C’Mon Marvel—We Need to See More Black Joy

Writer Kwesi Foli may love superhero flicks, but he's tired of seeing Black characters suffer to aid in white characters’ stories

Words by Kwesi Foli

Like many people nowadays, I only watch what is familiar to me. Considering that this country has been going to hell in a handbasket, the remote is close by. James Bond, rom-coms and Soulja Boy interviews fulfill that need, but my ultimate kickback entertainment? The Marvel Cinematic Universe.

The MCU works for me not just as comfortable entertainment, but also as a memento of nostalgia, since I read the comics as a kid and those were some of my happiest memories. It is a dream come true to watch these delightful charactersfrom the bespectacled, wisecracking nerd from Queens to the obstinate, dutiful King of Wakandabounce from the page to screen. However, as I have tried to get lost in their films, I find myself grimacing at some parts. Instead of the MCU being an escape, it now has me asking: why do the Black characters suffer, in particular to aid in their white characters’ progress? How does that reflect white America’s view of Black people and their relation to death?

On May 25, 2020 George Floyd was killed by a police officer. The U.S. and the world, shut down by coronavirus, were transfixed to their screens, witnessing a man beg for his life under an unrelenting knee. I received this information secondhand, because I could not bear to watch it. I have seen enough Black people get shot, punched, and killed, mistakenly thinking I was doing some sort of penance or reminding myself what it means to be Black in America, when this country chooses to remind me every day. Predictably, there were the requisite calls for change and corporations showed their ostensible loyalty to Black people and their humanity. We had seen all of this play out before and most of us collectively rolled our eyes. What I could not shake was what Nancy Pelosi said when addressing the Congressional Black Caucus after the verdict had come in: “Thank you, George Floyd, for sacrificing your life for justice.”

Seeing her speech made me consider other times I had seen the loss of Black life be misconstrued and marginalized. When 10 Black people were killed by a white supremacist in Buffalo on May 14, 2022, the conversation steered away from white supremacy and the hateful ideologies that persuade young white men to carry out this sort of evil, and instead focused on “early childhood trauma.” The think pieces were written, focused primarily on the young man that committed this atrocity.  But who were the people that were casually forgotten? The 10 Black people that lost their lives.

I hate the fact that Marvel movies serve as a constant reminder of that oversight, concerning Black people in America and their mortality. There are many examples that come to mind, like in Captain America: Civil War and the near death of Colonel Rhodes, aka War Machine. The most egregious example however was in the MCU TV show The Falcon and the Winter Soldier. John Walker is the new Captain America and he is trying to rescue Lemar, his childhood friend and fellow soldier, from a terrorist group called The Flag Smashers. Of course, Lemar is killed, and this leads Walker to take revenge and become what he is meant to be, the anti-hero U.S. Agent. I would almost laugh at the irony of that scene, but this is Marvel. They are way too earnest for that kind of satire.

We all know of the tropes that you may not readily identify by name, but are aware of them when you see it in your book, comic, TV show or movie. The “Woman in the Fridge,” trope comes to mind when I think of how women are treated in MCU properties (don’t get me started on Wanda) just as we see in real life.

The lack of Black female superheroes is particularly jarring, considering how many times America calls on Black women to save the day, even when they are not given the respect and accolades they deserve.

There are other tropes that cannot even be attributed to Marvel, such asBury Your Gays,” but heaven forbid we see an LGBTQI character in the MCU.

A lot of the time the MCUand Americawants us to be the “best friend,” the sidekick who is there to help their friend, the center of the story, realize their true potential. The Black sidekick will cajole, counsel and carry the white main character through their adversity and obstacles. And when it seems like everything is good, the sidekick will be killed or severely maimed, and it will be up to the main character to rise up and show that they are the champion their Black sidekick always told them they were meant to be.

Now there are some of you reading this saying, “Relax Bro, you got Black Panther! There is now a Black Captain America!” That is true. There have been real strides that the MCU took when it came to Black representation, and they definitely changed some aspects from the comics, like Nick Fury. There are more films and TV shows featuring diverse casts, like Shang-Chi and Ms. Marvel, a teenage Muslim American from New Jersey. These are steps in the right direction, but I can’t help but feel impatient. I wish those steps were wider and louder. Disney/Marvel are the biggest names in the movie industry and the superhero genre is firmly in their hands, since DC will not be competing against them anytime soon. There are bigger risks that Marvel can take and people would applaud them for it.

I can’t watch the MCU in a vacuum anymore. I tried and it didn't work. The issues and problems are a reflection of what I see when I doom scroll on Twitter or watch another TikTok telling me yet again the world is going to shit. There are aliens, magic, and human beings with superhuman strength in the MCU, but its resemblance to the real world is uncanny. Even with all of these criticisms, I know I will keep watching the MCU because ultimately, I believe it can get better. I watch with hope that there will be improvement and that they will put those that are regularly cast aside at the center of their own story. Similarly, I’m still here in America, because ultimately, I believe it, too, can get better. 

Published on August 11, 2022

Words by Kwesi Foli

Kwesi Foli is the video producer and podcast creator of African Time and occasional writer for The New York Times, JoySauce, HuffPost,  and some other publications you've never heard of. He loves Jollof Rice, basketball and the only team he has ever cried for are the Black Stars, soccer team of Ghana.