Innovating our Heroes

When we feel lost, we look for a hero to save us. For many people, it can be a fictional hero. As a nerdy six-year-old, that hero for me was Superman. It was fun as a nerdy kid who got picked on to imagine an invincible hero, who was a nerdy guy himself in his other life.

The most common failing of comic book fans is resistance to change. However, if you look at the historical context of the greatest comic book stories of all time, it’s because they did something fundamentally new. The resurgence of comic book popularity from the early 2000s was largely driven by new ideas being explored. That dynamic has not fundamentally changed when we look at who the characters are most beloved by young fans. Chadwick Boseman’s Black Panther, Shameik Moore’s Spider Man, Jason Mamao as Aquaman, and Gal Gadot’s portrayal of Wonder Woman. While the superhero industry and many superhero fans are now fully embracing their responsibility to create and promote content with a diversity of heroes, this battle for change has been a long time coming.

Let’s take the example of my favorite hero. Superman debuted in 1938 and instantly became the most successful superhero of that era. The first major black superhero, Black Panther, did not appear for 28 years and it wasn’t even in his own comic book. The first major superhero movie was also Superman in 1978. The first major black actor-led superhero movie was Blade in 1999 and after the second sequel in 2003, there wasn’t another major black actor-led superhero film until 2018’s Black Panther. 

It isn’t just an issue of representation for superheroes of colour. Comic books have also been criticized for the many ways they have let down women. For example, the “Girlfriend in the Fridge complex” – a reference to Green Lantern’s girlfriend being raped, murdered, and stuffed into a fridge. Female characters and heroes are frequently sacrificed or tortured to further develop the story of their male counterparts. Cue the part in every Spider-Man movie where Mary Jane either plunges towards death or is captured several times. When Brie Larson was cast as Captain Marvel, there was massive sexist backlash because of her work for women’s equality (as if a female superhero would not be a feminist). Female superheroes have also been criticized for being overly sexualized. Elizabeth Olsen had to fight the studio to have her character’s, the Scarlet Witch, costume not ooze cleavage.

The most controversial change to a superhero in my opinion was when they killed Spider Man and replaced him with a new, younger mixed-race hero to take on the role, Miles Morales. At first there was outrage fueled by racial bias, but as people saw the awesome story telling potential of the character, they came to embrace him, In many ways, Morales has become more popular than the original Spider Man amongst younger readers in the comic book community. But rather than giving this character a chance from the start, it was a constant battle to justify his race.

If Spider Man got his powers from a science experiment, shouldn’t we be willing to experiment with our media as well? Having more diverse heroes, whether of colour, gender, or different sexual orientations, ensures that any child can pick up a comic book and find a hero they can relate to.

Having more diverse heroes is conditional on people being willing to support them and creators brave enough to explore their depths. Whenever we see something different when browsing for something to watch or read, be willing to try something outside your comfort zone. Use it as an opportunity to relax and explore while also thinking about who you’re supporting with what you consume.