Lashana Lynch (2010). as Maria Rambeau in ‘Captain Marvel’. Image Credit: ©Marvel Studios 2019

‘Captain Marvel’ soared into theatres last week, marking the first film in the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) to feature a female protagonist in the 11 years since its inception.

A superhero film featuring a woman who has no love interest, isn’t objectified, and is arguably the strongest Avenger feels groundbreaking. Unfortunately, in other ways the film retreads old ground in regards to the dynamic between Carol and Maria. While their relationship is sweet, ‘Captain Marvel’ is yet another in a long line of MCU films that features a white lead and a sidekick of colour.

Maria Rambeau is an engaging character. She’s a tough pilot but also a great mother, and Lashana Lynch is able to convey so much through body language in her opening scenes. In quieter moments, Maria and her daughter Monica signify some of the last tethers Carol has to her humanity; in battle, Maria is fierce, defeating Minn-Erva easily. Brave, smart and reliable, Maria makes the perfect team-mate. By nature of her appearing in someone else’s film though, she’s also sidelined. Her story is not entirely her own; rather, she exists to give a white character growth, complete with a pep talk reminding Carol of her own worth.

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It’s easy to trace this pattern across all of the MCU films. Iron Man has Terrence Howard and Don Cheadle’s War Machine, who always gets pulled into Tony’s orbit. Captain America has Anthony Mackie’s Falcon, a vet who drops everything to fight alongside Steve: “I do what he does, only slower.” Thor needs Idris Elba’s Heimdall to travel to his homeworld, and later Tessa Thompson’s Valkyrie is integral in helping Thor escape from Sakaar. Doctor Strange has Benedict Wong’s Wong, who Stephen learns from and quickly surpasses.

Jacob Batalon’s Ned acts as Spider-Man’s best friend and tech support. Before Ant-Man and Wasp teamed up, Scott worked with Michael Pena’s Luis and his team. Samuel L Jackson’s Nick Fury appears in almost all of these films, yet we know little about him outside his Shield work. Even Star-Lord leads a team of colourful aliens who, with the exception of Rocket, are all played by real-life multiracial actors. The only film that subverts this noticeable dynamic is ‘Black Panther’, which features an almost entirely black cast.

And that’s not to say these are not wonderful characters who are hinted at as having rich interior lives. Wong dances to Beyonce. Sam runs a counselling group for veterans struggling with PTSD. Valkyrie has a whole past that doesn’t involve Thor, and a deleted scene shows she’s bisexual. The characters would probably balk at the classification of “sidekick”. Yet they’re designated by the films as such, by virtue of their stories ultimately working to support the main character’s arc. All of them exist to help the lead work through some issue or trauma and provide logistical backup. We’re given glimpses at who they are as people, but rarely is that developed outside their relationship to the protagonist.

Missed opportunity

In one movie it’s a feature, a way to make a film more diverse while still playing conservative with the lead casting. In more than 15 it’s a frustrating trend, one that paints a picture about who’s worthy of taking centre stage and who is better off as an understudy, supporting them from the wings.

One of the reasons for this is obvious: most of the oldest, most classic comic book characters are white, and Marvel has stayed close to canon in that regard. (Nick Fury, notably, was changed to match his 2001 Ultimate Marvel comics counterpart.) Yet the overwhelming success of ‘Black Panther’, 18 films in, reveals a missed opportunity to have introduced more non-white leads sooner. The DC Extended Universe sidestepped adherence to canon entirely by casting the Polynesian Jason Momoa as the traditionally white Aquaman, and his film is now the highest grossing DC film of all time.

The lack of more leads of colour is a painfully noticeable issue, but with contracts ending for most of the original Avengers, and with Marvel Studios’ president, Kevin Feige, no longer reporting to the more conservative Isaac Perlmutter, the hope is that this will change going into Phase 4. “There will be two distinct periods. Everything before Avengers 4 and everything after,” Feige told Vanity Fair .

And the groundwork has certainly been laid for a diverse new slate of films. All of the Avengers leaving — Captain America, Iron Man, Thor and Hulk — have counterparts of marginalised identities who could fill the role, like Miss America, Ironheart, She-Hulk and Goddess Thor.

If ‘Endgame’ ends up being as mind-bending as expected, it’s not impossible that some of these alternate universe characters could be ported over. ‘Spider-Man: Homecoming’ teased the possibility of Miles Morales, and ‘Captain Marvel’ introduced Monica Rambeau, who in the comics grows up to be the superhero known as Spectrum.

There’s also hope ‘Captain Marvel’ will one day introduce Kamala Khan, the first Muslim superhero to helm her own Marvel comic. And just recently it was announced Destin Daniel Cretton will direct a Shang-Chi film , making it the first Marvel film led by an Asian character.

As Captain Marvel herself says, “Higher, further, faster, baby.”