Why diversity on the big screen matters: Opinion

I grew up with campy superhero movies and TV shows.

In the 1980's, however, Tim Burton added a layer of darkness with his Batman flicks, and then in the 1990's, superhero movies became even more serious in tone, leading right through to the CGI epics that dominate our screens today, just like the recently-released blockbuster Avengers: Infinity War.

I've always enjoyed superhero flicks as a whole, but somewhere in there I started to experience superhero fatigue. I was exhausted by what seemed like the same old movie over and over again (as exemplified by the fact that I thought Justice League, released in 2017, was Infinity War, not released until May 2018).

And that leads us into the whole discussion about the Marvel Comics Universe vs. the DC Comics Universe, and that, my friends, we shall leave to the superfans.

The point is, no matter what combination of superheroes a Hollywood boardroom tried to upsell me on, I'd stopped going to see them after the Batman flick The Dark Knight Rises in 2012.

Turning point

After a five-year break, the release of Wonder Woman lured me back to the theatre to see a superhero movie. It wasn't just that I'd always liked Wonder Woman  — it was the fact that there was something different about this movie. It was a movie that was led by women, both on-screen and off.

As a moviegoer, as a man, what did this mean to me? Politics aside, it meant that maybe, just maybe, I would see something different on the screen, a twist on a genre that had, for my tastes, become all too conventional.

But more importantly, what could this mean to women, to girls, who were superhero movie fans?

In January 2018, a second superhero movie lured me back to the theatre: Black Panther is a film led by African-American characters, actors and filmmakers.

Once again, it promises something different, and once again  — for me  — it delivers.

You have to wonder about the pressure these flicks were operating under. In order to make sure that more franchise flicks (ugh) like a Wonder Woman or a Black Panther  — led by women, people of colour, etc.  — were greenlit, they would absolutely have to rake it in at the box office. They did. That both of these flicks are also critically acclaimed is gravy.

Moments of change 

For me, however, there is a moment in each film that reveals their true importance.

In Wonder Woman it's the prologue set on her home island populated by women who train to become fierce warriors. Here, women are not playing second fiddle or even being presented as peers of male superheroes. Here, women are existing and operating solely on their own terms. It's a rare moment on the big screen, and one that made an impact with me and — if my female Facebook friends are any indication — it made an impact on many of them as well.

In Black Panther, that moment is at the end. T'Challa (Black Panther's alter ego) and his sister appear in Oakland, Calif., where some of the film's action takes place. Showing up in their futuristic aircraft to interrupt a kids' basketball game, T'Challa speaks with an awe-struck player and in that moment, we get to see — in his reaction  — all the possibilities that have just opened up before him.

At the core of these scenes is representation  — the option for girls, for people of colour to see themselves represented as superheroes, larger than life and doing just fine at the box office, thank you.

Telling universal stories

Obviously, this takes more than simply adding a gender, race or sexual identity twist to a storyline. It means allowing different stories to be created, allowing women, people of colour, trans and gay people behind the camera to tell their stories.

The impact might be lost on some of us who have been represented as the norm on the big screen for decades or, possibly even worse, it might be seen as pandering to politically correct tastes.

I like to think that it illustrates the way we're headed.

That movies, like the world they reflect, will do what we've always been told they do: Tell stories that are universal.

The fact that it's superhero movies leading the charge shouldn't be lost on us. Beyond the fact that they're what's popular at the box office right now, they're giving us champions that we can all relate to.

This column is part of CBC's Opinion section. For more information about this section, please read this editor's blog and our FAQ.

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