As groundbreaking as the MCU may be, it has taken a decade to diversify. The franchise leads in Phase One and Phase Two properties were white men, and even the most popular women, like Black Widow, haven’t had their own movies.
That is changing at last. Last year’s SPIDER-MAN: HOMECOMING began a new wave of Marvel movies starring young heroes who will inherit the mantle of the Avengers. This year’s BLACK PANTHER was a big step forward for the company, with Marvel expending tremendous effort to create an entire fictional African country. Inspired by Spider-Man and Black Panther, the future of the MCU will look very different to the film franchise viewers are used to.
After 20 movies, the future of the Marvel Cinematic Universe is young and diverse.
A Future of Female Superheroes
Historically, comics haven’t been great in their treatment of female superheroes, and modern superhero movies have inherited that problem. The gender balance in most teams is seriously skewed; there’s only one woman in the Justice League, while the latest iteration of the Avengers only had two. Women are still often treated as love interests or eye candy. Elizabeth Olsen has complained about the fact her Scarlet Witch costumes have all focused on displaying her cleavage. Marvel seems determined to change that. It’s time for women to take center stage.
This year’s ANT-MAN AND THE WASP was the first MCU movie in which a female character was given the same prominence as a male one. What’s more, the trailers stressed from the outset that this was no “Batman and Robin” type of film; Ant-Man and the Wasp were billed as partners, each equally competent — the Wasp arguably more so.
CAPTAIN MARVEL will go a step further, with Carol Danvers as the MCU’s first female headliner. Looking further forward, Marvel is pushing ahead with the BLACK WIDOW movie. Feige has talked approvingly of his hopes that the MCU will ultimately have a 50-50 split in terms of the gender balance. He has admitted he can imagine the balance shifting further, with more female characters than male.
A Hero for Every Culture
BLACK PANTHER was Marvel’s most diverse movie yet, but other ideas in the works will go further. Feige has expressed interest in Kamala Khan, better known to comic book readers as Ms. Marvel. Kamala is a Muslim American, and her stories typically explore themes of social justice set against a traditionalist faith. It’s understandable that Marvel can’t just jump in with Ms. Marvel; the character is one of the “Legacy Heroes,” inspired by Carol Danvers. But it seems Kamala is coming to the big screen at some point.
Marvel intends to explore other lifestyles in movies, too. The studio got a lot of criticism for cutting a scene from THOR: RAGNAROK that would have confirmed Valkyrie to be lesbian or bisexual. But Feige has promised this will be addressed and that future films will include at least two LGBTQ characters.
A New Wave of Young Heroes
This isn’t a gimmick. Representation matters and especially so when it comes to superheroes. Marvel has always focused on the so-called “Everyman Hero” — the superhero who’s just like us, only more so, and chooses to do the right thing.
The central theme is that anyone can be a hero, no matter their nationality, orientation or age. Marvel hopes to inspire and empower audiences. Since these films are so popular with young audiences, it’s no surprise that the studio is consciously developing younger heroes. So Marvel chose to make the MCU’s Peter Parker a teenager, and he’s only the first youthful superhero.
The aforementioned Kamala Khan is another teenager, and in the comics, she effectively leads the super team known as the Champions. Feige has described another cosmic hero, Richard Rider’s Nova, as having “immediate potential” in the MCU. He was actually designed as a homage to Spider-Man, another teen who gained super powers due to a cosmic fluke. ANT-MAN AND THE WASP seems to be setting up Cassie Lang to become Stature, a member of the Young Avengers. And SPIDER-MAN: HOMECOMING contained an Easter egg referencing Miles Morales, another teen Spider-Man in the comics. Almost all of the characters being set up are young and diverse, and that’s a conscious choice on Marvel’s part.
The first two phases of the MCU were relatively homogeneous. But the future is very different; it will be predominantly young and diverse, exploring additional cultures and lifestyles, giving everyone the chance to see movies with heroes who are just like them.