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Why Marvel Works: A Scholarly Investigation

Studying the impact of the Marvel cinematic university on pop culture, warts and all.

Why Marvel Works: A Scholarly Investigation
on the set of Marvel’s Guardians Of The Galaxy Peter Quill/Star-Lord portrayed by Chris Pratt [Photo: Jay Maidment, courtesy of Marvel]

The first thing University of Baltimore adjunct professor Arnold Blumberg wants you to know is this: No, you can’t major in Marvel.

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Blumberg’s new class on the Marvel Cinematic Universe and its larger cultural impact, coming this spring to UB’s Yale Gordon College of Arts and Sciences, is just a small piece of a larger media studies program, one that hopes to get to the heart of “the most ambitious and cohesive pieces of modern storytelling that we’ve had going on in media for quite some time,” Blumberg says.

“Media Genres: Media Marvels” will allow Blumberg–a pop culture historian and comic industry veteran–to dig into how Marvel created a cultural landscape where millions of non-geeks pay to watch a talking raccoon fight a Kree zealot on the Nova Corps home world. It’s an academic investigation of why Marvel Studios finds amazing success even when their movies look like they’re based on “pointing to a bunch of random words in the dictionary,” as Saturday Night Live put it in its season premiere.

Blumberg comes by his street cred honestly, as he once served as editor of the venerable Overstreet Comic Book Price Guide–an annual bible of the industry’s strange speculative second-hand economy, where prices of individual comics rose and fell for reasons that non-dweebs could barely fathom. Since its debut in 1970, Overstreet has provided market data culled from retailers and historians as well as fans, and Blumberg has tracked how the industry’s tastes and trends can mutate and fluctuate.

Blumberg draws a parallel to zombies in pop culture, with their well-established capacity to reflect the times they’re made in. “When you look as far back as the 1930s, you see how those movies reflect everything that America is feeling and thinking and fearing. Now we can do the same thing with the Marvel cinematic universe.” Blumberg cites the recent Captain America: The Winter Soldier–in which an omnipotent U.S. agency plans to kill people without trials–as evidence that Marvel movies deserve political analysis.

Chris Evans as Captain America, and Scarlett Johansson as Black Widow in Captain America: The Winter SoldierPhoto: courtesy of Marvel

All of which brings up the inevitable million-dollar question: How does Blumberg propose to tackle Marvel’s trickiest twin antagonists, Race and Gender? Although the company has been willing to take risks in print (see the same-sex marriage of hero Northstar or the recent proliferation of female-led solo titles such as Captain Marvel, Storm, She-Hulk, and Black Widow) the movies have been sorely lagging behind the times and fans have been increasingly vocal about it.

Marvel Studios head Kevin Feige can’t approach a microphone without getting bombarded with questions about a Black Widow solo movie or a big screen introduction for Marvel’s African king-slash-Avenger Black Panther. “We’re 10 films in and we still have not had a Marvel film where one of their female characters has taken center stage,” Blumberg points out.

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Feige, when pressed by Fast Company, blamed its diversity difficulties on “timing,” while defending the marketability of female-led action movies. “I believe it is unfair to say, ‘People don’t want to see movies with female heroes’ and then list five movies that were not very good,” says Feige. “They don’t mention Hunger Games, Frozen, Divergent. You can go back to Kill Bill or Aliens. It can certainly be done, and I hope to do it sooner rather than later.”

Blumberg points out that Marvel Studio’s first film was the Wesley Snipes asskicker Blade. “Prior to this interconnected movie universe, Marvel had a great deal of success with an African-American character.” Flash forward to today: “You have Falcon show up and he’s a great character, but much like his introduction in the comics, he’s a sidekick.”

Feige admits there’s demand for an African-American character front and center. “It’s the question I get asked more than anything else,” the studio head says of a Black Panther movie. “More than Iron Man 4 or Avengers 3. I think that’s something we have to pay attention to.” Marvel is already in a great position to open up the diversity of its lineup. Feige recently told Badass Digest that they’ve “talked a lot” about Captain Marvel being that heroine–one iteration of that character in the early 1980s was a black woman named Monica Rambeau. Not to mention that the path is pretty well paved for the studio after the inevitable departures of Robert Downey Jr., Chris Evans, and Chris Hemsworth. The current comic book continuity features Falcon as the new Captain America and a female Thor, while the Iron Man movies have already featured three outings for James “Rhodey” Rhodes/War Machine.

Marvel’s Guardians Of The GalaxyPhoto: courtesy of Marvel

Blumberg says that a lack of movie diversity is a trend that stands in direct opposition to comic book history. “It was never a situation where only boys were reading comics,” explains Blumberg. “Women and girls have been reading comics all along. It wasn’t just kids, it was adults, too. But somewhere along the way it became more marginalizing.” And the numbers back Blumberg up. While everyone was congratulating Guardians of the Galaxy for pulling in a 44% female audience (cited as “the biggest ever for a comic book movie” even if it was only slightly higher than The Avengers’ 40%), it’s even more telling that New York Comic Con has seen female attendance rise 60% over the past three years, with over 20,000 more women buying tickets during that span. The Beat writer and political consultant Brett Schenker has used Facebook’s advertising statistics to discover that of the 24 million people who self-identify as comic book fans, nearly 47% of them are women.

“Women dress up and go to cons. They want to own this and own these characters as much as men do…and yet companies continue to put out pink shirts about marrying superheroes,” Blumberg says, pointing out that the worst of the stereotyping often happens in the merchandizing of a character. “They seem to suggest that girls can only aspire to marry a superhero and not be one,” says Blumberg, pointing to Marvel’s lack of Gamora-centric Guardians of the Galaxy products or DC’s most recent line of extremely questionable T-shirts. “In this day and age, it just seems like a huge failure on every conceivable level. I don’t know how much more latitude we can give people making these decisions,” the professor says.

As Blumberg puts it: “These characters belong to everyone now.” Their’s and Disney’s.

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