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“Ant-Man,” Marvel’s Hip-Hop Fiasco, and Reductionist Thinking on Culture

by  in CBR Exclusives Comment
“Ant-Man,” Marvel’s Hip-Hop Fiasco, and Reductionist Thinking on Culture

On July 17, Marvel Studios’ “Ant-Man” film hit theaters and dominated the domestic box office in its premiere weekend, beating out the comedy film “Trainwreck” starring Amy Schumer and knocking Universal’s animated film “Minions” to third place.

“Ant-Man” represents the strongest commitment Marvel Studios has made to the comedy genre in tone and casting, with Paul Rudd in the lead role, and its superior performance against films in the same genre suggests a successful execution.

REVIEW: Marvel’s “Ant-Man” Works Best When Staying Small

Despite the fact that I found “Ant-Man” to be enjoyable, humorous, and expertly incorporated into the larger continuity of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, there is one thing about the film I didn’t find funny, at all.

Its characterizations of Latinos and Black people.

Bobby Cannavale and Michael Pena, both Latino actors appearing in a variety of films and television shows ranging from HBO’s “Boardwalk Empire” and “Six Feet Under” to the films “Cesar Chavez” and “End of Watch,” respectively, were both made out to be comedy relief, one of which as a stereotype of a Latino criminal.

Wood Harris, most known for his role as Avon Barksdale on HBO’s “The Wire,” and T.I., who appeared in a recurring role on the second season of the critically-acclaimed Starz drama, “Boss,” were both made out to be comedy relief, one of which as a stereotype of a Black criminal.

Of course, none of these actors are complaining about appearing in a Marvel Studios film, and why would they?

Still, there could have been a balance.

And before you say it, no, an unimpressive police officer character does not make up for a criminal character, nor does a criminal character who commits crimes to help Ant-Man do the trick.

Yes, The Falcon (played by Anthony Mackie) was in the film, but he was reduced to comedy relief in his battle with Ant-Man, then made into a teenager not wanting his parent to know what happened when he told some mysterious person on the other end of the communications network to not tell Captain America what happened.

Because there’s no satellite-based external surveillance network covering the Avengers compound, right? Also, Falcon, a military person, wouldn’t want to watch that video with Captain America, the ultimate military person, immediately so they could gather intelligence for future countermeasures, right?

No, the joke is funnier than logic.

Mind you, good humor incorporates logic… but I digress.

Here’s an example of what Marvel Studios could have done: In the Marvel Comics Universe, there’s a Black biochemist named Bill Foster. He worked for Tony Stark (played by Robert Downey, Jr. in various Marvel films) and eventually became the assistant to one Hank Pym (played by Michael Douglas in “Ant-Man”). Bill Foster would later become a superhero with the power to grow to at least five times his size and have superhuman strength, based upon his exposure to the Pym Particle that Scott Lang (Rudd in “Ant-Man”) was able to utilize.

Incorporating his character would have been easy, and act as another Easter egg to possibly set Bill Foster up as the future Giant-Man of the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

Interestingly enough, Giant-Man does appear (and get killed) in the top-selling Marvel Comics limited series “Civil War,” the basis for the next Marvel Studios film “Captain America: Civil War,” so he’s a known quantity to the creative masterminds of Marvel Studios. Since it’s clear the Marvel Studios films do not do exactly the same as their source material when it comes to storylines, Giant-Man could be introduced and not killed.

To my knowledge, Marvel Comics does not have any Latino characters closely connected with the Ant-Man corner of the Marvel Universe, but it’s not hard to show balanced representation in a film.

If it’s on your radar.

Which it is, on a macro-level, with the growing presence of heroes and supporting characters of color in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, ranging from the character of scientist Dr. Helen Cho (played by Claudia Kim) from “Avengers: Age of Ultron” to the upcoming Black Panther film, with the lead character being played by Chadwick Boseman.

Ant-Man, though, did not do the same on a micro-level, and in that way took comedy back at least a decade.

Just as Marvel Studios did not have the subject of cultural balance tackled well in “Ant-Man,” the publisher of their source material, Marvel Comics, failed on that front with a new variant cover event.

Marvel Kicks It Old School with Classic Hip-Hop Album Variant Covers

Marvel’s hip-hop covers, adorning the #1 issues from its All-New, All-Different Marvel launches, will showcase covers with the Marvel characters, emulating the covers of well-known albums and CDs from such rap icons as De La Soul, 50 Cent, and The Wu-Tang Clan.

The history of hip-hop in America clearly shows the integral part Black and Latino artists and executives played in the art form’s evolution and impression on popular global culture.

On July 15, Tom Brevoort, the Senior Vice President of Publishing for Marvel Comics, made it clear in his public statements that he did not see a connection between Marvel’s usage of an art form created by people of color and a hiring of people of color within their organization.

On that day, and the days following, Brevoort and Marvel Comics would be the recipient of an extensive education, in the form of detailed, unflinching online commentary from various respected parties in the comic book industry, ranging from David Brothers of Image Comics to Shawn Pryor, one of the architects of Action Lab Entertainment.

Both gentlemen are people of color, connected to comic book companies boasting a diverse line-up of creators.

The problem of Marvel Comics refusing to connect the dots on this matter of cultural appropriation is disconcerting, but unfortunately, it didn’t surprise me.

Because it never occurred to me that their Senior Vice President of Publishing knew anything about hip-hop.

I am going to guess, based on his public statements on the matter, that Brevoort did not grow up with hip-hop as a part of his life, his album and CD collection, or as a source of philosophical inspiration.

It was not on his radar.

Not in his area of expertise or knowledge base.

Therein lies the source of the problem.

When the people with positions of influence engage in cultural areas of which they have little to no understanding, the results do not tend to show cultural sensitivity or equality.

This is why the comic book industry needs to emulate the television industry in one way, in addition to all the others ways it presently does.

The creation of diversity boards.

A group of people from diverse backgrounds, who offer counsel and advice on various creative and business initiatives.

Marvel Comics already has a diverse editorial and creative staff, so they can cherry pick and create a board now.

Hiring some people from outside comics would help, but it would not be difficult for Marvel or DC Comics to have such a body of persons in their employ, for this purpose, at the very least.

This would mean an end to what I’ll call The Privilege to Assume Understanding.

Until and unless the comic book publishers, producing the material making a deep impression on global culture, dedicate themselves to bringing together teams of people to address the understanding of diversity, in the same manner they put fictional heroes together to create super team books, these things will continue to happen.

We can laugh at “Ant-Man,” but it’s not entirely funny.

We can admire the aesthetic cleverness of Marvel’s hip-hop covers, but it’s not entirely respectful.

It’s why people of color need to be in the rooms where the decisions are made.

Culture cannot be reduced to the quantum level of stereotypes and marketing campaigns.

You either have it… or you don’t.

Joseph Phillip Illidge is a public speaker on the subjects of race, comics, and the corporate politics of diversity. In addition to his coverage by the BBC and Publishers Weekly, Joseph has been a speaker at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, Digital Book World’s forum, Digitize Your Career: Marketing and Editing 2.0, Skidmore College, Purdue University, on the panel “Diversity in Comics: Race, Ethnicity, Gender and Sexual Orientation in American Comic Books” and at the Soho Gallery for Digital Art in New York City.

Joseph is the Head Writer for Verge Entertainment, a production company co-founded with Shawn Martinbrough, artist for the graphic novel series “Thief of Thieves” by “The Walking Dead” creator Robert Kirkman, and video game developer Milo Stone. Verge has developed an extensive library of intellectual properties for live-action and animated television and film, video games, graphic novels, and web-based entertainment.

His graphic novel project, “The Ren,” about the romance between a young musician from the South and a Harlem-born dancer in 1925, set against the backdrop of a crime war, will be published by First Second Books, a division of Macmillan.

Joseph’s newest comic book project is the upcoming Scout Comics miniseries “Solarman,” a revamp of a teenage superhero originally written by Stan Lee.

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