Black Panther; screenshot from Time

On January 15th this year, the first episode of WandaVision came to Disney+, marking the beginning of the much-awaited Phase 4 of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. While the initial plan was for this new chapter to start with the release of the solo Black Widow movie, the start of the pandemic drove Marvel to restructure plans for the big screen. Since streaming services started to become so commonplace last year, the launch of the anticipated lineup of TV series on Disney+ became the new priority.

Phase 4 was going to bring with it the representation that Marvel has promised us for so long. When Black Panther was released in 2018, it was possibly the first film with the massive budget that comes with a superhero movie to have an African-American director and a predominantly black cast. Until then, this was preceded by every single MCU film from 2008 to 2017 being led by a white man. It should be said that my critique about the lack of representation, like many other fans, does not come from a place of contempt, but more so out of love for the genre. When we asked the students of UBCO on Instagram who their favourite MCU characters were, most replied with Iron Man/Tony Stark, an expected response given how iconic the role is and how perfectly he was portrayed by Robert Downey Jr. However, the fact still remains that 17 films had to be made before a black superhero could get to center stage.

So how does this new age of streaming on Disney+ change things? With the launch of the platform in 2019, along with the first announcements of the Phase 4 rollout, Marvel had started to address this issue directly. Executive vice president of production, Victoria Alonso, for example, said in November of that year, “the gay community has not been represented whatsoever. I’m gay, so I can tell you that I would long for that.

Now, Disney+ is delivering.

The Eternals will have the MCU’s first openly gay male lead, the Black Widow movie will give us her backstory after being a long-time member of The Avengers, and Shang-Chi will be the first superhero of Asian descent to have a standalone movie in the MCU. Additionally, Thor: Love and Thunder, will explore Valkyrie’s sexuality on her journey to find her queen, and The Falcon and the Winter Soldier, will see the former as the black Captain America. As Marvel Studios producer Trinh Tran put it, “This is the first step to more diverse characters and franchises. I am hoping for more down the line. We have so many characters in the Marvel Universe, it’s a matter of picking which one makes sense to the MCU.”

Using Disney+ to deliver this might even be an incredible idea. With the growing popularity of the platform, Marvel will be able to single-handedly deliver better representation to even more people through a multitude of screens.

We polled UBCO students and 73% said they preferred watching superhero films on the big screen. Streaming does not provide the same experience going to the movies does, but it has changed the way we think about accessibility to this genre. Our poll also showed that 89% of the UBCO population felt that representation was getting better, although in the past, 59% did not feel represented by the movies they love so much. Streaming these films may be the best way to bridge this gap, especially given the conditions of the global pandemic.

As mentioned before, addressing the lack of representation within the MCU emerges completely out of love and passion for this incredibly vast world that, for me at least, started with the very first Captain America and Iron Man movies. The fight for justice, the humour, the team’s unity, and most importantly, the interconnected storylines, are what make the characters so compelling. But, at a certain point, it becomes important to point out that superhero movies can be different from what they always have been and help even more people see themselves in these beloved characters.

Representation is coming, and while it may seem unfair that it does not get the same big opening out in the real world like the previous projects did, streaming will set the precedent for a future when it is possible to go see the superheroes you care about at the movies.