Last week, the trailer dropped for what will be the 26th movie in the Marvel Cinematic Universe franchise: Eternals, directed by Chloé Zhao. Opening with a dreamy, misty shoreline, we hear Skeeter Davis’s The End of the World. An ominous spaceship appears over the ocean, and the Eternals begin to prepare for the impending battle.
This year, Zhao was only the second woman (and first woman of colour) to win Best Director at the Academy Awards: a reminder of Hollywood’s entrenched gender and race biases. The cinematic world of Marvel, which began with Iron Man in 2008, has been similarly male and white.
Of the 23 Marvel films released so far, just one has been directed by a woman (Anna Boden, who co-directed Captain Marvel with Ryan Fleck) and two by people of colour (Ryan Coogler for Black Panther, and Taika Waititi for Thor: Ragnarok).
But things are changing.
In July, Natasha Romanoff (Scarlett Johansson) — one of the original Avengers — will finally get her own film in Black Widow, directed by Australian Cate Shortland.
In September, Destin Daniel Cretton’s Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings will showcase a predominantly Asian cast, where superhero Shang-Chi (Simu Liu in the character’s film debut) encounters the terrorist group Ten Rings.
Read more: Oscar winners: how the pandemic led to a record-breaking year of diversity
Zhao’s Eternals, to be released in November, will see an immortal alien race forced out of hiding after thousands of years in a quest to save humanity. Starring a multicultural, ensemble cast including Gemma Chan, Salma Hayek and Angelina Jolie, Eternals will feature Marvel’s first openly queer superhero — Phastos (Brian Tyree Henry) — and deaf superhero — Makkari (Lauren Ridloff).
Asian American Cretton has said:
Growing up, I didn’t have a superhero that looked like me and it’s really exciting to give a new generation something I did not have.
Owned by Disney, Marvel Studios is an entertainment giant, which has grossed over US$22.5 billion (A$29 billion) at the global box office. Its investment in more diverse stories, characters and directors is clever marketing. But it is also an indication of the dynamic relationship between one of the world’s biggest film franchises and its fan base, and how they both sit within the broader culture.
Marvel, like all film studios, has found itself creating popular culture during a period of great social and political upheaval. Global movements such as #MeToo, #BlackLivesMatter and #StopAsianHate have been a clarion call for social justice.
These movements have exposed and challenged discrimination and violence against marginalised groups, including exclusion from representation on screen and behind the scenes.
Pressure from #MeToo activists has seen Hollywood hire more female filmmakers since 2018. In the wake of #BlackLivesMatter’s growth in 2014 came #OscarsSoWhite in 2015, a movement which led to a remarkable change in the diversity of filmmakers — and the recognition they received.
Knowing their audience
2018’s Black Panther broke new ground with its all Black lead cast and Coogler as the franchise’s first African American director. Making US$1.34 billion (A$1.72 billion) at the box office, it is the second highest grossing Marvel film in the US.
Read more: How I marvelled at Black Panther’s reimagining of Africa
2019’s Captain Marvel, the franchise’s first standalone female superhero film, with its first female director, made US$1.13 billion (A$1.45 billion) at the box office.
This year we had a Black Captain America for the first time in the Disney+ spin-off series The Falcon and the Winter Soldier. Directed by Kari Skogland, the series was the streaming service’s most watched premiere ever.
This casting, and the story the series told about race, resonated with viewers who were frustrated and angry at the criminalisation and disempowerment of Black men playing out time and again in the news media.
This is not to suggest Marvel is radically undoing the biases of society and the film industry, smashing stereotypes shored up by centuries of patriarchal or colonial domination. That would be an insurmountable challenge even for the Avengers.
Rather, Marvel’s increasingly liberal steps stem from an understanding of the power of the people. The franchise’s continued success depends on remaining culturally relevant and, crucially, not underestimating what its audiences want — and who its audiences are.
Familiar tropes of Asian-ness will appear in Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings (Shang-Chi’s powers are, of course, martial arts skills). But by handing over the keys to Cretton and his culturally diverse creative team, we can expect Marvel’s first standalone Asian superhero film to be a nuanced, multifaceted depiction of Asian cultures and identities not seen before in the genre.
As an immigrant female director and Marvel enthusiast, Zhao perhaps epitomises the future — and logical endpoint — of Marvel’s quest for inclusion and diversity.
“I’m not just making [Eternals] as a director,” she said. “I’m making the film as a fan.”