Black and Brown Superheroes are Important for Everyone.
The new Spider Man movie, Spiderman; Into the Spider-Verse, is about a bicultural (African American and Latino) and bilingual kid named Miles Morales. Morales was written into Marvel comics in 2011, and now that he is on the big screen, he, like Black Panther, is an indication that more black and brown superheroes as main protagonists are here to stay.
My son knew all about superheroes, their names, powers, and abilities before he ever saw a superhero movie or read a comic book. Kids talked about them on the playground, in classes, and at each other's houses. When my son was little, I always read books to him with black and brown characters, and when he started reading comic books and graphic novels on his own, I made sure he had stories with kids who looked like him, for example, Tuskegee Heirs and Moon Girl, which he LOVED. But for kids, there is nothing like seeing a hero on the big screen who looks like them. Kids love to pretend to be their film heroes, wear their costumes for Halloween (or any time), role play them with their friends, and imagine what kind of superhero they would be and what powers they would have. These play sessions are not inconsequential--they are frequent, can last for hours, and they are part of how kids process the world around them.
Superheroes often represent courage, kindness, strength, intelligence, problem solving, a moral center, and overcoming hardship. Certainly, superheroes are not the center of how kids develop their identities. But kids notice if these characters, whom they love and look up to, all do not represent them. And black and brown kids may take that data and internalize what it means to be the hero in a way that does not bolster their self identity. For kids, seeing themselves as the hero, the person who saves the day and people look up to, is not just fun--it is crucial. Producers and directors choose who to cast in their films; it is a choice to not have more diverse main protagonist superheroes who represent all of the kids who are looking to them for inspiration. If it is their will to do so, producers and directors can make diverse choices. We have seen this shift in several films, and we can do even more.
White children also need to see black and brown superheroes on screen and in books. They need to see representations of people saving the day who do not always look like them. Diverse superheroes are not going to single handedly eradicate implicit bias or overt racism, but if these characters are not diverse, then they are seamlessly plugging into, and perpetuating, an existing, hegemonic public discourse that would have us believe in the superiority and supremacy of whiteness. We should question whether this message should be the legacy and the future of superhero narratives.
Miles Morales is important because he is a counter narrative not just to his white counter parts, but to racist discourse itself. Obviously, kids will not articulate their appreciation of Miles Morales in this way. They will come out of the theatre pretending to be him, incorporating him in their role play, imagining themselves as him. They will, without being aware, become part of the counter narrative, allowing for more critical thinking, and that is a good thing.
Writers, directors, and producers have a chance to be part of that important and inspiring counter narrative. The Spider Man mythology is instructive: With great power, comes great responsibility. So let us be responsible with our representations on film. Let us be responsible with the imaginations of children. Let us show that we care about the kids who watch these movies, all of the kids. Let us make good choices, like superheroes teach us to do.
*There is a lot I could say about the fact that the original Spider Man, Peter Parker, has only been played by white actors. Miles Morales is amazing, and he is a fantastic addition to the Marvel Universe, but if Peter Parker can ever be a brown boy, then that would mark a real shift in public discourse. And let us not forget that these stories are fantasy. If we can accept that in the fantasy realm of superheroes that spiders can bite people and turn them into people with powers, if we can accept that an alien can land on this planet and fly and shoot lasers out of his eyes, if we can accept that a woman can fly around in an invisible plane and use a lasso to make people tell the truth, if we can maintain a willing suspension of disbelief for all of this and so much more, then accepting that Peter Parker can be brown should not be so difficult. If it is so difficult, people should ask themselves why their imaginations are so limited, specifically, to the color of a superheroes' skin. Marvel at that.
**There is also a lot I could say about gender (all gender identities) and sexuality as well in relation to lack of diversity in superhero narratives. For the purpose of this post, I wanted to address what Miles Morales represents, specifically, as a person of color, but all representation matters because all kids matter. It does not get simpler than that.