The Diversification of our Childhood Superheroes

Behold we have entered a golden age of superhero fandom! Those of us who have fanatically followed our favorite comics since we could read our first words, revel in (or hate on) the mainstream love for our favorite superheroes. Critique what you will about the comic book movies being produced, they are blockbusters and box office hits rivaling king of movie makers James Cameron’s own epics. From the artistically gritty Nolan Batman series, to the nerd-tastic Whedon universe Avengers franchise, we have entered a dimension where Iron Man, Nick Fury and Ra’s Al Ghul have become household names and Comic-Con is the most important promotional tool for a film that broaches even slightly on a geeky subject (I’m looking at you Teen Wolf and Twilight). Now we even have amazing televisions series sprouting up with Stephen Amell and the surprise hit Arrow leading a wave of developing comic book based superhero shows. And sure, there have been flops (*cough Green Lantern cough*) but on a whole the superhero genre has been treated with respect, creating rich deep characters with fascinating pathos and three dimensional plots.

With the expectation for full-bodied superheroes, we have to be able to connect to their plight in some way. I think every Jewish person who watches Magneto, especially the children and grandchildren of holocaust survivors, gets exactly where he’s coming from and connects on a deeper level with his tragic hypocrisy as a supervillain. Being Jewish has allowed me to also take pride in the rich ties Judaism has with the comic book industry. Jewish supers and their creator give me a sense of ownership, a deep connection with the motivations behind the need for a superhero. As the genre becomes more and more mainstream, other cultures are yearning for that same kinship. Diversity in comic books and now their adaptative films has become a common want among fans, and perhaps it would be good to wipe the slate clean and give us a melting pot of superheroes.

I don’t think what we consumers think of as a superhero has changed all that much since the forties. We still want to see a beacon of truth and justice protecting us and selflessly giving themselves over for an ideal or the human race. We are inspired to do good and to recognize the heroes in our own lives seeing these not so idyllic gifted men and women stand up for what they believe is right. So what has changed?

Recently, debates for more diversity in superhero culture have come to a head, as casting for movies become scrutinized down to every wrinkle on the actors face. When Will Smith appeared on a short list for Captain America, a national debate was started over how necessary a character’s race is. Joss Whedon, director of The Avengers and female superhero advocate, expressed his disappointment in the lack of female characters in the Marvel universe.Most recently, albeit half a joke, Andrew Garfield made an aside questioning why Spiderman couldn’t be gay.

I would argue certain heroes make sense being specifically white, male and straight (among them Superman, Batman and most certainly Captain America) but thats not the case for most. It is totally arbitrary whether characters like Flash, Aquaman, and Hawkeye were black, hispanic, asian, Jewish, Muslim, male or female. These are simply people with cool powers who decide to help others, and maybe making them minorities helps us understand their motivation just a tad more. The comic books have begun to normalize sexual preference in this way and it has been hugely successful in my opinion. The characters are not pigeonholed as “gay superheroes” but are superheroes who are also members of the LGBT community and balance the trials and tribulations of both lifestyles. Best examples are the “new” Batgirl Kate Kane and Young Avengers couple Hulkling and Wiccan.

Perhaps I am wrong, but I think current superheroes have lost ground being cut from the old cloth. Additionally, I think characters that are race specific have also lost their footing in this world. We have characters that were clear panderings to their communities, but I hardly believe Black Panther and Bloodwynd,the original attempts to diversify the universes who are so deeply tied to the African piece of African American, are effective attempts at diverse superheroes. Magneto is not “the Jewish supervillain” but rather a supervillain whose experience as a holocaust survivor shape his character. Luke Cage, Falcon and John Stewart’s Green Lantern are all effective forms of true diversification within superhero cannon for similar reasons (I am aware I am heavily focused on using African American characters, but that is because they are the best examples).

If you would like to fight me on any of these points be my guest. I love talking shop about comic books. I don’t think it would be so difficult to do a clean slate in the major industries. To be perfectly honest, the New 52 as a reboot attempt has been a largely underwhelming attempt to revamp DC, but there most successful reboot in my opinion has been Wonder Woman. Marvel also has become a little dull, relying heavily on crossover hits to stay relevant. Whedon wrote an arc of X-Men which had been heavily focused on Kitty Pryde and Emma Frost, and it was one of the most effective X-Men storylines of the last two decades. Even Superman got diversified in the Supermen of the multiverse Final Crisis storyline, with one, Calvin Harris, being the most obvious nod to President Obama since he was literally placed in a Spiderman issue.

We readers love superheroes, but we also yearn for something deeper than the idyllic do-gooder. It is time the world feels what I feel when I read X-Men and Spiderman and we create characters that are both super and heroes like our current role models including advocates, political trailblazers and, most importantly, our mothers and fathers.

About the Author
Gabriel Felder is a rising senior at George Washington University's School of Media and Public Affairs. He has also served multiple positions in the GWU Hillel and has largely focused on faith based dialogue on campus.