] represents the everyman, but he represents the underdog and those marginalized who come up against great prejudice which I, as a middle-class straight, white man, don’t really understand so much. And when Stan Lee first wrote and created this character, the outcast was the computer nerd, was the science nerd, was the guy that couldn’t get the girl. Those guys now run the world. So how much of an outcast is that version of Peter Parker anymore? That’s my question.

When Garfield suggested the possibility of Peter Parker being bisexual in reboots, he was immediately dismissed by the director of the film. Hollywood, it seemed, had no room for any sort of diversity on any scale.

By making all of your protagonists heterosexual white males, dear Hollywood, how groundbreaking can these films truly be?

Superheroes are supposed to reveal a new world to us. They're supposed to show us the meaning of strength and the importance of being true to yourself.

In a time where transgender people have high suicide and murder rates, and black people are actively being targeted for simply existing, it would make the most sense for Hollywood to address these concerns through the only franchise that exposes and fights injustice.

The creators of most comics understand that times change, and with that, the narratives we held so close to our hearts might evolve along with us.

When I picture my 7-year-old self, a friendless foreigner in the middle of the United States, I'm enraged to admit I'm glad I didn't have the chance to see the movies.

It's so terribly frustrating to imagine children around the world watching "The Avengers" on screen, and being unable to find themselves in the fray.

Just for a minute, imagine the truly fantastic storytelling that could come out of the superhero franchise if it wasn't so controlled by bigoted billionaires in the film industry. For the narratives to truly be refreshing and world-shattering, let's examine what it might be like if Marvel or DC showcased some of their most underutilized tools.

Charles Xavier is a handicapped superhero whose disability is addressed for approximately three minutes in "X-Men: Days of Future Past."

Superman is, by all means, a non-American, whose greatest strength is his undying belief in human goodness. Bucky Barnes is a victim of chronic abuse, and the role of Robin was handed down to Stephanie Brown before she became Batgirl.

These characters are not as stationary as Hollywood would lead you to believe; they are constantly emerging and evolving, just as we are.

It's not a limitation of material that's preventing Hollywood from showcasing these characters as they are; it's the limitation of the mind through a deep-rooted reluctance to properly address representation and diversity in media.

Unknown to non-comic book readers, there is a whole world of possibilities Hollywood refuses to touch.

Instead of retelling Spider-Man's origin story for the third time, Hollywood, let's consider the possibility of introducing Miles Morales, Peter's successor and the first black-Hispanic Spider-Man.

Let's consider making an origin story about Cindy Moon, an Asian Spider-Woman (Silk) who battles PTSD as one of her enemies.

Let's consider making Lady Thor an actual character in "The Avengers."

But as Hollywood likes to remind us — just as Joss Whedon can disregard the Maximoffs’ Jewish backstory by making them Nazi sympathizers — there is no actual reasoning behind the lack of female representation in a genre that's half dominated by women.

Hollywood is doing a disservice to itself by making it clear that directors and producers don't understand the purpose of superheroes by retelling the same missed points.

Hollywood is doing a disfavor to us, the viewers, by continually sweeping identities of all orientations under the rug until all we're left with is the message that unless you're male, white and straight, you have no room in this world.

And if I wanted that kind of useless propaganda in my life, I would just vote Donald Trump for president.