The Marvel Cinematic Universe has been a media juggernaut for over a decade, with acclaim from viewers worldwide. The box office, merchandise sales, and hours of all of our free time that Marvel devours definitely reflect its popularity. One can certainly nitpick the films' quality from different artistic angles, but the general consensus is that every movie (not called Thor: The Dark World) is entertaining.
But while the MCU has its rightful share of well-earned kudos, there is also well-earned criticism. Some of the choices many of the executives and creators at Marvel made weren't too heroic. In fact, many of those choices felt more like the acts of Hydra rather than the Avengers.
Actually, that's a great first example ...
They #AllFascistsMattered Hydra
As depicted in the comic books and in Captain America: The First Avenger, Hydra was the subversive paramilitary organization bent on world domination that was founded by Nazis that thought Hitler wasn't as impactful as he should have been. It's essentially a Nazier party within the Nazi party. But no matter the amount of Nazi, it should be punched. Cap and the Howling Commandos rightfully punched, kicked, and shield-kabonged fascism in its red skullish face.
Yet, between the first Cap movie and Captain America: The Winter Soldier, Hydra suddenly had a diversity membership drive. A primary Hydra agent that infiltrated S.H.I.E.L.D. was Jasper Sitwell, portrayed by Maximiliano Hernandez. There are also other Hydra agents of color attacking Captain America in the elevator ...
While Marvel's Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. also had current and former Hydra members of various races. Diversity should be celebrated, even if it is within a Nazi-founded organization, right? Well, no.
Instead of the simple, unified message of "Nazis bad," Marvel just made Hydra "Nazis complicated." It invites the idea that their philosophy is misunderstood rather than insidious. After all, "Hail, Hydra!" and "Heil, Hitler!" are two entirely different salutes.
Via Wikipedia, Paramount Pictures
But why wouldn't Marvel just stick with treating Hydra as despicable Nazis? Aside from trying to shy away from controversy (although "Nazis = Bad" shouldn't be controversial), there's another possible reason: merch.
Sticking a Black soldier, an Asian double-agent, or a Latinx spy into the otherwise white Hydra mix every so often appears to be Marvel's lame attempt to distance them from Nazis. This allows Marvel to safely sell t-shirts of pseudo-Nazi imagery that could dog whistle to certain groups that are also Nazi-adjacent. After all, white supremacists have money, too.
While we're on the subject of Nazis and diversity ...
They Erased Wanda & Pietro's Jewish Background And Made Them Nazi Experiments
Prior to 20th Century Fox getting bought out by Disney, there were several licensing issues regarding Marvel characters and who had the rights to use who for movies and television shows. Every character written throughout Marvel's comic book history was up for possible litigation regarding film, TV, or streamable media.
Without getting heavily into the legality of everything, Fox and Marvel Studios were both able to legally use the Scarlet Witch and Quicksilver, as both characters were originally mutant villains in the X-Men comics that turned into heroes on the Avengers roster. Sharing is good, yes?
Well, not in this case. Comic fans know that Wanda and Pietro Maximoff are the Jewish-Romani children of the X-Men villain Magneto. Since Marvel Studios couldn't reference mutants or the X-Men characters in their films at the time, they had to create new lore for the twins. New, problematic lore.
There was a reason that Wanda and Pietro being Jewish was brought up in the previous paragraph. The team at Marvel decided to have the characters introduced as superpowered agents of Hydra, the previously mentioned Nazi group that's "Totally not Nazis; that was just a phase, I swear you guys. We're an inclusive brand of evil now."
Disney, German Federal Archives
Instead of literally doing anything else, the decision was to erase Wanda and Pietro's Jewish-Romani heritage and make them from Sokovia, a country that doesn't even exist. That explains why the nation's main export is on-again, off-again Eastern European accents. Oh, and they further rewrote their origin by having them volunteer for Hydra experiments to give them superpowers.
So instead of keeping the characters' original background, a background shared by a very ostracized, prejudiced, victimized, and struggling minority that could use positive representation on the big screen, and finding any other way to introduce the characters to the movies, Marvel decided to just make someplace up so their Not-Nazis can create them as ubermensch-- er, superpowered soldiers.
They could have just been Jewish-Romani kids that stumbled upon an Infinity Stone. Or got powers from a lost super-soldier formula attempt that they discovered. Or literally anything other than alluding to the real-life experimentation of Jewish people by Nazis. For some reason, that was Marvel Studios' final solu--er, narrative problem solver.
Since we're on the subject of cultural erasure ...
They Whitewashed The Ancient One
Admittedly, Marvel needed to change up the image of The Ancient One for the Dr. Strange movie because he usually looked like this:
Since it was apparent that having The Ancient One portrayed as a Fu-Manchu mystic Asian stereotype was going to give Marvel justifiable hell, there would have to be a change in casting. So they went with a white woman, Tilda Swinton.
Marvel was heavily criticized with this casting choice, but director Scott Derrickson and producer Kevin Feige insisted that the role was written intended for Swinton, and if she were unavailable, the entire script would have to be rewritten.
The movie was already on thin ice for having Dr. Strange as a white savior, as many longtime comic fans believed that to be a retcon, but having a white mentor figure to Strange still felt like erasure. If not an Asian man, why not an Asian woman? Because Scott Derrickson couldn't imagine a strong-willed Asian woman coming off as anything but a "Dragon Lady," which feels more like a Scott-problem than a script-problem.
Featureflash Photo Agency/Shutterstock
But the more (il)logical reasoning behind The Ancient One no longer being Asian is probably due to one specific Asian country: China. The Chinese market is a big moneymaker for Marvel and, according to the comics, The Ancient One is from Tibet, a territory that the Chinese government has been in conflict with over sovereignty.
So it is likely that the controversial casting of The Ancient One has little to do with avoiding stereotypes or Tilda Swinton at all, but to avoid losing the Chinese market by upsetting their government. Even the screenwriter of Dr. Strange said so (before walking it back). It was a poor cover-up, as Tibetans made their voices heard on the subject.
Even if Marvel was protecting itself from rocking political boats by not casting an Asian actor for the role, they could have shielded themselves by picking a different POC actor, set The Ancient One's home outside of Nepal on a different plane of existence, or anything other than casting a white person. Making The Ancient One a green space alien would have been dumb, but at least it would have been better than the ancient Hollywood technique of whitewashing.
Sadly, this wouldn't be the only time Asians were creatively kiboshed at Marvel ...
The Head Of Marvel Television Had Weird Issues With Asians
Jeph Loeb is responsible for writing and producing several critically successful comic books such as Batman: The Long Halloween and television shows like Lost and Heroes, so it was a no-brainer for Marvel Television to have him run their slate of Netflix shows. His run had several milestones, but there were also several reported incidents during his tenure where he disregarded Asians and their culture.
Marvel was casting for their Netflix show Iron Fist, a hero in the Marvel Universe that is one of the top martial artists in the world and can draw upon a mystical power known as the "Iron Fist" to … well, punch better. In the initial casting, the idea was to cast an Asian actor with martial arts training, to have the story be focused on an Asian-American that gets in touch with his roots instead of the comic book origin, which was a rich white guy (like Dr. Strange) going to a secluded Asian temple (like Dr. Strange) and becoming the best student-turned-master ever (like Dr. Strange). Many believed they found their Iron Fist in Lewis Tan, who you may know as the star of that new Mortal Kombat film trailer you like so much.
Which we'll give you instead of the nightmare that was watching Iron Fist.
Loeb turned him down to cast Finn Jones, a white guy that had no prior martial arts training and had to literally learn the fight choreography for scenes 15 minutes before they were shot. Loeb's reasoning was that he wanted Danny Rand to be an "outsider," which is obviously something that Tan, a tall half-white/half-Chinese man that grew up not being completely embraced in either American or Asian cultures, could never relate with. Tan would still get a role in Iron Fist, but in a single episode as a drunken boxer.
But that's not the only time Loeb has been under fire for Asian insensitivity. For the announcement of Iron Fist's second season at San Diego Comic-Con, he dressed up in a karate gi, complete with headband. Jessica Henwick, one of the lead actors on Iron Fist and owner of a brain, told him to take off the outfit.
Daredevil actor Peter Shinkoda also claimed that Loeb told the writing staff to stop writing scenes for his character, Nobu, and his co-star Wai Ching Ho, who played Madame Gao. According to Shinkoda, Loeb said, "Nobody cares about Chinese people and Asian people. There were three previous Marvel movies, a trilogy called Blade, that was made where Wesley Snipes killed 200 Asians each movie. Nobody gives a shit, so don't write about Nobu and Gao."
New Line Cinema
But the MCU's executives didn't just have racial issues. They had sexist problems, too ...
The Chairman Of Marvel Entertainment Seems To Be A Sexist
You know that Black Widow movie we're going to get? Thank Kevin Feige for that because before the creative reins were given to him, there was opposition in the form of Marvel Entertainment's CEO, Ike Perlmutter. For years, Perlmutter allegedly blocked any woman-led or diversity-driven Marvel project.
It's not just stop-gapping heroines like Black Widow and Captain Marvel from having films of their own, but villains, too. Rebecca Hall's character in Iron Man 3 was originally going to be the villainous mastermind behind it all, but good ol' Ike forced the ending to be rewritten so that Guy Pierce's character was the sole bad guy. Why? Because he apparently thought toys of woman characters wouldn't sell.
Nowadays, Perlmutter no longer has a voice in Marvel's creative decisions but was still making controversial moves that Disney and Marvel frowned upon, such as informally running the Department of Veteran Affairs for the Trump administration. But that's another story.
Perlmutter's reign was horrid, but at least it wasn't connected to any real-life violence ...
Marvel Entertainment Ignores The Impact Of The Punisher
For those not in the know, The Punisher is an ex-military anti-hero who dedicates his life to just plain murdering criminals after the mob kills his family. The character, when written well, is a cautionary tale about revenge, PTSD, and dealing with trauma in a violent, self-isolating, and self-destructive way. On paper, it would be an interesting Netflix show. The problem is that many fans of the character translate his actions as a heroic violent fantasy to emulate rather than a destructive warning.
The Punisher was in trouble before it even aired, as Netflix postponed its first season release date after the Las Vegas shooting in 2017. The real world being what it is, shootings still continued in the U.S. when it aired and long afterward, but Marvel has no control or fault over that. The main problem with the Punisher is when he became adopted as a hero with militant police officers, white supremacists, and, most recently, seditionists.
And there were several folks involved with The Punisher that voiced their concerns. Punisher show lead Jon Bernthal lashed against the Capitol attackers. Punisher's creator Gerry Conway tried to reclaim the Punisher skull logo from white supremacists. In Marvel comic books, The Punisher himself literally told cops to stop being fans.
While an argument can be made that art is consumed by all and the artist(s) cannot quite control who its fan base is, they can certainly decide whether or not to continue making that art. Punisher producers Jeph Loeb and Jim Chory have been silent the entire time. Disney, a company that sued daycares for having drawings of Mickey Mouse and other Disney characters on their walls, isn't going after police departments that allow officers to show off the Punisher logo on their official police vehicles. Marvel also isn't enforcing their trademark on bootleg materials co-opted by hate groups. Kevin Feige? No stands, no takes, aside from possibly bringing the show back.
While it seems like fans, people on the Punisher show, Marvel's comic publishing department, and even the character's creator think Frank Castle has an image problem, the MCU brain trust is content with not taking a verbal stance out of fear of losing a dedicated demographic, regardless of whether or not that demographic wanted to hang the then-Vice President of the United States.
Gino Santa Maria/Shutterstock
So while we can enjoy the positive attributes and the fantasy that Marvel movies and shows can bring, the fan base must remain vigilant in holding the writers, directors, creators, and producers up to the heroic standards of the Avengers themselves (but with less property damage, please).
Erik Barnes is a writer, comedian, host, actor, and pro-wrestling commentator in Los Angeles. Follow him on Twitter @erikwbarnes and Venmo him @Erik-Barnes, in either order.
Top image: Marvel Studios