Marvel Plays to White Universe in 'Avengers: Endgame' (Spoilers)

The viability of the Marvel film world begins with the story of a man; one strong-willed and resolute in his vision, obnoxiously unshakeable in his confidence, and so driven by purpose that one wonders whether he cares about anyone beyond himself or his ambition. If you think I’m talking about Robert Downey Jr.’s Tony Stark/Iron Man character, you’d be mistaken. Rather, I’m talking about the first Marvel hero to establish the notion of a blockbuster Marvel movie series. Wesley Snipes’s Blade series was a powerful proof of concept featuring an American Black hero with an undeniable urban Black story, starring one of the most prominent and unabashed Black actors of the 1990s.

This realization came to me with particular force as Marvel raked in an impressive $1.2 billion in opening weekend receipts for Avengers: Endgame, a movie that is meant to conclude a 10 year, 22 movie strategy which raked in over $20 billion in revenue. It is undeniable that Marvel Studios has achieved something truly impressive; less impressive are the wages of race that Marvel has exacted in marking this milestone. The studio has so focused on the Avengers franchise, neglecting to mention any heroes prior to Iron Man, that I was reminded of James Baldwin’s criticism of white people and their institutions — namely the convenient desire to forget history in order to more easily glorify the present.

Popular culture has significant power in a society as consumption- and media-driven as America’s. Blockbuster properties have the opportunity to present to the civic imagination notions of who is good, bad, a hero or a villain, virtuous, or weak. Through its decade-long superhero project, Marvel repurposed a genre once reliably confined to ink and paper, to a movie industry that could secure a new type of global narrative.

Whether intended by Marvel or not, one could see the Avengers series as an affirmation of white male virtue, and the struggle of white male saviors compels our attention and sympathy.

Iron Man, the first movie in the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU), which paved the road to Infinity War and Endgame, features the story of a billionaire playboy whose narcissism is only matched by the sheer power of his genius. We are meant to initially resist Tony Stark’s charms, only for our knees to go weak as he fights his way out of a terrorist camp aided by a Muslim man at the beginning of the movie. The character’s name is barely mentioned, yet if it were not for that character, there would be no Iron Man. A more provocative observation is that Stark, the redeemed white man with a newfound egalitarian heart, is played by an actor who had hit the skids not long before the film’s release. Downey Jr. had spent years in and out of rehab, and the hands of law enforcement, and his career was given chance after chance, culminating in recent paydays exceeding $70 million. Meanwhile, Snipes, who served a brief period of time in jail for tax evasion, has never been given the same kind of opportunity. Alas, the screen hero is affirmed as the against-all-odds real-world Iron Man.

The MCU may be riddled with depictions of white ascendancy, though Captain America (played by Chris Evans to great effect) defies in the franchise oeuvre. While Captain America is the ultimate classic patriot, Evans’ character leans into recent interpretations of the character as a hero who is wary of American internal imperialism and institutional overreach as exemplified in the slightly ironic Civil War storyline. Indeed, the MCU Captain America is a natural ally to social injustice and various forms of domination, even though the MCU is uninterested in exploring these themes. Even though it had its chance.

Marvel seemed ready to take its screen demographic lopsidedness seriously with Black Panther, starring the quietly electrifying Chadwick Boseman. A Marvel movie centered on an African character whose setting was dominated by African visuals and a first-rate, nearly all-Black cast seemed promising and, upon announcement, Panther was hailed as the Black hero movie we deserved. But as I wrote at the time of its release, we deserved more from this blockbuster. Instead of a Black character who could balance out the overbearing presence of white saviors, we received a character mired in respectability politics and neo-liberal institutional commitments. Boseman’s Panther killed the only American Black man in the story (Michael B. Jordan’s Killmonger) and Nightshade, the only American Black woman in the movie, had less than a paragraph of dialogue and was killed by Killmonger’s own doing. This added an especially tragic voyeurism to the trope of Black-on-Black violence as the most pressing racial problem in America.

The cycle of Black American devaluation was shocking to me, and the ease with which so many people were willing to overlook these fatal flaws just so that we could have an Afro-centered blockbuster was heartbreaking. This is how the imperialism of popular culture representation perpetuates the myths that are responsible for the deaths of real Black people on the streets of America. As critical as I was of the movie, I, like many others, looked forward to watching the Black Panther character return in Endgame. I doubt I was alone in expecting T’Challa to be foreshadowed as a new leader for the Avengers or at least the MCU generally. I was genuinely surprised to watch a billion-dollar character reduced to a mere relay runner in the final act of Endgame, with barely a word to say other than shouting the rousing Wakandan battle cry, “Yibambe!!”

Marvel was unwavering in seeing through its focus on Tony Stark’s and Steve Rogers’s narratives. Marvel declined to look toward the future of a movie universe led by heroes of color and women. Instead they chose to memorialize a past that skipped over Wesley Snipes and Blade. MCU landed on a sentimental framework all too consonant with the very problems we face every day — where white men are heroes, and the rest of us fill out their dreams of greatness.

About the Author

Chris Lebron is the associate professor of philosophy at Johns Hopkins University and a senior writer for The North Star. He specializes in political philosophy, social theory, the philosophy of race, and democratic ethics. His work has focused on bridging the divide between analytic liberalism and the virtue ethics tradition. He is the author of The Color of Our Shame: Race and Justice In Our Time (2013) and The Making of Black Lives Matter: A Brief History of An Idea (2017).