When Marvel's Ant-Man opened in U.S. theaters back in July, it received generally positive reviews that belied the fact that it was (financially) one of the studios' worst-performing superhero openings to date.
Though $58 million US is nothing to cough at, that number put Ant-Man down as its second to last most successful premiere barely beating out The Incredible Hulk, which many people forget is technically a part of the Marvel Cinematic Universe.
In China, however, where Ant-Man opened this past weekend, the story was vastly different. The Peyton Reed-directed movie brought in over $43 million—Marvel's second largest Chinese launch of all time after Avengers: Age of Ultron.
The specifics as to why Chinese audiences responded so much more warmly to a movie about Paul Rudd and Corey Stoll shrinking and throwing toy trains at one another than American audiences is unclear, but Marvel's response is not.
Film studios have increasingly been more interested in marketing their blockbusters to foreign audiences but, rather than banking on easy-to-follow plots and big action pieces, Marvel says that it plans on including more Chinese characters.
"We have felt the passion of Chinese fans," Marvel manager of licensed publishing Jeffrey Reingold said in a press conference. "As long as there is a demand in the market, it is possible to add Chinese elements and culture to Marvel products and create Chinese heroes and stories."
Chinese elements! Chinese culture! Chinese heroes and stories! For a series of movies about superheroes who are literally saving the entire galaxy every few years, Marvel films (like all superhero films) are still overwhelmingly populated by white men in spandex.
Taken at face value, Reingold's statement sounds like a fantastic response to the recent calls for more diversity in mainstream comic book culture.
When analyzed a bit more critically, however, it becomes clear that at best case, more "Chinese heroes and stories" means picking a few characters out of obscurity and giving them the rightful attention that they deserve. At worst (and more likely?) This can be read as Marvel merely wanting to make more money and viewing diversity as one of the more expedient avenues to do so.
The two don't necessarily have to be mutually exclusive, but looking at Marvel's catalogue of Asian—let alone Chinese—superheroes that it has to pick from is cause for concern.
When you consider the list of characters that Marvel actually has the rights to put into its movies, it becomes very clear very quickly that there aren't many people of Asian descent that the studio has access to.
The vast majority of Chinese, Japanese, and Korean Marvel characters that have been created to date tend to be mutants.
The reason? Mutants don't have to be chosen by the government, bathed in gamma radiation, or trained, Russian assassins to become superhuman. Mutants are born, not made, and there's an argument to be made that that "loophole" made it easier for writers to imagine people who weren't, well, white guys.
By and large, mutants leave their families behind to join in the adventures of the X-Men and co, making it easier to define them as unique mutants rather than people with distinct ethnic backgrounds.
Take Jubilation Lee (codename Jubilee,) the plucky, teenaged valley girl introduced in Uncanny X-Men #244.
Jubilee quickly became one of the most high-profile Chinese characters in Marvel's comics and its popular tv series in the early 90s. Unfortunately, Jubilee's Chinese heritage was left largely downplayed following the sudden death of her parents not long after she was introduced.
Even though Jubilee's ethnicity was never explored as much as her affinity for neon trench coats, her importance as one of the most iconic Asian American characters in comic books can't be overstated.
There are couple of other notable characters whose heritage are explicitly unpacked like Armor, Hisako Ichiki, who describes her ability to manifest a psionic exoskeleton around herself as drawing upon the strength of her ancestors. She, like Sunfire (Shiro Yoshida,) are written as being distinctly Japanese, but again, they're mutants, and Fox currently has a monopoly on anything with an x-gene.
So where does that leave Marvel? Thankfully, with a handful of options other than simply creating new characters to appeal to foreign markets.
Marvel's Kevin Feige has called crossovers between its movies and television series "inevitable," and many have assumed that to mean that one day, you might see Daredevil duking it out with the Black Widow. In terms of bringing more characters of Chinese descent to the big screen, though, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. is the studio's best bet.
Where the Avengers films have been tentpole events, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D's been slowly building out Marvel's ground-level world that's increasingly filled with everyday superhuman threats.
For the last three television seasons, Ming-Na Wen and Chloe Bennet have been playing two of the strongest female protagonists that live inside the broader Marvel Universe as S.H.I.E.L.D. Agents Melinda May and Skye (Daisy) Johnson. Both actresses (and their characters) also happen to be of Chinese descent.
While Clark Gregg's Agent Phil Coulson has made the leap from the Avengers to Marvel's weekly ABC show, Agent May's yet to see any screen time discussing spycraft with Nick Fury. Similarly, it's unclear how Johnson, a confirmed Inhuman, may fit into Marvel's upcoming Inhumans film due out in 2020.
But, if Marvel's as keen on this diversity boost as they say they are, the studio should begin with these two characters.