Comic-Con: Marvel's Phase 4 Has Diversity and Inclusion at the Forefront

Following the massive success of Avengers: Endgame, Marvel was poised to usher in a new era of superhero films, an era that promised to be more representative of its actual audience. At this year’s San Diego Comic-Con they did just that, bringing the kind of goods that offer a lot more room at the table for folks that aren’t 6ft white men. Take a look at the Phase 4 slate below before we take a deeper dive into what some of the titles mean in the grander scheme.

  • May 1, 2020: Black Widow

  • Fall 2020: The Falcon and Winter Soldier (Disney+)

  • Nov. 6, 2020: The Eternals

  • Feb. 12, 2021: Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings

  • Spring 2021: WandaVision (Disney+)

  • May 7, 2021: Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness

  • Spring 2021: Loki (Disney+)

  • Summer 2021: What If...? (Disney+)

  • Fall 2021: Hawkeye (Disney+)

  • Nov. 5, 2021: Thor 4: Love and Thunder

Black Widow  concept art featuring Taskmaster by Marvel Studios artists Andy Park

Black Widow concept art featuring Taskmaster by Marvel Studios artists Andy Park

Kicking off Phase 4 of the MCU is Black Widow. The pre-Infinity War film will see Scarlett Johansson reprise her role as assassin-turned-Avenger Natasha Romanoff aka the titular Black Widow. The feature feels a bit like a late arrival, as fans have been championing a solo flick for the character for over a decade now. Better late than never though, as the films boasts an all-star cast that includes David Harbour, Florence Pugh, Rachel Weisz, and O-T Fagbenle. It also marks the second female-directed Marvel film with Cate Shortland helming the solo movie.

I get to play Natasha as a fully realized woman, in all of her many facets. I’m excited for fans to see what she perceives to be the flawed side of her, and I’m looking to wipe out some of that red in my ledger,” said Johansson.

A lot of folks have picked up on the “red in my ledger” callback to 2012’s Avengers. The more implicit callback is in every other part of the quote. Johansson specifically calls out playing Natasha as a “fully realized woman” and what she “perceives to be the flawed side of her.” These lines feel like obvious digs at the 2015’s Avengers: Age of Ultron. The film attempted to flesh out Natasha’s character by adding some detail to her backstory as an assassin. In order to become the ultimate killing machine, she underwent forced sterilization that rendered her infertile. Natasha says to Bruce Banner/Hulk in a conversation, “You’re not the only monster on the team.”

The scene faced widespread backlash for clumsily singling out Natasha as the female Avenger. It’s not to say there aren’t unique challenges to being a superhero and a woman or to say that forced infertility isn’t heartbreaking. But in a film franchise where all of the male heroes get to face non-gender specific struggles like PTSD, it was an odd choice to position Natasha as the surrogate mother of the group and shape her entire identity as a human around not being able to bear children. Her sacrificial death in Endgame, which revolved around her taking the L because Hawkeye has a family, served as a painful reminder of the character’s mistreatment.

But that’s also what makes the upcoming solo so exciting. It’s an opportunity to witness Black Widow’s story told through a woman’s perspective and add some much-deserved dimension to her character. Being a fully realized woman doesn’t mean you only face uniquely female challenges. It means you deal with those issues and the universal struggles of just being a person on top of them. It’s an underrepresented story told from an underrepresented point of view and is exactly the right way to kick off Phase 4.

The Falcon and Winter Soldier  stars Sebastian Stan and Anthony Mackie discuss the upcoming series at Comic-Con

The Falcon and Winter Soldier stars Sebastian Stan and Anthony Mackie discuss the upcoming series at Comic-Con

Following Black Widow is The Falcon and Winter Soldier on Disney+. I’ve long held the belief that Marvel has a black sidekick problem. From Rhodey to Heimdall, it seems like Marvel really has a thing for relegating black characters to side players. I’m not saying it’s always the worst thing. Captain Marvel’s Maria Rambeau felt like a fully fleshed out human with a complex life of her own. But folks like Sam Wilson have for years been almost a complete mystery. Thankfully, that’s about to change.

I want to see what makes him tick — how much tickin’ can that clock do,” Anthony Mackie said.

The Falcon and Winter Soldier will mark the first time the MCU has taken a deeper look at the why of Sam Wilson. Why is he the ways he is and how deep does the well go for him? It positions the series to take the most detailed look at a character of color since the now-defunct Luke Cage, but this time with more direct ties to the MCU.

Endgame cut up a lot of onions when it saw old man Steve handoff the iconic shield to Sam, effectively making Sam the new Captain America. While the series still has “Falcon” in the title, Mackie’s appearance at Comic-Con with shield-in-hand indicates the series will deal with Sam’s journey in continuing the Cap legacy. Plus, Mackie revealed at Comic-Con that he’s already tried on his suit.

I just had my first fitting…it looks really good,” Mackie said during an interview with MTV.

The cast and director of  The Eternals  at Comic-Con

The cast and director of The Eternals at Comic-Con

The Eternals rounds out the 2020 offerings from Marvel and it’s one hell of a way to cap off the year. It’s the most inclusive project on the MCU roster with a cast that includes Angelina Jolie, Salma Hayek, Don Lee, Lia McHugh, Kumail Nanjiani, Brian Tyree Henry, Lauren Ridloff and Richard Madden. The picture continues that trend behind the scenes with Chinese-born director Chloe Zhao helming the superhero ensemble.

While there’s a lot to be said about that cast and crew, especially considering Hayek’s inclusion is one of the few times we’ve seen a Latinx performer in leading superhero role (she plays Ajak who is the leader of The Eternals), it’s Ridloff’s casting that’s of particular interest.

Ridloff plays Makkari in the film in a move that’s sure to piss off delicate (see racist, sexist, homophobic, etc.) comic book purists. The character is traditionally a white male, but in this live-action iteration is played by a deaf black woman.

"I am so honored to be here," Ridloff signed as she stood on stage at Comic-Con.

What makes her casting particularly meaningful is that it progresses our view of diversity. Because diversity isn’t just including people of varied genders or colors, but also including people of varied abilities.

Director Destin Daniel Cretton (left) and Simu Liu at Comic-Con

Director Destin Daniel Cretton (left) and Simu Liu at Comic-Con

Kicking off 2021 is Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings. As you can tell from the title, the film finally sees Marvel circling back to the Ten Rings terrorist group briefly mentioned in 2008’s Iron Man. We wouldn’t see them referenced again until 2013’s Iron Man 3 where Ben Kingsley controversially took on the role of an actor pretending to be the leader of the Ten Rings, The Mandarin. After the 2015 short film All Hail the King mentioned that The Mandarin was indeed real and kind of pissed that folks were false-flagging under his name, it only seemed like a matter of time before he’d be revisited.

Marvel confirmed at Comic-Con that The Mandarin would be the main villain of its upcoming Shang-Chi film and that he’d be portrayed by legendary Hong Kong actor Tony Leung. The move marks a decisive step away from the belief at Marvel that the only way to eliminate stereotypes from Asian characters is to racebend them as white people (the aforementioned Kingsley, Tilda Swinton in Dr. Strange). What Leung’s casting suggests is that they’ve now learned the best way to eliminate stereotypes from Asian characters is to just not include the stereotypes. Leung is a massive star in Hong Kong after all, so him joining the picture would indicate Marvel wants to appeal to the Chinese market and you can’t really do that with racism.

Similar to Black Widow, Shang Chi is an Asian story told from an Asian perspective. Critically-acclaimed filmmaker Destin Daniel Cretton is at the helm and he’s enlisted Kim’s Convenience star Simu Liu as the title hero. It’s a refreshing change of pace from Marvel’s previous foray into martial arts, the disastrous and just plain fucking boring Iron Fist. Every episode featured a rich white guy telling strangers how he was the best at a vaguely Eastern culture’s combat style despite having some of the worst fight choreography in recent memory. It was hopefully the last attempt at the sort of white mediocrity popularized in the 80s and 90s.

Instead, Shang Chi’s casting (which also features Awkwafina following her acclaimed dramatic turn in The Farewell) feels more like the perfect blend of a post-Crazy Rich Asians/Black Panther world mixed with 70s Shaw Brothers that we never knew we needed. It’s the Millennial/Gen Z demand for inclusion meets the kung-fu classic. It’s a progression of our social narrative and also a return to cinematic form.

Tessa Thompson and Natalie Portman return for T hor: Love and Thunder

Tessa Thompson and Natalie Portman return for Thor: Love and Thunder

Jumping ahead, Taika Waititi’s Thor: Love and Thunder brings Phase 4 to a close. Marvel has faced criticism for its lack of LGBTQ representation, with more intense scrutiny over its decision to remove a reference to Valkyrie’s bisexuality in Thor: Ragnarok. To rectify that mistake, Marvel has elected to craft an entire film around that very concept.

"First of all, as a new king, she needs to find her queen. So that will be the first order of business,” said Tessa Thompson on the upcoming sequel. Marvel head Kevin later confirmed Valkyrie would be the first openly LGBTQ superhero in a Marvel film.

Following Zach Barack’s role in Spider-Man: Far From Home where he served as Marvel’s first openly transgender actor, it’s a nice way of doubling down on that sort of representation. This isn’t a side character or passing reference after all. It’s the actual plot. It’s an exciting way to put the spotlight on an LGBTQ character and to depict her just living her life in the way so many straight, binary characters have seen for decades.

Love and Thunder also marks the return of actress Natalie Portman to the franchise. This time, however, she’s not the sidelined love interest or damsel in distress. Portman makes her comeback as the mighty Thor herself. Marvel offers up another legacy character here and continues its trend of torch-passing to characters belonging to underrepresented communities. It’s a comic-accurate way of pushing the narrative forward in a way that doesn’t feel like pandering.

Mahershala Ali at Comic-Con

Mahershala Ali at Comic-Con

While this last bit has nothing to do with Phase 4, it was still the biggest piece of news coming out of Marvel’s Comic-Con panel. Oscar-winner Mahershala Ali makes his sort of return to the MCU after previously portraying Luke Cage villain Cottonmouth, but this time as a new character. The Moonlight actor is set to portray Blade in his own MCU film, rebooting the Marvel film that low-key started the comic book craze for a new generation.

It’s an unexpected move as Blade is a pretty firmly R-rated property that’s hard to imagine in the Marvel Universe as we know it. That universe, however, is changing, so I won’t shit on the idea of the studio being able to make it work. And that’s not really the point here anyway. The point is how Ali got the role in the first place. He asked for it.

"When Mahershala Ali wants to meet, you take the meeting,” said Feige of the development.

Granted, we won’t see Blade until Phase 5 or later, the news just feels like the best way to wrap up this article. A black actor not named Will or Denzel is getting a big-budget studio movie made because he goddamn felt like it. And that's the dream, isn’t it? That these underrepresented folks belonging to these underrepresented communities can claim the kind of power that gets a major Hollywood studio to make stories about them. And if those stories have fucking vampires, even better.