Race, Class, and the Modern Movie Superhero
By Sarah Druhan
Photo: NBC --- Source
Comics based around the figure of the ‘superhero’ have always been fairly popular, despite their historical reputation as more pulpy wish fulfillment for younger boys than as an legitimate art form. This public conception, however, took a sharp turn in 2008: the release of Jon Favreau’s Iron Man ignited a movement of superhero comics toward the silver screen that mounted in popularity with movies like The Avengers and even Guardians of the Galaxy until the 2019 Avengers: Endgame became one of the highest grossing films of all time. Now, the superhero genre—dominated largely by Marvel Studios—has evolved to become an inescapable cultural staple.
Creators in this sphere have certainly come a long way from the shaky quick-cash comics industry of the 1960s and 70s. But the genre’s long historical evolution is something worth contemplating in depth: while the primary mode of how superheroes are presented has definitely changed, are there things that still linger from its earlier days? Have the ‘politics’ of the superhero world really changed all that much?
Not surprisingly, the earliest and most famous superheroes were largely white and largely very wealthy. Tony Stark—protagonist of the film that spearheaded the growth of Marvel Studios—was a white billionaire playboy who became one of the central figures of the MCU’s first narrative ‘arc’. DC’s Superman wasn’t upper-class, but his almost godlike superpowers elevated him above everyone around him, and he was ultimately still the image of the ideal America has always tried to push: a white cis-het man from the American countryside. The recent release of The Batman has once again thrust the character of Bruce Wayne, another white billionaire with limitless technology and power, back into the limelight. Even today, the most popular superheroes often reflect conservative values from a different time, when all cultural narratives had to be strained through the lens of whiteness and wealth.
There were some moments of resistance to this type of character, especially during the counterculture atmosphere of the the 1960s. The ‘X-Men’ were a pretty popular team of superheroes made up of ‘mutants’, or a different subspecies of human that developed different types of powers and experienced discrimination and oppression because of it. Published at the peak of the Civil Rights Movement, the X-Men comics couldn’t help but be political: the marginalized mutants fought not just supervillains but also for the freedom to express their identities. One of the most famous X-Men, Magneto, was a Holocaust survivor whose ideologies have been compared to that of Malcolm X. Furthermore, 1963 saw the first issue of The Amazing Spider-Man, a comic series about a teenaged orphan who becomes the ‘Friendly Neighborhood Spider-Man’ after a bite
from a radioactive spider and the murder of his uncle. Peter Parker reshaped the superhero world through his association with youth, everyday life, and the working class: he symbolized a more progressive and realistic America. While Spider-Man’s extreme popularity inevitably swept him into grander and more mainstream arcs, the recent character of Miles Morales—a Black and Puerto Rican teenager from Brooklyn who gains similar powers—offers hope for the future of diverse and realistic superhero stories.
Despite these intriguing narratives, our current wave of silver-screen superheroes is often sanitized in a way that harkens back to the early days of comics. It took fourteen years for Marvel to introduce a member of the X-Men into its Cinematic Universe. While certainly a central figure of the X-Men comics, the X-Man in question—Professor X—is white, wealthy, and doesn’t bear the marginalized histories of more complex X-Men like Magneto or Storm.
Spider-Man has officially been part of the MCU since Captain America: Civil War. Tom Holland’s character may still be a young down-on-his-luck orphan from Queens, but it’s very notable that this version was introduced to the MCU through the billionaire Tony Stark, and that much of his early plot arcs come from his and Stark’s relationship. The hero’s iconic suit isn’t a homemade costume but a sleekly and lavishly designed weapon boasting insane technological features like an all-knowing artificial intelligence and four sharp iron arms that can sprout from the back at will. While the reboot trilogy’s first installment Spider-Man: Homecoming worked well in the hero’s traditional setting of New York, the sequel Far From Home’s plot of Spider-Man slinging around gorgeous
European destinations while handling a godlike artificial intelligence’s command of orbital weapons made its title feel apt in more ways than one.
This association of Spider-Man with the limitless wealth of the upper-class Iron Man somewhat robs the character of what made him so effective in the first place. Peter Parker as a character stood for the American working-class, for the power and heroism that those outside society’s upper echelons can wield even as they may struggle to pay rent. The previous two film incarnations of Spider-Man, directed by Sam Raimi and Marc Webb respectively, were firmly rooted in underdog narratives and lower-class environments. In contrast, MCU Spider-Man’s first arc saw him using state-of-the-art technology to take down a blue collar villain. And his suit—an artificial machine dubbed ‘The Iron Spider’—reflects the billionaire class it originated from, far from the spirit of the ‘Friendly Neighborhood’ hero he once was.
Stories like Batman’s, Iron Man’s, and even the MCU Spider-Man’s position the perspectives of white uber-capitalists as the default, and make antagonists out of the working-class individuals their actions hurt. Instead of exploring newer and more authentic perspectives, the inherent power and glory of the ‘superhero’ are consistently represented as belonging to a sphere that is white and that is upper-class. And more progressive heroes like Luke Cage or Miles Morales are too often drowned out by the sheer mainstream power of the Disney and Marvel properties—repeatedly churning out experiences and characters that, glamorous as they may look, the majority of their audiences will ultimately just never be able to relate to.