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Disney debuts deaf Native superhero as ‘woke’ debate swirls

Native American actress Alaqua Cox arrives to celebrate the upcoming launch of Marvel Studios' 'Echo'
Native American actress Alaqua Cox arrives to celebrate the upcoming launch of Marvel Studios' 'Echo' - Copyright AFP VALERIE MACON
Native American actress Alaqua Cox arrives to celebrate the upcoming launch of Marvel Studios' 'Echo' - Copyright AFP VALERIE MACON

Can a deaf, Native American superhero with a prosthetic leg reinvigorate Disney’s Marvel franchise, just weeks after its CEO appeared to criticize his filmmakers for prioritizing messaging over storytelling?

Streaming series “Echo,” which launches on Disney+ and Hulu on Tuesday, tells the story of Maya Lopez, a tough former villain who returns from a life of criminality in New York to rediscover her Indigenous roots in her Oklahoma hometown. 

Much of the dialogue takes place through sign language, with subtitles, and filmmakers worked closely with Choctaw Nation leaders to create authentic scenes, including a flashback to a sporting festival in pre-European contact America.

“I’m just so proud to be able to represent a platform that is uplifting voices for Indigenous people… we’re doing it the right way,” star Alaqua Cox — who is herself deaf, Indigenous and an amputee — told a recent press conference.

But the series comes at a delicate time for Disney, whose Marvel superhero films have struggled recently at the box office after over a decade of global domination.

Last year, for the first time since 2016, Disney was not the highest-grossing studio in Hollywood, pipped by Universal.

Simultaneously, the company has found itself at the heart of the US culture wars, attacked by right-wing commentators and Republican politicians for becoming “too woke” in its storytelling.

Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, a presidential hopeful, has pounced upon complaints about the increasing prevalence of gay and nonbinary characters in Disney films, from “Lightyear” to “Elemental.”

At a conference talk in November, Disney CEO Bob Iger said that the company’s storytellers had become overly concerned about introducing “positive messages,” and had “lost sight of what their number one objective needed to be.”

“What I’ve really tried to do is to return to our roots, which is remember we have to entertain first. It’s not about messages,” said Iger.

– ‘Frustration’ –

With its diverse casting, “Echo” represents the culmination of a trend for Disney.

The Marvel superhero films launched in 2008 with “Iron Man,” starring Robert Downey Jr.

It would take until the series’ 18th movie, “Black Panther,” that a solo lead character was not a white man.

Since then, there have been a plethora of diverse leads, even as box office returns have dipped.

But Bethany Lacina, an assistant professor at University of Rochester who has studied audience demographics, said there is no evidence to suggest the trends are linked.

Disney’s casting decisions “are moving their movies closer to what their audience has always been,” especially as young Americans become more diverse, she said.

“Non-white people are more likely to watch Marvel films than white people. Particularly Black people and white Hispanics,” she said.

Lacina suggested Iger’s comments may reflect “frustration” that simply casting non-traditional leads had not automatically brought in vast untapped minority audiences, as hoped.

Still, there is no evidence of a “backlash” from white viewers, who flocked to films like the Oscar-nominated “Black Panther” — a film singled out for praise by Iger at his November talk for “fostering acceptance.” 

Instead many analysts suggest Disney has simply produced too much content, including a dozen Marvel TV series, leading to what has been dubbed “superhero fatigue” as well as a perceived decline in quality.

– ‘Legacy heroes’ –

Marvel’s shift toward more diverse superheroes stems from both commercial strategy, and the history of the source comic books themselves, according to Nick Carnes, editor of “The Politics of the Marvel Cinematic Universe.”

“If you look at the legacy heroes, the oldest characters that have generations of nostalgia, they are disproportionately white and male,” said Carnes, a Duke University professor.

Disney’s entire Marvel project is “taking people who like a story about Iron Man or Spider Man, and then exposing them to characters who are different,” he said.

According to Carnes, Iger’s comments could simply reflect “a time when it is very fraught and very challenging to be a leader who engages with politics.”

The success or failure of “Echo” will still rest on the storytelling, he said.

“And at the end of the day, we’re all human beings,” said cast member Chaske Spencer, of Lakota Sioux origin.

“What it relates to is emotion… all of us can relate to that.”

Written By

With 2,400 staff representing 100 different nationalities, AFP covers the world as a leading global news agency. AFP provides fast, comprehensive and verified coverage of the issues affecting our daily lives.

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