Can/ should Superhero movies deal with real-world, topical themes within our society?

Photo by Timur Romanov on Unsplash

With the release of the latest Marvel film, Black Widow, it got me thinking about whether these films can, or should be able to reflect our society and comment on various social issues we are facing right now as a society.

I love the MCU, I really do! I love heading off to the cinema and just sitting back to allow a whole load of action sequences, funny dialogue, impressive VFX, a whole host of Hollywood’s brightest stars, and total escapism with all its world building and easy-to-follow narratives, simply wash in to me and do it’s thing.

I felt this watching their latest entry, “Black Widow”, telling the long awaited origin story of how Natasha Romanoff came to be the ‘Black Widow’ we all know and love! I had a blast. Johansson was great, Florence Pugh was spectacular, as were Rachel Weiss & David Harbour. The structure, plot development, action sequences, and overall tone was everything you would except from an MCU movie, and I would go as far to say that it actually managed to set itself apart from the other films, owing to its choice to focus on a character from the past, instead of only looking forward.

All of that being said, was the film saying anything about our society? Did it need to? And to what extent and lengths should it be doing so?

First of all, the film certainly showed up for women, and all that women are capable of; a topic that hasn’t exactly been handled with care and respect for a very long time within the film world. We are so used to being dealt film after film of kale superhero’s, sweeping in to save the damsel in distress; it was nice to see women doing the saving for a change, quite literally in this film! (I won’t say what exactly, but let’s just say one of the lead male characters seems to rely entirely on women showing up to rescue and support him). In fact, I don’t think there was ever a point where any of the female characters needed to turn to the assistance of any male character to save them from any sticky situation. This is definitely the sort of hero we need to see right now, in the wake of so many cases of men in positions of power attacking and violating women.

The film also deals with the exploitation of children, showing a very grizzly depiction of young children being forced in to a life of danger and coercion against their will or understanding by certain military organisations around the world. At one point, Pugh’s character talks about (in a rather light-hearted way) getting her reproductive organs literally torn out of her, including her uterus… it makes for a funny moment, but it’s a very real issue of girls having their natural right to bare children and having control over their bodies taken away from them against their will.

So, that’s Black Widow, what about other popular superhero films? And let’s look deeper than the films themselves; how about the filmmakers behind the films? The writers, directors, producers, cinematographers, editors etc… are we seeing equal representation within these various “behind the scenes” roles?

It would appear that the answer is starting to tip towards the “yes” end of the scale; with the new Marvel film “Eternals”, directed by the recent two- time Oscar winning Chloé Zhao, (“NomadLand”Best Director & Best Picture 2021) representing not only the female, but also the Chinese filmmaking & creatives community; as well as helming a Marvel film with main characters from a variety of different ethnic minorities and cultural backgrounds.

Let’s not forget the incredibly ground breaking and deeply impactful “Black Panther”, starring the late, great Chadwick Boseman and Michael B. Jordan, along with numerous other well known black actors. In fact, the only two white characters in the film were Martin Freeman and Andy Serkis; this absolutely tipped the usually predictable scale of equal casting opportunities in the opposite direction. The film itself dealt with black culture, the importance of legacy within the black community, and most importantly, showing the world a black superhero to believe in and be excited and passionate about.

Of course, we have to give a shout out to Patty Jenkins, the female director behind “Wonder Woman” (which I adored), not quite as keen about the sequel, but hey ho…If you take a little look at Jenkins’ upcoming projects on IMDB, you will actually notice that the majority of her upcoming projects are mostly set within, or relate closely to the superhero genre: “Wonder Woman 3”, “I am Superman”, “Star Wars: Rogue Squadron” (not technically a superhero film, but a similar sort of thing, and then of course “Cleopatra”, which stars her “Wonderwoman” star, Gal Gadot (again, not a superhero movie, but a movie all about an incredibly powerful female icon in human history, so in many ways this is a superhero movie).

As the MCU films have developed since the first instalments, we have seen noticeable, and much needed changes and improvements in terms of representation within race, gender, and culture. The recent “Falcon and the Winter Soldier” saw Anthony Mackie take over as Captain America from Chris Evans; can you imagine this happening even 10 years ago? A black actor in a role that literally represents America and fights for its freedoms… that is a sign of progress and I am excited for more of it! Other roles like Captain Marvel (“Captain Marvel”), Wanda Maximoff (“Wandavison”), Gamora (“The Guardians of the Galaxy”) and Wasp (“Ant Man and the Wasp”), to name a few have shown real promise in promoting women as strong, individually capable and genuinely bad ass superhero’s that we can all invest in, in the same way we have all invested in numerous male hero’s over the years. This obviously has a lot to do with the people at the top calling the shots; a whole lot of white males! In 2018, Kevin Feige, Marvel’s Chief Creative Officer announced that he wanted to see more female characters being represented in upcoming films; It seems that he is sticking to this promise, as we have seen such an emergence of female heros within the MCU films over the past few years. Hopefully, we will see more of an off-screen representation take place as well, we want to see more female creatives behind the camera, calling the shots and making big decisions on the future of the cinematic universe.

A specific line of dialogue sticks out to me from the film “Black Panther”, Michael B. Jordan utters it to Chadwick Boseman, as he is dying following their fight: “Just bury me in the ocean with my ancestors who jumped from ships, ‘cause they knew death was better than bondage”. This is a pretty advanced theme to be exploring within a superhero film, but the films leads fought for it to be included and I am very happy it was accepted. It introduced the reality of our society in to the MCU, and set a standard of representation for an important social issue.

So, the question of should these films deal with various topics, such as the ones I’ve just mentioned… it seems to me that the answer is obvious- a resounding and incredibly confident “YES”. Films of all types should always be topical and based within the reality of our society; I want to see the world I see on the street everyday, mirrored and depicted on the big screen. The world is full of different cultures, religions, identifications and genders; it is not only far more interesting and exciting to see, it is a much more authentic and completely necessary aspect of modern storytelling. To those people saying that these films shouldn’t be dealing with various real-world issues, or that they have no business in portraying society as we know it, suggesting that these films are merely to entertain, not educate; open your minds! Consider the millions of people these movies reach, millions of young people, ready to be educated in and exposed to the ways of the real world.



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