Sometimes talking about diversity in media seems like a really bad game of “spot the minority.” Countless TV shows and movies have had just one visible person of color in their casts, if at all, and we’ve currently reached the point where a number of movies have one white woman and one Black manand are content to call that “diversity.” Whatever little progress we’ve made, it’s become clear that even if we include people of color in our stories, we’re still not dedicating ourselves to telling their stories.
If there’s a token minority in a story, it used to be that they were the villain or helpful sidekick; nowadays it’s more likely that they are the leaders of the group. At first glance, that sounds like a good thing—showing that people of color can be competent in places of authority can only be good, right? Maybe so, but we inevitably see a large number of Black leaders, not Asian or Middle Eastern or Latinx leaders, and, again inevitably, these Black leaders are often the only Black characters or characters of color in the story at all. This phenomenon ties into a number of tropes and poor writing choices that highlight the insidious problem of having your single solitary Black man or woman be the boss or leader for your ultimately white protagonists.
Gnosticism—a heretical branch of early Christianity—faded almost entirely from view after its founders were edged out of the Church by what would become orthodoxy. With most of their works lost or destroyed, their ideas survived only in the denunciations from the likes of Tertullian and Irenaeus.The Gnostic focus on secrecy didn’t ensure a broad legacy, either—early leaders such as Valentinius and Marcion privileged access to the deeper nature of the universe for initiates and other worthies. Modern Gnostics avoid the secrecy, and as with many aspects of Gnosticism which may seem troubling, the marginalization of Gnosticism limited our understanding to unfriendly characterizations by their orthodox contemporaries.
But in the 20th century, a treasure trove of Gnostic texts was discovered by a couple of Egyptian farmers at Nag Hammadi in a sealed jar. Ever since, their ideas—which seem stunningly modern in some ways—have started to permeate back into the world, gaining influence well beyond what would be expected from their obscurity, particularly since the texts themselves are rarely read by anyone besides scholars.
Still, the ideas in these texts are starting to make their way into pop culture, directly or indirectly, and Gnostic ideas are fascinating enough to be talked about far away from their original sources. They feature prominently in the His Dark Materials series, and some concepts pop up in such unexpected places as Young Avengers, Final Fantasy, and even Futurama.
I love a story that surprises me with compassion. One of the reasons I fell in love with Doctor Who back in the Ninth Doctor’s day was because of the Doctor’s dedication to peaceful solutions—his eagerness to rejoice when he’s able to navigate a problem so that everyone survives it. So it was with surprise and joy that I discovered that a new Marvel series that I had picked up entirely for its lineup, which consisted of many of my favorite characters, was serving up these sorts of storylines.
It’s rare that I admit this, but I was way wrong about Thor.
When it was first announced that the new Thor was to be a lady, my initial reaction was “of all the heroes to genderbend, why pick one that is ‘supposed to be’ a guy?” I worried that it was a publicity stunt and would be set up for failure, setting back future efforts. Then I noticed all the comments about it and how they were almost uniformly of the rabid anti-feminist troll variety. Any time I find myself expressing an opinion shared by the “red pill” types, I immediately reexamine that viewpoint, and I’m so glad I did!
When I started reading The Mighty Thor, I realized not only was I mistaken in my assumption that Thor was a poor choice for a high profile genderbend, but that Thor was in fact the perfect choice. I am glad I was so incredibly wrong because I am excited about the Thor quadrant of the Marvel universe for the first time since I was a kid. Judging by the fact that this run of Mighty Thor has been selling consistently well since its release, I am not alone in that opinion.
Very quickly, about two issues into the first arc, it became clear that not only was the choice to have Thor portrayed by a woman very deliberate, but it was a way to jump right into the midst of the pushback to inclusiveness and hit it squarely in the face with an all-powerful magic hammer. Not only does this series perfectly nail (see what I did there) the fallacy of these arguments against a more diverse base of main characters, it exposes their root: fear at the loss of “straight white male as default”.
The 2016 Rio Games are the first Summer Olympics since the Marvel Cinematic Universe took over the world: The Avengers was still in theaters during the London Olympics, and since then, we’ve had seven more movies and nine seasons of TV. The MCU has been joined by multiple DC universes, plus various Spider-men, X-Men, Deadpools, and yet another Fantastic Four. As never before, the superhero has been firmly lodged in our collective consciousness.
The Olympics offer a real-world counterpart to superheroes. Without radioactive spiders or super-soldier serums, Olympic athletes demonstrate impossible powers every four years. Each time a record is broken, the athlete exceeds the previous limit on human capabilities.
Neither happens in a vacuum—both superheroes and athletes complete narratives far greater than a list of records and abilities. They stand astride the existing fissures in society, especially regarding gender, which is particularly tied to the expectations placed on bodies. In many ways, they show us how far we have come and our hopes for the future, but of course, they reveal how far we still have to go.
Captain America: Civil War is the 13th movie in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, which has also tacked on an additional nine seasons of television, between four series, with more on the way. If nothing else, it’s an incredible feat to keep producing quality stories, and Civil War may even top everything that came before it.
The movie has considerable moral and philosophical heft, which it accomplishes by asking difficult questions about right and wrong. What makes it unique, especially in the current media landscape, is that it achieves this without turning its protagonists into antiheroes. We’re not asked to accept a series of atrocities in service of the greater good, or weigh the need to tamp down our emotional attachments to do what needs to be done. Simultaneously, we’re not asked to see goodness as simple and self-evident.
Instead, we get a smart, nuanced contest of ideas between Steve Rogers and Tony Stark, with a conclusion that’s ultimately ambiguous. Despite the high stakes and increasing violence between their factions, the audience is never asked to see either superhero as corrupt or shortsighted or evil. Neither is brainwashed or deceived or misunderstood. The audience sees both as they see themselves, and as they see each other: as good men who have reached incompatible conclusions about how to do the right thing, who are heartbroken by their conflict.
Spoilers for Captain America: Civil War after the jump!
I feel like I’ve been waiting for Captain America: Civil War to come out for most of my adult life, even though it’s only been two years since Winter Soldier. Needless to say, it barely felt real going into the theater on Thursday night. I had no idea what to expect, no idea how high I should allow my hopes for the writing to be, and no idea whether I’d leave the movie emotionally devastated. (Okay, that’s a lie—I knew it was a question of how emotionally devastated I’d be, not whether it would happen at all.) And with the bad taste of Age of Ultron still in my mouth, I was generally worried for the state of the franchise.
I am happy to report that Captain America: Civil War was almost exactly the big-screen, action/adventure, Stucky-focused hurt/comfort fic I was desperately hoping to see. Spoilers after the jump!