Superheroes have been entertaining audiences for generations in comics. There have been many introduced into the medium but not everyone shares the same success. What makes certain ones stand out over others? Sometimes, it’s the ability of readers to relate to these costumed leads on a personal level. Marvel’s Behind the Mask, a new documentary special on Disney+, shows how the company’s focus on the person past the costume helped make its characters resonate with fans and become so beloved.
The documentary serves as a good introduction for both those new to comics and to those curious after watching the films. It contains a general history of Marvel and follows some of the main players including Stan Lee, Jack Kirby, and Steve Ditko while centering on many familiar faces in the MCU. There’s a logical progression that’s easy to follow as it proceeds chronologically. We see the evolution of the types of characters and how cultural influences of the early immigrant creators shaped the heroes and stories. In order to connect with readers, an effort was made to have real life settings such as New York City and have the heroes encounter normal problems in their personal lives.
However, Marvel’s Behind the Mask can cater to hardcore fans as well. The contributors to the special run the gambit of favorite creators along with editors and scholars spanning different ages. They all provide insightful commentary and analysis and it’s pretty intriguing how the same character can be interpreted differently by separate people. David F. Walker and Neal Kirby’s views on the Thing is perfect example of contrasting ways a superhero resonates with people. There are also some interesting facts and anecdotes behind the panels.
Marvel doesn’t shy away from the darker portions of their past and address previous shortcomings and insensitivities as they developed their roster of heroes. There were definitely poor attempts at diversification that resulted in racist and sexist caricatures. In addition, for a long period, many of the comic creators were young white males so they weren’t necessarily the best people creating these stories. It is nice to see that the publisher can admit to their previous missteps.
This transitions nicely into a more inclusive Marvel. Some of their arcs aligned closely with women and gay liberation. As the creators better represented the demographics of the United States, they didn’t have to rely on fictional metaphors as much to signify different minority struggles. The viewer is presented with a variety of POC, LGBTQ, and women voices, who have worked for the company, candidly sharing what these tales and characters mean to them.
Marvel’s Behind the Mask runs a little over an hour but could benefit if it was longer. They could have easily spent more time discussing any of the subjects but especially the current steps their taking to create a more diverse universe. The conversation about the Asian influence is smaller compared to other groups while there is no real mention of indigenous and Latinx. This is an important aspect as they try to relate to today’s comic reader and also make amends for their earlier cultural insensitivities.
It can be tricky when the producers of the documentary are also the subject matter. There are times when they like to pat themselves on the back but overall, it is an enjoyable special that has features that caters to comics newbies and die-hards. Our world is fluid but Marvel will always make an effort to mirror it within their stories for a more approachable and inclusive experience.
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