Marvel’s Netflix Expansion Is A Bet On Diversity

CREDIT: Flickr user Jimmy Tyler

In the past two days, Marvel has made two huge announcements about its burgeoning media empire. First, the comics leader announced that the new Ms. Marvel, a prominent member of the Avengers, would be a Pakistani-American Muslim teenager named Kamala Khan. Just Thursday morning, Marvel announced a partnership with Netflix to produce five new original series focusing on Marvel superheroes, an enormous expansion of its live-action properties.

There’s a lot to say about these decisions. But one thing that stuck out is the diversity in Marvel’s new properties. Not only is Kamala Khan, well, Kamala Khan, but of the four full series in the Netflix order (the fifth is a mini), one stars a woman (Jessica Jones), the second a black man (Luke Cage), and a third a character with disabilities (Daredevil).

What’s striking isn’t just the sheer diversity of these characters’ backgrounds, but the business logic behind it. The future of Netflix is looking to be in original television, so Marvel is banking a large part of its investment in a growing industry on the theory that superhero fans are willing to tune in for stories about people of all kinds. Given the overwhelming white maleness of the Avengers franchise, that’s a much more impressive commitment to diversity than any platitude offered by an executive.

It’s a smart bottom-line move. Sleepy Hollow, one of TV’s most diverse shows, has been a massive hit for Fox, so much so that the executives have come to start thinking about cast diversity as a smart business move. The show’s success proof positive that genre television audiences aren’t troglodytes, and that well-told stories can build an audience even their cast doesn’t resemble the demographic profile in someone’s uninformed stereotype of Comic Con.

So if Marvel is coming around to Fox’s view that diversity is an asset, why haven’t DC and Warner Brothers? It’s not like DC adaptations haven’t in the past. The animated Justice League, one of the most beloved superhero shows of all time, adjusted the League’s more traditional lineup to broaden its race-and-gender horizons, substituting John Stewart (a black Green Lantern) for Hal Jordan and Hawkgirl for Hawkman.

But the new DC film and television expansions aren’t following in Justice League‘s footsteps. Superman and Batman are Henry Cavill and Ben Affleck. Green Lantern was Hal Jordan, played by Ryan Reynolds, rather than John Stewart. There still aren’t any public plans to make a Wonder Woman movie, despite the Justice League rumors, and DC leaders are suggesting Diana is harder to adapt than her male counterparts for some very confused reasons. Meanwhile, the DC television shows — Arrow, which I love, and a soon-to-come Flash spinoff — also both star white guys.

The DC universe(s) don’t appear to be as centralized as Marvel’s are: I have no idea, for instance, whether Stephen Amell’s Green Arrow exists in the same universe as Henry Cavill’s Man of Steel. So it’s probably not fair to blame any one person or creative team. But there have been several recent troubling developments on DC’s mainstay comics side that suggest a curious inability to recognize how and why different kinds of diversity matter to good storytelling.

Neither Marvel’s comics nor live-action enterprises are close to perfect on that scores. But the recent Ms. Marvel and Netflix moves the company is opening up another competitive advantage on its biggest rival.