Not only has Avengers: Endgame redefined what a movie franchise can achieve, but it has revolutionised what a superhero movie can look like and mean to fans and viewers. Along with Black Panther and Captain Marvel, Endgame marks a new beginning for inclusive, inspirational creativity.
For millennial "Marvel mums" focused on bringing their children up in a world free of stereotyping, Endgame is more than just a hugely commercially successful movie; it is a reflection of a broader cultural shift. So, for an industry well-versed in the mantra "if you cannot see it, you cannot be it", what does Endgame mean for the future of inclusive creativity?
The power of an inclusive universe
"Let's lay it right on the line. Bigotry and racism are among the deadliest social ills plaguing the world today. But, unlike a team of costumed super-villains, they can’t be halted with a punch in the snoot or a zap from a ray gun. The only way to destroy them is to expose them – to reveal them for the insidious evils they really are." Anyone in the know will recall who said this. They’ll also know it was in 1964. Stan Lee really will be sadly missed.
From a diversity standpoint, Endgame is in no way perfect. There are holes as big as Dr Strange’s Sling Ring portals to pick apart if you want to. But to look beyond those holes and see what Endgame means for creative diversity, you need to travel back along two temporal timescapes.
Due to the era in which the main Avengers characters were created (the 1930s and 1940s), it’s not a surprise that pretty much all of them are white guys. And you can pretty much safely assume that all the writers were white guys as well. But under the stewardship of Lee, Marvel has been ringing the changes in the Marvel universe – albeit more slowly than we might want – for decades, from Powerman to Captain Marvel to the new Spider-Man, the Afro-Latina Miles Morales.
Shifting the narrative
The second timescape is to look at the whole canon of films from Iron Man in 2008 to Endgame and consider the attitudinal changes that have developed societally in that time. Gender equality and ethnic diversity have become much more pressing and open issues and workplaces have been changing – albeit more slowly than we might want – to reflect that. And, so, in turn, have the films.
Look at some of the pointlessly gratuitous female costumes (particularly Black Widow) in the earlier films and compare them with Captain Marvel’s battle uniform. Or the way Tony Stark treats women (and therefore the way films portray women) in the first two Iron Man films and the end of Iron Man 3, when Pepper (already a chief executive) becomes a superhero in her own right.
And then look at the successes of the recent films. Black Panther made a ton of money, broke box-office records and became the first superhero movie to be nominated for the Best Picture Oscar. Not to mention its societal impact on a hugely supportive black community seeing a cast of strong black heroes on screen for the first time in a blockbuster.
Captain Marvel was the first solo Marvel film with a female superhero in Brie Larson’s Carol Danvers and has earned more than $1bn worldwide so far. And much of this success can be directly attributed to women and people of colour.
Hannah Beachler became the first African-American to be nominated for, and then win, the Oscar for production design, while Ruth Carter became the first African-American woman to win an Oscar for costume design – both for Black Panther. Captain Marvel featured the Marvel Cinematic Universe's first female director in Anna Boden (who co-shot the film with frequent collaborator Ryan Fleck).
Starting the journey
Marvel is in no way truly diverse. There aren’t many Chinese superheroes battling Thanos. Or differently abled people, for that matter. And it has made its share of mistakes.
It included the universe's first openly gay character, but Marvel has made such a fanfare of it that the LGBT+ communities have been rolling their eyes at how self-congratulatory it has been. But, as Endgame closes out this cycle, the opportunity to change up the team, the narrative and the diversity on the films is there to be taken. And you wouldn’t bet against Kevin Feige and his team doing just that – something is nodded to in the final scenes of Endgame. But I won’t ruin that.
What Marvel Studios and the MCU are demonstrating, though, is that you can begin tackling "this insidious evil" on a global scale and still make incredible profits. Endgame’s success should be a rallying call to all creative industries to widen their nets when it comes to finding and hiring talent and not fearing the business outcomes being affected.
It’s the superheroes behind the capes, hammers and shields that will lead the changes needed for creativity to catch up with the world we live in.
We need to hire the people who are part of the communities we are trying to represent. Audiences are hungry for stories that reflect them and the shortcut to getting there is to hire people who can tell those stories from a place of experience and knowledge.
In this respect, our Thanos is lethargy, traditionalism and safety. We need to speed up and increase diversity to tell better stories, connect more effectively with diverse communities and make more money.
As Lee said: "Sooner or later, we must learn to judge each other on our own merits."
Ho-Yee Li is programme manager at Imagination