Following the success of Marvel Studios blockbusters like Black Panther and Captain Marvel, as well as the announcement of such Phase Four projects as Black Widow, Eternals, Shang Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings and Thor: Love and Thunder, it’s safe to say the Marvel Cinematic Universe is heading in a more diverse and inclusive direction. This, of course, is great. However, with these announcements gaining traction and the word “first” being thrown around a lot, it appears some have already forgot that Marvel Television has been pushing for diversity for quite some time now.
For instance, fans of ABC’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. have already taken exception to posts claiming Phase Four will feature Marvel’s first gay hero, Asian hero and Latina superhero leader, citing S.H.I.E.L.D. characters Joey Gutierrez, Quake and Yo-Yo, respectively, as a retort.
What’s more, they’re not the only ones. Natalia Cordova herself, who plays Yo-Yo/Elena Rodriguez on the ABC series, openly -- and to be frank, rightly -- criticized an article declaring Salma Hayek to be Marvel’s first Mexican heroine for her role in Eternals. After all, if you were actually the first to accomplish something, it stands to reason that seeing someone else getting the credit would irk you just a bit. Furthermore, Yo-Yo isn't even Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.’s only major Hispanic hero, as the show also introduced Gabriel Luna’s Robbie Reyes/Ghost Rider to the MCU, with the character set to star in a new solo series on Hulu.
Speaking of Hulu, while Eternals is certainly slated to feature a diverse superhero unit in and of itself, the titular heroes of Runaways arguably beat them to the punch in that respect. In addition to being a mostly female team, the Runaways are comprised of an African American leader in Rhenzy Feliz’s Alex Wilder, another Latina hero in Allegra Acosta’s Molly Hernandez, not to mention an Asian American heroine in Lyrica Okano’s Nico Minoru: who is also in a same-sex relationship with Virginia Gardner’s Karolina Dean, making Nico and Karolina -- not Thor's Valkyrie -- the MCU’s first leading LGBTQ+ heroes.
All of that said, the true testament to Marvel TV’s commitment to diversity lies within its Netflix dramas. The Marvel/Netflix project kicked off with Daredevil, which gave us the MCU’s first disabled leading hero in Matt Murdock. While including him here is admittedly a bit of a stretch -- seeing as how series star Charlie Cox isn't actually blind -- the point stands that Daredevil is one of Marvel's most iconic disabled heroes. Cox's version was also arguably the most prominent disabled character on television for a time, with the actor even being honored by the American Foundation for the Blind for his performance.
Daredevil’s first season was followed up by Jessica Jones, which -- alongside ABC’s Agent Carter -- was one of Marvel’s earliest female-led releases, and was unapologetic in its feminist edge. Seeing as how Jessica Jones came out before Runaways, the show also offered one of Marvel’s earliest on-screen examples of LGBTQ+ representation well before Avengers: Endgame’s group therapy scene. While not a superhero, Jeri Hogarth’s relationship drama was a major plot thread in the series’ first season, meaning her sexuality was not something only mentioned in passing.
Jessica Jones Season 1 also introduced Mike Colter’s Luke Cage to the MCU. While certainly not Marvel’s first major Black on-screen hero, Luke was the first to star in his own major solo project with a predominantly Black cast, with Netflix’s Luke Cage uniting the likes of Colter, Mahershala Ali, Alfre Woodard, Simone Missick and Marvel Netflix mainstay Rosario Dawson, among others. The show was also sure to address political topics relevant to Black communities in a streetwise manner, which certainly befit what the character of Luke Cage represents.
On that note, you can’t really talk about the legacy of Luke Cage without also discussing Iron Fist at some point. While controversy surrounding Finn Jones’ casting as Danny Rand ran rampant when Iron Fist Season 1 launched on Netflix, the fact remains that the series' cast still featured a strong Asian American presence, which included Jessica Henwick’s Colleen Wing, who -- like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.’s Quake -- was one of the MCU's first major Asian American heroes.
Additionally, while Marvel initially caught flak for deciding to stick with the comics and cast a white actor as Iron Fist, by the time The Defenders miniseries hit Netflix, it was clear there was a reason for it beyond simple faithfulness to the source material. The iconic duo of Luke Cage and Danny Rand uniting in live-action for the first time offered Netflix yet another opportunity to address relevant political issues -- specifically pertaining to privilege -- as the two vastly different characters worked out their problems, slowly growing from rivals to teammates and, eventually, best friends (a process aided by the fact that Jones and Colter share top-notch chemistry.) Moreover, all the aforementioned elements of Marvel’s Netflix lineup as a whole converged in The Defenders, making it arguably one of Marvel’s most diverse ensembles to date.
Make no mistake, the purpose of this piece is not to chastise Marvel Studios for being late to the party, so to speak. On the contrary, the studio should be praised for committing to the idea of diversity in such a strong way for its Phase Four slate and beyond. There’s always room for more inclusion, and a lot of talented individuals have been brought into the fold, which is definitely a plus. Rather, this is simply about giving due credit to Marvel’s TV shows -- and more importantly, the people behind them -- who walked so their big screen counterparts could run. Because credit doesn't appear to be something they're getting enough of, if the Natalia Cordova situation is anything to go on.
Something important that should be noted, however, is that while it can certainly be frustrating for both the fans and stars of Marvel TV to see countless articles proudly cataloguing all the Marvel “firsts” Phase Four will bring to the table, it’s not hard to see why such a perspective exists.
After all, as great as a lot of the aforementioned TV shows are, the fact remains that the movies are always going to reach a wider, more mainstream audience. Hence, why Marvel Studios fully committing to diversity for Phase Four is such a big deal. Films like Eternals, Shang-Chi and Thor: Love and Thunder are going to reach a lot more people than Marvel’s TV programs ever could, as well as afford plenty of new opportunities to underrepresented actors and filmmakers.
Marvel Studios is getting ready to do diversity in a big way, to be sure. Still, that doesn’t change the fact that Marvel Television did it first. Unfortunately, there is an observable trend of the contributions by Marvel’s small screen division being swept under the rug. While this is certainly a shame, it’s not exactly surprising. Despite the TV shows technically being considered part of the MCU, it’s become increasingly obvious over the years that anything not directly made by Marvel Studios doesn’t really get a proper seat at the table (though, that is a much more complex discussion for a different time).
In turn, it’s up to us as fans to never forget the push for diversity and inclusion made by Marvel Television, which has arguably paved the way for the future of Marvel Studios by proving that, yes, it is something a lot of people want.