In 1978, Superman: The Movie helped to solidify the science-fiction genre’s blockbuster potential thanks to audience’s rabid response. Batman (1989) was arguably the first full-fledged comic book movie phenomenon that capably balanced commerce and art. And ever since Blade (1998), X-Men (2000) and Spider-Man (2002), Hollywood has found itself in the ever-expanding mushroom cloud of the modern superhero boom.
Now, we find ourselves at the onset of a new iteration of blockbuster comic book entertainment as Sony, Marvel and DC all embrace the inherent limitlessness of the multiverse. This storytelling device allows for various continuities and multiple versions of the same characters and properties to exist at once and even interact with another, much to the thrill of devoted fans. There’s little doubt the endless array of creative options is a scintillating prospect. But this shift also presents a tightrope of demographic expansion that can help to further broaden the genre’s horizons, albeit not without complications.
“The proper introduction of multiverses in the comic book cinematic universes offers expanded opportunities for the diversification of superhero films,” Jason Cherubini, co-founder and CFO of Dawn’s Light Media, a film and media production company that primarily produces feature films in the action and thriller genres, told Observer.
The superhero film genre, and Hollywood in general, has been attempting to diversify its stories to include marginalized communities with mixed success. Marvel’s choice to insert Samuel L. Jackson as Nick Fury, a historically white character, was an early MCU masterstrokes as evidenced by the character’s long-running popularity. The studio’s choice to recast the Doctor Strange‘s Ancient One, in the comics a sorcerer of Asian descent, with Tilda Swinton did not go over quite so well. Studio head Kevin Feige has even publicly addressed the whitewashing mistake.
“One of the major hurdles is that many of the central characters have decades of history on the page that the general public associates with a certain image,” Cherubini said. “Any deviation from this image can spark controversy that the studios do not want to tarnish the film.” This proves doubly difficult when the source material contains outdated representations of marginalized groups.
Recently, it was announced that Warner Bros. was rebooting Superman with acclaimed writer Ta-Nehisi Coates and producer J.J. Abrams developing the feature around a Black lead. The news generated mixed reactions within Film Twitter circles, yet the positives seemed to have swung the opposite direction when a THR piece hinted that the new iteration would simply be Black Kal-El (something that has not been publicly confirmed by WB). There are beloved stories of Superman being Black in the source material, including Calvin Ellis and Val-Zod both taking center stage in favor of the more familiar Smallville farm boy.
“In both of these cases, these were not the Clark Kent that we traditionally think of as Superman but rather unique characters from different universes that had donned the moniker of Superman,” Cherubini said. Again, specific story details have yet to be revealed by WB so we’ll have to wait and see what the final verdict is. It’s not that Clark Kent can’t be Black. But reportedly ignoring both existing Black versions in favor of a repurposed Clark Kent seems like a choice that would raise more questions about the self-awareness that should drive such a project in the first place.
At the same time within DC Films, the upcoming Flash movie, which began production in April and will formally introduce the multiverse into the DCEU, will introduce new characters such as Supergirl. The iconic heroine will be played by American actress Sasha Calle, who is of Columbian descent. Fans online reacted overwhelmingly positive when the first behind-the-scenes images of Calle in her superhero suit were leaked this summer.
The Batman, due out next year, takes place within its own separate universe disconnected to the DCEU. There, African American star Zoë Kravitz’s take on Selina Kyle/Catwoman is one of the most anticipated elements of the new feature.
In Sony’s 2018 film Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, we were introduced to Miles Morales, a teenaged mixed-race (African American and Puerto Rican) boy from Brooklyn. Miles takes the mantle of Spider-Man similar to the origin story we are familiar with, but he makes it uniquely his own. In that movie we famously meet various Spider-Men from across the multiverse, including Peter Parker and whacky versions such as Spider-Ham.
Miles was first introduced in the 2011 comic Ultimate Fallout #4 and quickly grew his own fanbase on the page before transitioning onto the big screen. Into the Spider-Verse wasn’t an alteration, it was a filmic pivot to an existing, but still fresh, character, which is arguably the easier sell among die-hard fans insistent on digging their heels in when it comes to tweaking source material.
In the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Marvel has started to lay the groundwork to explore the multiverse most recently in WandaVision and Loki with expectations to delve deeper in Spider-Man: No Way Home and Doctor Strange: In the Multiverse of Madness.
“By opening up the multiverse, Marvel is opening up the possibility to look at many of the different iterations of its characters that have existed over the years without directly changing their existing canonical characters,” Cherubini said. Marvel was able to introduce multiple versions of Loki, including a female version, a Black version and even an alligator version with the fanbases not only not getting angry, but actually cheering on the different interpretations of the characters (many of whom first appeared in the comics). By casting Jonathan Majors as Kang, they may also be setting the stage to have a Black or mixed-raced character in the Fantastic Four MCU films. Kang’s real name is Nathaniel Richards who, depending on the comic run, is a potential descendant of Sue Storm and Reed Richards or Dr. Doom.
Box office totals for blockbusters such as the Fast and Furious saga, Black Panther, Wonder Woman and Captain Marvel prove that a diverse and eclectic cast can often result in more robust ticket sales. But introducing the diversity necessary to modernize these films isn’t always as so straightforward, particularly with notoriously fickle fanbases ready to pounce in online droves and transparent studio executives shamelessly chasing trends of the moment. But the multiverse can offer a more organic path to onscreen representation that better reflects the wonderfully varied world we really live in today.