The Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) is a remarkable achievement in entertainment history. This vast network of interconnected stories spanning two dozen movies and many streaming shows has become a box-office titan, helping solidify the “superhero archetype” in modern media. Throughout the franchise, the MCU constantly introduces its audiences to stories of heroes who bravely overcome adversity for the greater good. These stories are inspiring. They teach audiences that normal people can achieve great things. But it’s important to look at the narratives that are implicitly infused in these movies, particularly when it comes to the quantity and quality of Latine, or Latinx, representation.
This topic isn’t new. In 2018, Anhar Karim published an analysis in Forbes that showed only 4% of characters with narrative significance in the MCU are played by “Spanish/Hispanic/Latino” actors, and none of them are major characters in the entire cinematic canon. That’s a significantly smaller number than the proportion of the U.S population represented by Latine people, about 18% as of 2019.
Throughout the MCU movies, there are at least four Hispanic characters or characters played by Latine actors who play a major role in at least one film:
- Gamora, who first appeared in Guardians of the Galaxy, played by Zoe Saldana.
- Jasper Sitwell, who first appeared in Thor, played by Maximiliano Hernández.
- The Collector, who first appeared in Thor: The Dark World, played by Benicio del Toro.
- Luis, who first appeared in Ant-Man, played by Michael Peña.
The MCU also has to deal with the quality of Latine representation, not just the quantity.
This lack of representation in the movies does not match the Marvel comics, the source material for much of the MCU. There are plenty of characters in the comics who are Latine, including Miles Morales, the protagonist of Sony Animation’s Spider-man: Into the Spiderverse. There’s also Ava Ayala’s White Tiger in the Avengers Academy and Roberto Da Costa’s Sunspot in The New Mutants.
In the shows, the MCU actually has a decent track record. Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. introduced a lot of Latine actors playing great characters, and the Netflix shows of course featured Rosario Dawson in a big role. And soon, Oscar Isaac will make his debut as Moon Knight in an upcoming Disney+ series.
Marvel also seems to be adjusting how their movies handle representation as well, because in late 2020, the company announced that America Chávez, also known as Miss America, will be played by Xochitl Gomez in Doctor Strange and the Multiverse of Madness. Additionally, Salma Hayek will soon appear as Ajak, a wise and spiritual leader in Eternals. These steps will increase Latine representation in the MCU at least a little bit by hopefully bringing some of the first prominent Latine characters to the franchise, depending on the actual weight and screen time given to these new heroes.
Nevertheless, the MCU also has to deal with the quality of Latine representation, not just the quantity. Current portrayals of Latine characters in the Marvel films are marked by the same stereotypes that American media generally keeps going back to. For instance, the four characters mentioned above—Gamora, Jasper Sitwell, The Collector, and Luis—are all criminals. Sure, this group does include characters who support the heroes, like Gamora and Luis, and even a more true neutral like The Collector.
But whether they’re intergalactic outlaws, recovering ex-convicts, or undercover HYDRA agents, the main Latine characters we see onscreen are still criminals, which has been a common stereotype in many movies throughout the last century. Early Western films showed Mexicans exclusively as antagonists, and this portrayal has persisted for decades in movies like West Side Story and, more recently, the Sicario movies.
Furthermore, the character of Luis, one of Marvel’s only human Latine characters of any prominence, follows what Emily Pressler refers to in Hispanic Stereotypes in Contemporary Film as the common stereotype of “The Clown,” a portrayal of Latine characters as the target of ridicule or the subject of humor in the story. Luis’s character often comes across as the butt of the joke, constantly misinterpreting social cues and getting into long-winded explanations that don’t address the point being asked of him. Luis’s monologues are played up by elaborate dramatizations to further emphasize how he always “misses the point.”
Now there’s no inherent problem with using this kind of humor, and many Marvel fans love Luis for a reason. But it’s still crucial to point out how the reduction of Luis’s character into being little more than comedic relief has concerning implications. Jorge Barrueto argued in The Hispanic image in Hollywood: a postcolonial approach that this style of humor exacerbates cultural differences and can “infantilize Hispanics.” The writing for Luis seems very similar in this regard to Nacho from Nacho Libre or Armando in Casa de mi Padre, in which Latine characters face constant ridicule and mockery.
Change needs to happen.
The arrival of Miss America is a welcome development, and I do believe that overall, the MCU appears to be slowly improving its handling of representation. We’re about to experience a new phase of diversification for the characters in Marvel movies, as made evident by the upcoming release of Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings, which features a largely East Asian cast. We’ll soon see the appearance Kamala Khan, played by Iman Vellani, and the recent evolution of Anthony Mackie’s Falcon into the first Black Captain America.
That said, I’m concerned about how these inaccurate portrayals of Latines in the MCU might impact society’s collective imagination of who can be a hero. The stories we consume in popular culture, especially in TV and film, shape and inform the narratives we see in the world around us, including the real Latine experience, not dated stereotypes. So yeah, it’s not great to see one of the largest entertainment franchises in the world falling behind in this regard.
Superhero movies, and the MCU in general, are only getting bigger and more prominent in modern culture. Therefore, change needs to happen. It’s time for the MCU to include more Latine characters, old and new, from the comics and beyond. And in a way that transcends cliché and embraces the complexity of our communities. So these groups can finally be fully included in the empowerment and inspiration these epics are supposed to provide for everyone.