Destroy All Monsters: Did Marvel Seriously Just Pivot To The Right?
I have sympathy for anyone in a floundering, long-lead industry - whose desperation to improve matters is kept at actionable arm's length by the exigencies of the production cycle. But did Marvel Comics seriously look at the election of Donald Trump and think to itself, gee, I guess we'd better get his 46% reading our comics, too?
Marvel spent the better part of the last five years demonstrating in no uncertain terms that diversity and representation in comics could drive great storytelling and great sales. It added new characters to the pantheon (Ms. Marvel), refreshed old ones with blockbuster results (Black Panther), and transformed others into new incarnations that deserve to set the standard for those franchises going forward (Thor).
But the fiasco, last fall, of making Captain America a literal nazi (reinforced last week via the "Secret Empire" storyline, where it does indeed turn out that Cap was a nazi all along) seems now like a canary in a particularly inhospitable coal mine. Also in the last month:
Vice President of print sales David Gabriel's bonehead comments about the failures of diversity comics against older, white-centric titles;
Publicity initiatives where comic book stores are, like Captain America himself I guess, being asked by Marvel to consider whether nazism was really that bad, really;
And now, the news of the "Legacy" event across all Marvel titles this fall, which smacks suspiciously of - you guessed it - putting all the white men back in the lead, after five good years of daring to move the needle in other, more inclusive directions.
The "House of Ideas" sure seems to have a new idea about what kind of publisher they want to be. It's not one that I, or anyone, should want to support.
Let's leave aside the fundamental creative bankruptcy of the reality distortion field in which Marvel comics (and DC comics, certainly) exist, where no characters ever age, die, or change - an absolutely insupportable framework which allows for no stakes, growth, or creative purpose. That's a conversation for another time, but if Gabriel wants to chat about what's flattening sales (and doesn't, for some reason, want to consider whether making their flagship character a literal nazi might be involved), we can talk about how stories are actually meant to work.
In the meantime, let's consider how unbelievably insulting the core premise of the Legacy initiative is, and how cleanly it outlines basic, dyed-in-the-wool racism and misogyny: there's a "normal," which readers want to go "back to." It's a normal in which Thor is male, Captain America is white, and Iron Man is billionaire Tony Stark.
Where else have we heard this near-sighted, regressionist, pureblood philosophy articulated recently?
What's your next publicity initiative after the Hydra thing, Marvel? Gonna get everyone running around in red ballcaps proclaiming "Make Earth-616 Great Again?"
The colossal success machine that is the Marvel Cinematic Universe (and its television children) uncoupled itself from this madness a year ago, as though smelling the problem coming. Or maybe he just couldn't stand reporting to reclusive Trump supporter Ike Perlmutter, who continues to control the comics portion of Marvel.
The MCU will remain the face of Marvel that the public is most familiar with, and as gargantuan as their problems with representation have been (cough), at least they know a nazi when they see one. On Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., currently taking place in an alternate reality where Hydra won the fight in The Winter Soldier, the direct comparisons between a nazi totalitarian state and Trump's "MAGA" nonsense are part of the joke.
The Legacy event in the comics, though, peels back the lie across everything the publisher has been doing for the last half decade. Perhaps we should have seen the writing on the wall with the name of one of their last imprimaturs: "All New, All Different" Marvel. Right: Miles Morales and Kamala Khan and Riri Williams and Jane Foster are, by their very nature, different. Tony, Steve, and Thor are normal, and everybody since them is the B-team.
White male America is normal, and everyone else is different - and wouldn't it be nice if we went back to normal for a little while?
Fuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuck you, Marvel.
The only good news here doubles as the reason, if they were actually serious about sales, Marvel might want to reconsider. The generation of white men who want to see Steve Rogers hoisting the shield again are going to be dead a long time before the kids dressing as Kamala at this year's Comic Con. Like, decades before. With them go your readership numbers. Which audience should you really be trying to impress?
Destroy All Monsters is a weekly column on Hollywood and pop culture. Matt Brown is in Toronto and on Letterboxd.