Alexia Holloway, Contributing Writer
“Captain Marvel” has garnered a fair amount of criticism, along with some praise, since its release. One major critique I have yet to see is Carol Danvers’ treatment of her black best friend, Maria Rambeau.
Imagine your dead best friend coming to you and your child after you’ve assumed they’ve been deceased for six years. They ask you to help them fight an intergalactic battle that, quite literally, has nothing to do with you. You put your life in danger to help your best friend. Then, she vanishes.
This is how Carol treats Maria in “Captain Marvel.”
Marvel has a long history of using the black best friend trope in its movies. The black best friend, or the “token negro,” is a black character who has no purpose other than serving the white characters around them. They are written as one-dimensional characters that lack personality — as THE black character, instead of another character that happens to be black.
Tony Stark is always putting his black best friend, James Rhodes, referred to as Rhodey, in dangerous situations in the Iron Man trilogy. Because of this, Rhodey became partially paralyzed after the events of “Captain America: Civil War.” In “Captain America: The Winter Soldier,” Steve Rogers’ black friend, Sam Wilson, spends half the movie off screen, hunting down Steve’s old best friend, Bucky.
Writing black characters as token characters makes them easily replaceable. Rhodey and Sam could easily be interchanged between each other because of the roles they play in their respective movies. But the same cannot be said for the white characters, Tony and Steve. They are made into two distinct individuals — not two spots to fill. Tony and Steve’s relevance and character strength are independent of Rhodey and Sam, but not the other way around.
Marvel may not see a problem with giving their black characters mediocre sideline roles. The black characters in Marvel are not written as intellectually lacking, poor and immoral people who need white guidance. They are just normal people who care about those around them. Rhodey is a loyal, caring friend who tries to keep Tony grounded. Sam had the chance to help a hero, Steve, and he took it. Maria sees it as her duty to help her long-time friend, Carol.
There is nothing wrong with this at the core. My main issue is the lack of balanced promotion. Black people have purpose, greater than just helping their friends before disappearing into the background until they are needed again.
Just because “Black Panther” exists does not mean that Marvel’s use and treatment of black characters is not nuanced. One win does not cancel out 10 losses.
Danai Gurira, from “Black Panther,” had her name left off the “Avengers: Endgame” poster. It was only added after severe backlash. Guirira’s character, Okoye, was very visible on the poster, but her name was not included. Marvel Studios admitted her name should have been on there originally — but why wasn’t it? Marvel’s black characters truly receive no respect despite “Black Panther” being Marvel’s first film to win an Oscar.
Marvel’s version of diversity is no different from the one we typically see in media. The majority of their characters are white, with some black characters sprinkled in. When the inclusivity and diversity conversation comes up, Marvel has characters to point to attempt to market itself as “progressive.” But this version of diversity is only aesthetic.
I love many Marvel movies. But the treatment of black characters frustrates me. Black people do not live only to be their white counterparts’ assistants. They have lives and stories to tell. “Captain Marvel” was marketed to be as progressive and groundbreaking as “Black Panther” — but it treated its black characters the same way its predecessors had. I’m disappointed to see the film is only progressive within the framework of a white woman being a superhero. As Marvel moves forward, it’s imperative that producers recognize this issue and take genuine strides to do better for its black characters.