For the last month or so, I’ve been watching both The Falcon and the Winter Solider as well as Invincible every Friday. I’m sure that most of you who are comic book fans have also been watching both shows. While The Falcon and the Winter Soldier is a live-action production that is an amalgamation of several comic book arcs created by writers such as Ed Brubaker and Nick Spencer, Invincible is clearly the brainchild of Robert Kirkman of The Walking Dead fame. This is evident not just in the writing of the show, but in the fact that Kirkman himself produced the show through his entertainment company Skybound Entertainment. For both better and worse, his DNA is all over the show, while The Falcon and the Winter Solider is created by Malcom Spellman, who is primary known for being a writer and producer on Empire, which is pretty evident when it comes to the framing of the show.
All of that is to say is that both shows, while making a big show of having diverse character and showing their viewpoints, tackle the issue in a fundamentally different way. Both, I think, have mixed results, but show the strengths and weaknesses of the future of superhero media when trying to work diversity into their narrative arcs. In The Falcon and the Winter Soldier, the central premise is that the Falcon does not feel like he can be the new Captain America due to his status as a Black man in American. Once he gives up the endorsement of Steve Rogers, the mantle passes on to John Walker without his consent — to disastrous results. This is a fundamentally good premise, and feels realistic to the world we live in. The problem is is that Disney quickly moves the focus away from this, and only explicitly discusses these issues by using Isaiah Bradley as a mouthpiece to do so.
In the Marvel-616 comic book universe, Isaiah Bradley’s story in Robert Morales’ excellent Truth: Red, White & Black. For those who have read the comic, it is an excellent indictment of the Tuskegee Experiment and feels truly pre-Disney in the way it explores its themes. The problem with this is that Morales passed away nearly a decade ago. Just like Ed Brubaker did not get compensated for the use of The Winter Solider, I doubt that Morales’ family got any compensation for Bradley’s appearance here either.
Given Marvel, and by extension Disney’s spotty record on diversity, the whole thing seems to fall a bit flat to me. Obviously this is a bit outside the scope of the show itself, but it does play into the fact that a lot of Bucky’s ‘epiphany’ for when he realizes the burden that he and Steve placed on Sam feels very much like a moralizing after-school special. When Bucky tells Sam that him and Steve never considered what it would mean for a Black man to be Captain America, it feels like the audience is supposed to consider the question as well.
While Disney chose to approach diversity within The Falcon and The Winter Soldier in a way that is meant to educate or lecture its audience, Invincible uses a post-racial lens to portray diversity. I have not read the Invincible comic personally, but from what I understand, the entire cast is white in the comic. This makes sense given that it was initially released in 2003 and it is created by Robert Kirkman. However, there is really no such thing as a post-racial society, as much as white liberals wanted to believe it would be so after Obama was elected in 2008.
Because of this, the world that Invincible portrays, while consequential in terms of the actions of its superhero, feels very inconsequential when it comes to its portrayal of diversity. It was an active decision, for example, to make Amber a Black woman, Invincible himself half-Korean, Invincible’s best friend gay and his mother Korean. While we don’t see Invincible eat with chopsticks or anything like that, the dynamic between his white (alien) father and his Asian mother is meant to feel evident in their overall power dynamic of colonizer vs. colonized. The show, of course, does not explicitly address this, but it does do a good job of feeling more like 2021 instead of 2003.
The downside to this approach though is to fit characters all into a default post-racial model. With the notable exception of Amber, none of the characters feel fleshed out in a way that their diversity is a part of their identity without feeling moralizing or patronizing to the audience. This is particularly the case with Invincible, who despite Steven Yuen’s excellent voice work, does feel very post-racial. That’s not to say the show isn’t great, and doesn’t do an admirable job in this regard, but it does feel like there are some limitations from having the perspective of the original creator being an older white man who wanted to keep up his creation with the times.
As a Jewish comic book creator, I’ve thought about these issues a fair amount. That’s not to say that I don’t think writers should write outside their own point of view, but it’s more that it has to be done in a way that considers that that perspective is maybe not one you can personally relate with but doesn’t overwhelm the audience. In my own graphic novel I’m working on, Lord of the Twin Lands, I took the story of Moses in Egypt and created it into a story that makes Moses explicitly Egyptian (and not a closet Hebrew) and puts him in conflict with the Hebrews of ancient Egypt in a way that feels authentic to the world they lived in and my experience as a Jew in America.
I am also currently writing a superhero title called American Eagle for Cornerstone Creative Studios. In the book, the character of American Eagle is explicitly Japanese and is a superhero active during the Vietnam era. His family was in an internment camp during World War II and he initially worked with the US government in order to ensure their safety. This is a perspective that is obviously not my own, but setting it in a historical era gives it some distance. I also have spoken to Asian-American servicemembers (one of who is a close friend of mine) about their experience and have tried my best to weave that into the character.
All of this is to say that there are multiple ways to portray diversity in a superhero universe. None of them are explicitly bad, but they should consider the characters both in terms of their identity and their larger role within the world they are a part of. Both The Falcon and The Winter Soldier and Invincible succeed and fail at doing this in different ways, and are both great shows in their own right. However, given the current climate, I think there is only room to improve from how they have tried to kick off these conversations and portray diversity within their respective superhero universes.