On Friday November 20th, Netflix released the entire first series of a new TV show, Jessica Jones. The main character of Jessica Jones is naturally a woman named Jessica Jones, a private detective with superhero powers who is coming to terms with a stressful ordeal she experienced shortly before we meet her. Her nemesis is an abusive former lover who can control the minds of others to make them do anything he wants, which is how he managed to form a relationship with her in the first place. She is therefore a rape victim, and sees it as her duty to stop the man from doing the same to anyone else. Since the man can control minds, she has trouble with society actually believing that he exists or did anything wrong, so the rape metaphor continues, and the main plot of the series is how Jessica can prove his existence and somehow stop him. Jessica is helped by her foster-sister, her black lover Luke Cage, and her lesbian lawyer (Trinity from the Matrix). Jessica Jones therefore is a superhero story covering a very female storyline, led by women, and featuring further social minorities in the supporting cast. Further to the point, things do not go well for any white man that appears in the show. This makes Jessica Jones sound like the fan fiction of a Tumblr Social Justice Warrior, but it is important to remember that the show is actually a big budget, highly glossed superhero story. What is more important is that it is the TV expansion of a megafranchise,.
Yes, Jessica Jones is part of the megafranchise known as the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU), which includes all of the Avengers and the Guardians of the Galaxy movies, as well the individual movies of Thor, Captain America, Iron Man and the like. Jessica exists in the same world as all those guys, and rumour has it she may meet them at some stage in the future (to talk about diversity in the Avengers, I guess). More specifically, Jessica Jones is part of a side project of the Marvel Megafranchise which focuses on street level crime in New York City. It started in April this year with Daredevil, followed by the recent Jessica Jones, next spring it continues with a Luke Cage series, then a few months later another hero (Iron Fist) gets a series. Once these four series have concluded, all four of these protagonists join together for a miniseries called The Defenders, and these guys will probably then move from TV to the movies to join up with the Avengers. So while the Jessica Jones series that was just released in November does tell a single story, the show itself is merely a cog in a giant machine that will be spewing out similar interlinked content for years to come, with little risk, as it is just part of a massively diversified Marvel portfolio. Therefore Jessica Jones could afford to take chances in its storytelling and character diversification that not many similar standalone big budget TV show possibly could. While Jessica Jones is not a movie blockbuster, it is blockbuster TV, and exists solely because of the acquired and future capital of the Marvel Megafranchise, and it is worth looking at how it and the other megafranchises are using their considerable power to promote diversity in mainstream media.
I started thinking about this while one eye was on the TV, where Jessica Jones and Luke Cage shared a lover’s embrace, and my other eye was on my laptop, as I watched the newly released trailer for Star Wars: The Force Awakens. I risk accusations of both racism and sexism, but the fact is that they both feature love stories between a white woman and a black man. The Star Wars Megafranchise kicks off in a few weeks, and it has diversity written all over it. While characters from the old movies do appear, the main storyline focuses on new characters, Rey (Daisy Ridley) and Finn (David Boyega). Star Wars is therefore showing it has moved on from the original trilogy, which featured two women (in fairness, both held leadership positions), and one black man (again, in fairness it was Billy Dee Williams, the coolest black man around at the time) in the course of three movies. The prequel trilogy had more women (although most seemed to be pretending to be Natalie Portman), and one more black man (again, they went for the coolest black man around at the time: Samuel L. Jackson). It is commendable that the makers of the new Star Wars movies decided to correct these perceived wrongs, and they will go further next year when they release their first spinoff, Star Wars: Rogue One, which has a woman as the main character.
The Star Wars Megafranchise therefore has not even started yet, and is already shunning the traditional route of casting young handsome white men as the lead characters in the movies. The same cannot be said of the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU), despite its recent Jessica Jones social justice crusade. The MCU started in 2008, and still, after 12 movies, has yet to have a single movie about anything other than a white man (or superhero teams led by white men). Scarlett Johanssen has been in the background of a number of these films, as has the coolest black man available at the time (yep, Samuel L. Jackson again), but these characters merely served as bridges through the multiple movies rather than having real stories of their own. This is about to change when Marvel get around to releasing a Black Panther movie in 2018, about an African king who can harness the power of nature. In 2017 they will release a movie about a female superhero, Captain Marvel. So it will have taken them almost a decade to release a movie about about anything other than a super-powered white man. Jessica Jones can be seen as a way to achieve forgiveness for this, as well as a testing ground for what kind of female-centric stories that audiences will tolerate.
Finally, the last of the three main megafranchises, the DC Extended Universe, kicks off next year with Batman v Superman and was envisaged from the outset to produce a Wonder Woman movie as quickly as possible. This turns out to be in summer 2017, and they have already started producing their black superhero movie, Cyborg, which is released in 2020.
So, taking the output of all three megafranchises into account, there are five blockbuster movies coming out in the next five years that focus on superheroes other than white men. Add to this the Netflix TV shows, and you can see that there is definitely a trend emerging. While social equality has always been around in some shape or form, the past two years have seen a palpable change in attitudes towards such things as the gender pay gap, as there has been a persistent effort to keep this inequality in the limelight, to entrench it in the imagination to the extent that it becomes more than just a fleeting “cause of the day”. Hollywood blockbusters are not known for their diversity, and the Hollywood system of movie making is extremely conservative: spending hundreds of millions of dollars on a movie means that movie studios rarely will take chances, and stick instead to formulas, and characters, that have worked in the past.
The emergence of megafranchises within the studio system has changed this game a little, and there is room to take chances. Since the megafranchises entail a large series of interconnected but independent parts, no longer can the future of a franchise be put in jeopardy by a single bad movie in the series. If the next Captain America movie is terrible, this is irrelevant to the future of the other Avengers movies. Therefore in the individual movies that appear in-between the big group movies, it is definitely possible to tell stories that would be deemed financially risky by conservative investors if the movies were not part of such a grand, diversified portfolio that the megafranchises consist of. I am not implying that movies about black superheroes are funded due to Hollywood movie studios promoting diversity, but that they are far less risky under the protection of the megafranchise umbrella, and that the movie studios can therefore fund a $200m Wonder Woman movie and be impressed if it succeeds, but not too worried if it fails. In my least cynical terms: the megafranchises are giving diversity a chance, in as risk-averse a setting as possible in Hollywood. In my most cynical terms: the megafranchises don’t care about diversity, they just want to see if they can make money from it.
They will definitely make money from all of the movies I have mentioned, but the real issue is what happens next: when the megafranchise umbrella is removed, will we be seeing anything other than white men leading other big movies? Well, I’ve told you already: Hollywood sees these superhero movies about women and black men as tests to see if such movies can make money, so it really depends on how successful movies like Captain Marvel and Black Panther are at the box office. Hollywood is not a social justice warrior, it’s a business: it knows that movies with handsome white men can make money, and therefore it favours these movies. In turn, movie writers know that movie studios like movies about white men, and therefore their screenplays will start from this building block. It’s a circle that can only be broken if a viable alternative is demonstrated to be successful, and the focus of any pro-diversity criticism of Hollywood should be on this aspect rather than current or recent output. Decent roles for women and minorities will not be found by simply criticising them with things such as the Bechdel Test, they must come from producing quality characters and storylines that revolve around those people, and this emanates from the screenwriting process.
If the diversity-infused megafranchise movies make money, the acceptance of a screenplay about women and minorities will be much easier in the Hollywood system, and therefore the future of diversity in Hollywood blockbusters has been democratised. The studios have found a way to make massive movies about something other than white men, with little financial risk, and are pumping these movies with every marketing resource used for traditional blockbusters. The question of whether this continues or not is solely down to the success of these films, and of shows such as Jessica Jones, and not in analysing and complaining about what went before. If you want diversity in big movies, go see Captain Marvel, Black Panther, Cyborg, Wonder Woman and Rogue One when they are released, and hope that they are all good. Hollywood is a business that has no obligation but to make passable movies that they hope will make money, so there is absolutely no point in complaining about them in the hope they will one day see sense and enforce equal opportunities and affirmative action. They owe us nothing, but at least with the megafranchises they can explore whether or not they should listen to what the pro-diversity critics are saying. They have found a way to do it that suits everybody, and what happens next is up to the viewing public.