So “The Avengers” came out last weekend and it was a pretty stunning success by most definitions: Joss Whedon made a coherent film about a scientist who turns into a big green monster, a World War II super-soldier, a Russian femme-fatale spy, a robot man, and a Norse god teaming up to save the world — and he somehow managed to please film critics, comic book nerds and a general audience. Oh, and it grossed like a gazillion dollars.
However, there was one scene that has become the center of a good deal of controversy.
From the Hindustan Times: “The opening scene of the film shows Hulk’s alter ego, Dr Bruce Banner, hiding in Kolkata slums and helping cure lepers. The portrayal of the filthy, overcrowded Kolkata slum hasn’t gone down well with the audience here. Bengali actor, Rituparna Sengupta, says, “Kolkata has a rich culture and heritage, and a filmmaker should respect that. There are two scenes about India and they only show slums. It could have been done in better taste.”
Bollywood actor Neha Dhupia too feels it’s disappointing. “It is disturbing to see the murky underbelly of India in Hollywood films. But before pointing it out to the west, we need to make efforts to change their perception about us.” Delhiites too have reacted to the poor projection of India on screen. “It’s as if any scene requiring a slum has to be set in India. Why do they have to project India in such a poor light to the international audience,” says Somali Pal, a student.
“When will Hollywood stop cashing in on the poverty here?” says Rishabh Bal, a bank employee. “There is no reason to be happy about the Indian connection. It has become a trend in the west to show Indian slums and a Westerner trying to help the poor here,” says Nitin Bhatia, a software professional.”
I took my nephew to the film and was alerted to the issue while waiting for the film to start, when I read a Google Plus post by Nikkei fantasy writer Violetta Vane. While she enjoyed the film overall, she called out the following as a low-point: “Bruce Banner being introduced ministering to the poor sick Indians. This is such a cheap narrative device: if you need to create character depth in a short time, just show your (white) character having a special bond with non-white people.”
I went into the film preparing to cringe pretty hard at the scene, but found myself a little under-outraged. I was expecting something with a lot bad accents, etc. I completely agree with both the actors’ statements and Vane’s. The scene is problematic. But what is in some ways more problematic is what’s not in the film. People of color are largely absent in every other seen. This is essentially what the actors and Violetta are saying as well: Asian Pacific Islanders only appear in one scene to serve one purpose — to reveal show what a great guy the white protagonist is.
When the film was over, the thought occurred to me as well. (And it was kinda extra sad, because I enjoyed the hell out of the film overall, way more than I anticipated.)* When we left the theater, my nephew declared it was the best film he had ever seen. Yet the only people in it who looked remotely like him were the Kolkata slum dwellers. I’m pretty sure that it never crossed his mind, but I’m also pretty sure it impacts him in some less explicit way.
And his experience, seems to me like a bit of a microcosm. I don’t have any numbers to back this up, but I sorta feel like there is a lot about comic books that resonate with people of color and other minorities in particular. Secret identities, transformations, and generally “being different” are all extremely prevalent themes in comics. (It shouldn’t be a huge surprise that many of the most popular comic book characters were created by Jewish Americans). But this also makes it a even more bitterly ironic.
It’s not that progress isn’t being made. These film adaptations have given roles that were white in the comics to actors of color, most notably Nick Fury, who is played by Samuel L. Jackson and features prominently in “The Avengers.”
I guess what I’m saying, at the end of the day, is this: My nephew’s current two favorite films are “The Avengers” and “The Scorpion King.” And I have a feeling his reasons for liking the latter have a lot more to do with what the cast looks like (Duane “The Rock” Johnson is the lead) than what the story is about. It would be nice if, in the future, his favorite film is one that he likes for the reasons he likes “The Avengers” plus the reasons he likes “The Scorpion King.”
*Footnote: When Marvel started setting all its films in the same “universe,” paving the way for a crossover film like this one, I thought it was a horrible idea. I always thought it kinda did more harm than good in the comics, in that it forced writers to craft their stories within the confines of a pre-established, ridiculously expansive continuity and it led to a lot of low-quality, commercially-driven, cross-over stories. It worked in this new “Avengers” film largely because writer/director Whedon did an exceptional job of balancing the film’s myriad goals, (making the audience understand/care about nearly 10 ludicrous characters while devoting almost half the running time to epic comic book fighting, etc). At the same time though, it might also be that keeping continuity is easier when you’re dealing with fewer stories, (one or two a year instead of one or 200 a year).
Ben Hamamoto is a writer born and raised in the San Francisco Bay Area. He’s been published in the Oakland Tribune and has written for New American Media’s YO! Youth Outlook and the Nichi Bei Times. He is a research manager for the Health Horizons Program at the Institute for the Future. He also edits Nikkei Heritage, the National Japanese American Historical Society’s official magazine and contributes to Nichi Bei News.