The great 21st century blockbuster diversity arms race
If there’s one thing Hollywood learned this winter, it’s that diversity sells. It sells well. For so long the argument against diversifying blockbusters in terms of gender and race has been that presenting the world with realistic demographics doesn’t sell tickets. Anyone with a brain knows that’s not true. We all want to see people who look like and identify similarly to us on screen: It’s human nature. Now, as studios tiptoe into diverse casting, they’re beginning to see the rewards.
In December, Disney released the first Star Wars spin-off, “Rogue One.” Helmed by a white woman, a Mexican man, two Chinese men and one man of South Asian descent, the film became the most diverse Star Wars movie to date. It drew backlash from racists and sexists, of course, but not enough backlash to prevent it from grossing $1 billion worldwide.
“Hidden Figures” also came out over the holiday season and is currently the top grossing Academy Awards Best Picture nominee of 2017. The story of three black female NASA-employed geniuses who helped send Americans into space, the film has grossed $131 million worldwide.
Making a movie from inception to release can take years, so presumably, Hollywood knew these movies would sell long before they were released. It’s clear that including people of color and women in blockbusters is no longer a financial risk for studios. If we look at the big companies and franchises monopolizing the film industry right now, we begin to see a trend. If diversity sells, then diversity can help your movie sell better than someone else’s. Diversity not only sells tickets but makes headlines. In the current climate, diversity can be a competitive edge.
No one knows this better than the DC Extended Universe (DCEU) and the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU). Superheroes dominate our current media landscape. For a long time, they were all white men (and, later, white women). But the slate of movies to be released by both companies points at a recognition that diversity can be a competitive leg up.
On Oct. 15, 2014, Warner Brothers (the distributors of DCEU films) announced they were moving forward with a Wonder Woman solo film. The DCEU was in its infancy then, especially compared to the 8-blockbuster success of Marvel Studios. Marvel’s “The Avengers” (2012) broke $1 billion worldwide, securing the 2010s as the decade of superheroes. Despite the success of Black Widow/Natasha Romanoff (Scarlett Johansson), Marvel had no plans to develop a solo film for her. So as of Oct. 15, DC would be the one to produce the first female superhero solo film. They also planned to hire a female director for it, which was historic. (Only 7 percent of directors of the top 250 grossing movies of 2016 were female.) DC followed through, and on June 2, we will get our Wonder Woman movie, directed by Patti Jenkins. In the same announcement, WB revealed plans for a Cyborg solo film for 2020, which would be the first film centered on a black superhero. Cyborg will be introduced in “Justice League” (2017), but no details about the solo film are known.
The WB announcement happened Oct. 15, 2014. On Oct. 28, 2014, Marvel Studios announced their plans for a Captain Marvel solo film to be released in 2018. Captain Marvel is the title held by Carol Danvers, former air force pilot and current superhero. It has since been announced that the film is being written by two women. The 2018 release date (which is now delayed to 2019) put Marvel behind DC for the first female superhero film. However, Marvel also announced plans for a Black Panther solo film in 2017, which has since been pushed to 2018, vaulting them in front of DC for first black superhero movie. Black Panther/T’Challa is both superhero and leader of the African nation of Wakanda, the most technologically advanced nation in the world. His introduction in “Captain America: Civil War” (2016) was a resounding success. His stand-alone film is written and directed by black men (Joe Robert Cole and Ryan Coogler) and will have a predominantly black cast, all of which is ground breaking for the genre.
All four of these movies were in talks for years before these announcements, and in the case of some, decades. But there’s a reason they weren’t able to be made earlier. Blockbusters with female and black protagonists aren’t as much of a risk anymore. This is in part thanks to smaller studios, franchises and independent films taking these “risks,” and then larger films following suit. I don’t really want to give thanks to anyone for doing a simple human decency, but what I’m saying is that all these decisions feed off another until we’re in an honest to god diversity arms race like the one between DC and Marvel.
Unfortunately, the pinnacle of diversity right now for Marvel and DC is white women and black men. That’s all. There aren’t any Asian men or women or Latinx folks or LGBTQIA+ people or even black women. And while Star Wars can whip up new characters for any demographic, there aren’t many folks with these identities in the superhero source material. This isn’t an excuse for comics-based movies (I can think of seven newer characters to adapt right now), but I’m sure they’ll use it as one anyway. I think queer representation will be an especially difficult and, unfortunately, far-away hurdle given that no one has proven diversity in sexuality sells, even in supporting or background characters.
My hope is that this will change as this arms race will continue on, incorporating more and more intersecting identities as it goes. I hope it will be carried on by whatever trend comes after superheroes and that it will spread through genres and franchises until representation is no longer risky. It’s actually pretty gross that this is the way Hollywood is diversifying—through unfettered capitalism—but I guess we have to work with what we’ve got. Go see these movies three times each to show there’s a market for them and then scream and scream until they let us prove there’s a market for every other identity, too.