Transforming Superhero Canon

This weekend, S and I shelled out for beer, babysitting, and cinema tix to see Doctor Strange, the eighty-thousandth Marvel superhero movie released in the last 15 years. It was worth it, I guess; but even as Marvel is ramping up for a new tier of cosmic crossover craziness, I’m cooling to the whole notion of putting superheroes on the big screen.

It might be that I’m slipping out of the franchise’s target demographic, but I don’t think so. I’m really the perfect consumer: a former comic book geek with plenty of fond, nostalgic but sufficiently hazy memories of all the right characters and plotlines – plus disposable income, and even a kid to buy toys for (I rarely feel like these films are aimed at kids, but that doesn’t stop them from merchandising the hell out of them. Seriously, it’s hard to find “boys’” products that don’t have Spider-Man on them).

I also enjoy tracking the films’ tight, interconnected mythology, but I’m not the sort of fan who takes to the internet whenever he notes an inconsistency, or a chance from “canon” (more on that later). I’m exactly the person they want to come to their movies, times a billion. But I’m ready to quit.

Superheroes are power fantasies. In the 60s, when most of these characters debuted, their hypermasculine characterizations and black & white morality were reassuring and safe. Then, in the 80s, a few comics writers deconstructed the ethics of costumed vigilantes, most famously in Alan Moore’s Watchmen, which asked “Who watches the watchmen?” As the 80s became the 90s (the period when I was collecting), most of the good writers were exploring variations of this theme – their heroes had to grapple with the enormity of their actions and responsibilities, instead of merely punching their way out of infinite crises. Since then, I think, the pendulum has swung back and forth in comics; some eras favour light and breezy wish fulfilment, while others dive into gritty, grey morality and real-world parallels.

To their credit, the producers of early Marvel movies chose to eschew both these relatively easy routes. Iron Man and Avengers films walk an impressive line between the extremes; their heroes are flawed yet admirable, and they can laugh (and make us laugh) even when facing morally complex situations. Using this formula, Marvel Studios managed to get me invested in lots of characters about which I never cared in my comics days (did anyone ever care about Ant-Man?).

But while they were meticulously rendering the cardboard heroes of the 60s into plausible flesh & blood heroes, the filmmakers overlooked some things that comics writers have recently done very well: updating, diversifying, and challenging the status quo. I recently started to collect comics again, and so far nearly all my favourite series star either female heroes (The Mighty Thor, The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl), minorities (the new Totally Awesome Hulk is Korean-American), or both (Ms. Marvel is the first Muslim superhero). Care to guess how many of Marvel’s gazillion films have been headlined by a female superhero. Yeah.

That brings me to the concept of canon. Comics series with 50+ years of monthly history can have impossibly convoluted backstories, yet fans insist upon writers’ fidelity to canon. Thus, since Tony Stark built his original Iron Man suit while fighting the Viet Cong, this origin story must always define him (barring alternate timelines, of course). Never mind that it would make a contemporary Tony at least 70 years old. Canon is canon, and it’s part of what makes comics both an insular and expansive reading experience – readers are initiates into a secretive but seemingly infinite world, where knowing the right facts unlocks all sorts of special knowledge.

Blockbuster films can’t afford to be so specialized, so Marvel Studios threw out comics canon to construct their own, now called the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU). Now Stark gets his start in Afghanistan, not Vietnam. But here’s the thing: with its overhaul, the MCU has had loads of opportunities to diversify the superhero lineup – to pepper the endless parade of white male heroes with a few more black/Asian/female/queer etc. ones.

And they’ve tried, but only in very perfunctory ways. Marvel Studios is now owned by Disney, so conservative storytelling is baked right into the pie. They are also overly inclined to cater to the small but vocal population of internet fanboys who do seem to care about Ant-Man, and really take it personally when Heimdall, a third-banana character in Thor mythology, gets portrayed by a black actor, even though the comics wrote him white. As a result, the films have thrown out the canon whenever it suited their need for cinematic storytelling, but they’ve hewn closely to the political, racial, and cultural ethos of the 1960s.

Case in point: Doctor Strange, a cliché colonial power fantasy in which a white man learns mystical arts from an Asian Sorcerer Supreme, then goes on to surpass his master. Doctor Strange has never been a top-selling comic, nor does the character have a gigantic fanbase. Marvel Studios could have freshened up this tired narrative in many ways; if they cast an Asian actor to play Strange, for example, he could have rediscovered his own heritage, instead of exploiting someone else’s.

But not only did they cast a white guy in the lead, they recast his mentor – the head of a Nepali monastery – as a white woman. Points for gender-bending, I suppose; but now you’ve got two Sorcerer Supremes co-opting Asian culture. Meanwhile, in an example of race-bending casting, one of Doctor Strange’s allies goes from white (in the comics) to black (onscreen)…but then turns out to be a bad guy, thus fulfilling another stereotype. One step forward, one step back.

Meanwhile, 14 films and 5 TV series along, the MCU has firmly established its own canon, and is now beholden to it, for better or worse. I’m not enthusiastic about watching an earlier generation’s culturally dubious narratives retold, embellished, and strip-mined for any traces of humour or pathos. I’m not looking forward to the inevitable swing into black & white morality – a trend already seen in Doctor Strange, as earthbound heroes venture into other dimensions, some of which are just “pure evil.” I used to love these characters – some of them, at least – but they are not the heroes we need anymore.

NOTE: There are exceptions to every rule. The Netflix series Jessica Jones, while not perfect, is well worth checking out as a rare example of a female-led superhero story that uses fantasy tropes to tackle social issues head-on, rather than using issues as window dressing for a formulaic adventure story. Also: Guardians of the Galaxy? Pretty damn fun.


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