Anthony Mackie is one of those underrated and substantially gifted actors who livens up just about any movie he shows up in, and his unique fusion of genuine warmth and unflappable cool is particularly welcome in Captain America: The Winter Soldier. But his most important contribution to the comic-book movie universe may well have occurred off-screen, at a recent promotional roundtable, when he said this about playing a black superhero: “When I first got this role I just cried like a baby because I was like, ‘Wow, next Halloween, I’m gonna open the door and there’s gonna be a little kid dressed as the Falcon.’ That’s the thing that always gets me. I feel like everybody deserves that. I feel like there should be a Latino superhero. Scarlett does great representation for all the other girls, but there should be a Wonder Woman movie. I don’t care if they make 20 bucks, if there’s a movie you’re gonna lose money on, make it Wonder Woman. You know what I mean, ’cause little girls deserve that.” Or, to put a more cynical spin on his comment: why are all the comic book superhero movies about white guys?
They’re not just about white guys, of course. You’ve got Gwyneth Paltrow in the Iron Man movies, Amy Adams in Man of Steel, Katie Holmes/Maggie Gylenhaal in Batman Begins and The Dark Knight, and Hayley Atwell in Cap 1 — but they’re basically romantic interests, albeit ones capable of handling themselves (for a change). You’ve got Mackie in Cap 2, Idris Elba in the Thor movies, Morgan Freeman in the Dark Knight films, Laurence Fishburne in Man of Steel, and Terrence Howard/Don Cheadle in the Iron Man movies — but they’re second-stringers, supporting players. And you’ve got Samuel L. Jackson’s Nick Fury and Scarlett Johansson’s Black Widow reverberating throughout the Marvel universe — appearing in six and three films, respectively, though in cameos or supporting roles behind the white men at the top of the marquee.
Yet both Nick Fury and Black Widow have successfully fronted their own Marvel comic books, and Jackson and Johansson have proven more than capable of carrying movies on their own. So why are they always playing second fiddle? Johansson has told anyone who will listen that she wants to do a standalone Black Widow movie. (She even went off and made Lucy for Luc Besson, playing an ass-kicker with super powers. Morgan Freeman appears in a supporting role.) Yet producer/Marvel Cinematic Universe mastermind Kevin Feige insists that there are no plans to give her a vehicle of her own.
“I think [Black Widow] has a central leading role in [Captain America: The Winter Soldier],” he said last month. “What people are really saying is ‘When are you doing a standalone female superhero movie?’ The answer is: I don’t know. We only do two a year, we know more or less what’s coming up through ‘16/’17. With Widow what’s great is the interaction with all the team members, and the question is whether we want to pluck her out of that.” Ah, you see, it’s because she’s such a good supporting player that they don’t want to give her a movie of her own anytime in the next three years.
Mr. Mackie, a good company man, doesn’t call out Marvel — the company writing his checks — for lack of female representation. Instead, he shifts the focus to rival DC, which is now working on its second reboot of the Batman character while continuing to disappoint fans w/r/t a Wonder Woman movie. It’s been languishing in development hell since 2001; even Joss Whedon took a crack at it, back in 2005, and couldn’t get it done. Finally, late last year, we heard that we’re finally getting Wonder Woman on the big screen — as a supporting player in Zack Snyder’s Man of Steel follow-up, where she’ll hang out in the shadow of both Superman and Batman. (If that goes well, maybe she’ll get her own movie. They’re gonna wait and see.)
So what the hell’s going on here? The most common excuse — though seldom given on the record — is, unsurprisingly, money. The fear is that a superhero movie fronted by a woman or person of color will tank, and the same examples get dusted off every time: Catwoman, Supergirl, Elektra, the Blade sequels, and, I dunno, Blankman? But the newest of those movies was made nearly a decade ago. (I won’t accept the failure of Snyder’s Sucker Punch as part of this argument, because Sucker Punch is an unendurable piece of shit, which hurt its box office far more than the women on its poster.) Last year’s highest-grossing movie was about a tough young woman kicking ass and shooting people with arrows; the third-highest-grossing movie of 2013 was about a young woman with superpowers. They’re making female superhero movies; it’s just that the studios that make superhero movies aren’t smart enough to make them themselves.
But there’s more than money at stake here anyway, and that’s what Mackie gets absolutely right. “I feel like everybody deserves that.” Our kids — of all sexes and all colors — deserve heroes that aren’t homogeneous, and by continuing to fall down on that job, Marvel and DC are making the entire genre look downright conservative. Frankly, at this point the novelty alone would probably make a Wonder Woman or Black Widow movie a hit, aforementioned precursors aside. And if even that wasn’t a sure thing, well, as Mackie says, “I don’t care if they make 20 bucks, if there’s a movie you’re gonna lose money on, make it Wonder Woman.” The point is valid: Haven’t these movies made enough money yet for the studios that make them to start taking some real chances?