The Newest Avenger: Superhero to Challenge Race Politics

Wassi, one of the characters from the 99.

It is no secret that superheroes on the big screen rake in ample box office success. This could help explain why this summer alone has already featured four films with heroes-in-tights.

By no accident of design, Hollywood reiterations on comic books often reflect on administrations, policies, and, ideologies taking place in the nation’s capital. Thus, dissecting the seemingly premeditated moves of comic writers and filmmakers, examining the political nuances of plot, and, deciphering the political leanings of superheroes themselves is a coral reef of vast, colorful, diverse complexity, and a pastime for many.

Take Ironman as an example. Following its 2008 release, Tony Stark was famously described by comic-artist Jorge Lucas as the “first political superhero” post-9/11 - hailing from the conservative end of the spectrum if his occupation-as-a-weapons-manufacturer hadn’t given that much away.Even the first Spiderman, released a year after 9/11, though not overtly political, came with cautionary undertones. The barefaced dictum that “with great power comes great responsibility” uncannily captured the zeitgeist of the Bush pre-emptive doctrine era.

However, Hollywood’s cardinal concern thus far has remained with the very wealthy, very handsome, very male, and, the very white superhero - even though one could argue the legitimacy of some commendable films featuring colored-and-heroic crime fighters, like Will Smith’s Hancock.

However, I’d argue that Hancock remains infused with perennial stereotypes of the habitually unemployed, foul-mouthed, lazy drunkard African male – who in the context of this particular film gets “saved” when he encounters “a white man with a heart of gold and an angel of a son” wanting to help Hancock with his “image”.

This June, when Marvel Comics killed off its longstanding, most popular character, Spiderman, a catalyst of change spurred the inner machinations of the comic book industry into action.

In the spirit of many a ‘retired’ athlete and rapper, Spiderman will not remain out of the comic-book industry for too long and is slated for a comeback this September. This time however, he’s ditching Peter Parker’s persona as scrawny, awkward, white, science-nerd and spinning a new persona as the half-black, half-Latino Miles Morales.Adding further spin to this intriguing minority web, the sexual orientation of your friendly neighborhood superhero remains deliciously unannounced by Marvel Comics creative team, which includes Brian Bendis.

In the past, both Marvel and rival DC Comics have featured minority superheroes but “changing the identity of Spider-Man… its single most recognizable property, is a watershed moment,” according to Bendis.

I remember a time when getting that rolling ‘r’ and the glottal stop before the ‘s’, when pronouncing the name of DC Comic’s most exalted supervillain, Ra’s al Ghul, left one feeling all sorts of important. Bear in mind, this was the relatively innocuous early-90s, prior to 9/11 and the resultant Islam-induced paranoia. And in these simpler times my sincere fascination with al Ghul, an ecoterrorist, was not as questionable.

But the place and time in which we find ourselves currently stationed does not allow for such aimless victories. We are forced to question, to reflect, and to challenge on a larger scale of prejudice, paranoia and ignorance.  

Now - forty years since the creation of Ra’s al Ghul, and a half-decade since the Hollywoodization of much of the comic industry - it is hard to bury one’s head in the sand disregarding the obvious: that there has been an acute shortage of minority figures as crime-fighting, world-saving, and luxury-living superheroes. By adding this new identity to its “Ultimate Universe” Marvel Comics takes home the gold in two considerable ways.

First, similar to when Dick Grayson replaced Batman as caped crusader of Gotham (giving a facelift to the Batman series) inducting Miles Morales into the Spiderman Hall of Fame will make for a fresher, newer story arc – rife with new adventures and conflicts.

And secondly, Marvel Comics will become the archetypal symbol of present-day America, in all her glory as pantheon of diversity. Since the inception of Spiderman in 1962, America’s socio-eco-political landscape has undoubtedly had a major overhaul, and now those with minority status represent over one-third of our country, at 34 percent.

To quote Spiderman’s arch-nemesis the Green Goblin, Marvel is merely “rectify[ing] certain inequities” - namely the lack of ass-kicking, kick-ass superheroes of a varied racial or ethnic heritage.

Marvel began stepping up its game, even before inducting Morales into its hall of fame, with the addition of Dust aka Sooraya Qadir to its X-Men family. Dust, having been liberated from the Afghani slave trade by Wolverine, was described as having a “respect for tradition and a strong moral code”. It is hard to say whether these “Islamic” values coincided or clashed with her voluptuous bosom, sharply defined against her burka-clad body, through which only her eyes are visible.

Not one to be left behind, DC Comics answered the Bat-call for minority superheroes as well, as the Batman series welcomed Nightrunner aka Bilal Asselah, a French-Algerian Muslim, to be head representative of France’s Batman Incorporated. This French-Muslim, parkour-ing ally to Batman, who rejects hate and fear (due to the influence of a pious Muslim mother), would cause quiet the uproar amongst rightwing US bloggers. 

And then there’s Dr. Naif al-Mutawa’s The 99. Yes, say your Salaams to a team of Sharia-compliant superheroes fighting evil with truth, justice and of course, preternatural talents. These superheroes, each mirroring one of the ninety-nine attributes of Allah, right wrongs in the Western world and were branded by Forbes Magazine as one of Top 20 trends world over.  A shift to a superhero bearing differences in the race, ethnicity, and/or religion department may no longer be such an anomaly. Nevertheless, it comes as a welcome respite, a step towards an anti-polarization of the American social fabric, and a successful demystifying of the Other.

Just think of all our youth picking up a copy of the new Spiderman series or The 99 - simultaneously educing that comic book fix coupled with a wholesome dosage of America’s melting pot - at its finest and truest.

But whether changes within the comic industry will trickle down, affecting the racial makeup of those attending Hollywood’s casting calls for superhero flicks, remains unknown.