How the Extended Marvel Universe (and Other Superhero Stories) Can Enable Political Debates

Last weekend, Avengers 2: The Age of Ultron had the second highest grossing opening weekend of any film in Hollywood history (surpassed only by the original Avengers movie). At the same time, Daredevil was reportedly the most successful new Netflix television series yet, beating out much more buzz-worthy programs like House of Cards and Orange is the New Black. And these are simply two of the many different manifestations of superhero stories across media platforms. While comics overall do not sell especially well in today’s market, the superhero titles continue to dominate that market, with 98 of the top-selling titles each month belonging to that genre (The Walking Dead and Saga are consistently the only non-superhero titles to break into this top tier).

The genre’s commercial success has contributed to its high visibility within contemporary popular culture. It’s also clear that we tend to use the superhero genre to talk about a broad range of other issues. Witness the ways that Avengers 2 has become the focal point for debates about gender in American media, especially centering around the figure of the Black Widow, who was slut-shamed by several cast members, critiqued and defended by various feminist critics, and used on Saturday Night Live to parody the industry’s tendency to write women’s experiences primarily through the rom-com genre.

And this is simply the most prominent of a range of other conversations surrounding female fans and the superhero genre or involving the superhero genre to discuss a range of other issues.

A few months back, I partnered with Fusion to create a video which discussed the ways that Superman had emerged as an important icon of the struggle for immigration reform in the United States.

And working with my civic paths research team, we produced a blog post to accompany the video which explored how the iconography of the superhero genre was being used by a range of different activist movements as a tool to foster the civic imagination.

Today, I want to highlight yet another effort to encourage civic and political reflections around the superhero genre. In this case, I am focusing on a study and reflection guide recently released by the Fandom Forward Project of the Harry Potter Alliance, to encourage conversations about the representation of gender, disability, and political/civic engagement  within the extended Marvel universe. I asked the team that developed this study guide to share with us some of the background on how and why it was developed. Here’s what they shared:

The Fandom Forward Project of the Harry Potter Alliance Chapters Program was created in answer to the many requests from chapters for resources to help them apply the fan activism model to other fandoms their members were excited about. The team started by selecting source materials they thought would have big moments of fandom energy in the upcoming season – movie releases, series premiers or finales, book releases, etc; for this summer,Avengers: Age of Ultron (a part of the Marvel Cinematic Universe) and Paper Towns (the movie adaptation) seemed like the media best suited for our community. Next, a public call for “Fandom Consultants” – experts in the selected fandoms – helped create teams for each fandom, and these teams selected three issues they felt were best represented by the source material.

The Hero Toolkit represents two months of researching sexism, ableism, and political engagement in both our world and the Marvel Cinematic Universe, drawing connections, and brainstorming action items. The goal was to create a document that could be picked up and successfully used by any Marvel fan, whether they have never participated in activism before or they’re a longstanding HPA chapter.

So, below, I am happy to share with you the guide itself, which I hope will find wide use, both as a tool for personal reflection and as a vehicle for various educational and political uses.  The guide was developed by a diverse team of participants identified in its credits, but it was primarily spearheaded by Janae Phillips, the HPA’s Chapters Director, and Auden Granger, a volunteer.

Just found an interesting video made by Rowan Ellis discussing the study kit and exploring some of the questions there around gender.