As Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D. has grown over the years from a loosely-connected Avengers tie-in to a full-fledged action-drama, carving out its own corner of the Marvel Cinematic Universe along the way, it has also quietly morphed into the most diverse project within the MCU. Most of its cast is a mixture of genders, races, nationalities, and sexual orientations, and the show not only treats each character with equal amounts of respect, but it uses its varied cast to deal with issues not normally addressed in comic book properties. Long before Supergirl made headlines for having a female superhero lead or the casting of Finn Jones sparked a heated debate over the role of Asian-Americans in comic properties, S.H.I.E.L.D. featured a cast led by three female action heroes, two of which are Asian-American. But in all the discussions about women and POCs in superhero franchises, nobody seemed to be mentioning Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., Ming-Na Wen (who plays Melinda May, a character created for the series), or most importantly Chloe Bennet, who plays hacker-turned-Inhuman Daisy “Skye” Johnson. As stellar as Wen is each week, Bennet is especially relevant to the conversation as not just a female superhero, but the only Asian-American superhero currently on TV. It’s an oversight that hasn’t been lost on Bennet, who recently spoke with The Daily Beast about her role and the diversity present in the MCU and Hollywood in general.
“I wish people talked about that more,” Bennet told the Daily Beast. “I don’t know if it’s good or bad, but when Supergirl came out, people were like, ‘This is the only superhero on TV that’s a female!’ And I was like, ‘Hold on! I’m pretty sure Daisy’s been here.’ And I also happen to be half-Chinese and I’m so proud of that.”
While S.H.I.E.L.D. and Bennet may not be getting the spotlight they deserve, her case is an important one to look at. Daredevil is one of the only other major comic properties to feature prominent Asian actors. Season 2 even saw the addition of Elektra, who was altered from her Greek comic origin to be played by French-Cambodian actor Elodie Yung. The show, however, is surrounded by some controversy of its own for situating all of its Asian characters within a number of stereotypical roles, which Arthur Chu outlined in this recent piece for The Daily Beast (which unfortunately, despite appearing on the same site as the Bennet interview, doesn’t mention Daisy or S.H.I.E.L.D.). Once Iron Fist airs (and possibly when Doctor Strange is released), the MCU will gain a number of new Asian-American heroes. Sadly, they’ll still just be supporting characters like they are in Daredevil, and early reports seem to point to them filling roles similar to Elektra, Nobu, and Madame Gao. Bennet and Wen look to remain the only two Asian-American leads in a Marvel property for some time to come. But it isn’t just an issue with Marvel or comic book properties in general; it’s a problem that permeates Hollywood.
While Wen has spent decades working through Hollywood, Bennet is a relative newcomer. She first appeared on the entertainment scene as a Chinese popstar using her birth name of Chloe Wang. When she decided to transition to acting though, the American entertainment industry was less receptive to her. She quickly learned that it wasn’t a lack of talent causing her to lose auditions, but her given name. She dropped “Wang” and started going by Chloe Bennet (her father’s first name), and the results were instantaneous.
“Oh, the first audition I went on after I changed my name, I got booked,” Bennet said. “So that’s a pretty clear little snippet of how Hollywood works.”
Given her personal insight into how Hollywood and the American entertainment industry treats Asian artists, and given her prominent role in an MCU property, Bennet is in a unique position to analyze the controversies surrounding Asian-Americans in superhero properties and weigh in on the discussion. So how did she feel when Jones was cast as the lead in Iron Fist?
“I actually saw that [casting] news and I can’t lie, I was a little [disappointed],” she says, before breaking into laughter again. “I love Marvel, but…”
While the debate about whether Danny Rand needs to be white, or is free to be another race, has been raging for months and dissected from every angle (including on our site last year by MC Nedelsky in colloboration with Keith Chow and The Nerds Of Color in an exhaustive, informative, and meticulous multi-part series), the fact is that while keeping him as an outsider is important to his character, there’s not much else about Danny Rand that requires him to be white versus any other race. When it comes to altering elements from the comics, Marvel has taken excessive liberties, and Bennet agrees that this issue shouldn’t be any different.
“I know they want to stay true to their characters but, you know, every female character in Marvel comics also has, like, triple-Z-sized boobs. So if they cast actors based on the way characters look on the page, I don’t think even Scarlett Johansson—well, maybe Scarlett Johansson—would be in the movies.”
While Marvel has made strides in altering the race of many traditionally white comic characters for their films (and has almost always come under fire from various bigots and trolls for doing so), including the casting of Bennet as Daisy Johnson, who in the comics is white, she thinks Marvel still has a ways to go in disrupting its own dated, internal precedent.
“I think they could do better,” she says. “You know, there are a lot of white guys named Chris. But I think they will, because it’s important. It’s the right thing to do. Marvel’s a smart company and I think they will represent their fans from around the world. They can take note from the way we’re going on the show, ’cause we’re doing a pretty good job.”
While things have steadily improved in Hollywood when it comes to representing the world the way it is and casting a wide-range of different actors, there’s still a long way to go. In the meantime, while we have all of these discussions about diversity and race and gender in superhero and comic properties, it’s important to remember that since the fall of 2013, Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D., Ming-Na Wen, and Chloe Bennet have been leading by example in their corner of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Let’s just hope that Kevin Feige, the Avengers, and comic fans start paying attention.
Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D. airs Tuesdays at 9 EST on ABC.
Source: The Daily Beast