With an average of—what, a thousand?— new Marvel movies and TV series premiering each month, it can often feel like it’s Marvel’s world, and we’re just living in it.
In the past several years, though—starting around 2013, when G. Willow Wilson brought Kamala Khan into the off-screen conversation as Ms. Marvel and Jed Whedon and Maurissa Tancharoen brought Skye Johnson (Chloe Bennett) and Melinda May (Ming-na Wen) into the on-screen conversation on ABC’s Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.—it has increasingly felt like maybe Marvel took a long, thoughtful look at our world, in all its intersecting diversity, and decided to come live here. Today, deep in the summer of 2018, we don’t just have Luke Cage (Mike Colter) and Jessica Jones (Krysten Ritter) vying for our attention on Netflix, we also have the breezily eclectic groups of kids on Hulu’s Runaways and Disney’s Big Hero 6, along with Mack (Henry Simmons) and Yo-Yo (Natalia Cordova-Buckley) on ABC’s latest iteration of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., and Tandy (Olivia Holt) and Tyrone (Aubrey Joseph) on Freeform’s Cloak & Dagger.
With the company’s newest cross-media project, Marvel Rising—which sees younger heroes from the company’s comics corner teaming up both in comics and on television to form a fresh, Avengers-esque superhero team of their own—Marvel is cashing in on those years of growth by making the team’s inherent diversity a central feature.
“This is the next phase of that,” Sana Amanat, director of content and character development, says in the promo video below. “We wanted to show the world that these heroes are important to the Marvel Universe, that there is a character for every kind of Marvel fan out there.”
The full-length animated adventure of these young superheroes won’t come out until later this fall, but as an amuse-bouche to get fans excited for their eventual arrival, Disney recently released Marvel Uprising: Initiation, a series of shorts that introduces the animated versions of comics favorites and apparent BFHFs (Best Friend Heroes Forever) Kamala Khan (Kathreen Khavari) and Squirrel Girl (Milana Vayntrub), along with Ghost Spider (Dove Cameron), Patriot (Kamil McFadden), and S.H.I.E.L.D.’s Daisy Johnson (Chloe Bennett). (Cierra Ramirez’s America Chavez and Tyler Posey’s Inferno won’t show up until the feature drops.)
These six shorts, none of which clock in at more than four minutes long, can be found on the DisneyNOW app alongside nine other Marvel shorts series (including the very fun Rocket & Groot), as well as the Star Wars: Forces of Destiny shorts that, in showcasing the women of the Star Wars universe going on punchy, fun adventures, share a creatively progressive spiritual connection with Marvel Rising: Initiation. The story could have been released as a half-hour teaser episode, but with the multiple pauses the format forces the audience to take, Marvel Rising: Initiation ends up functioning as a set of character studies that, collectively, echo Amanat’s thesis: These characters are not who you’ve seen in the Marvel world before, but we’ve seen them in yours, and your world and your experiences matter.
That, and they are also just fun. Squirrel Girl and Kamala Khan were made for an on-screen team-up (and thank goodness their live-action series New Warriors is coming down the line somewhere, sometime), and Gwen Stacy’s all-girl garage band makes for a kickass narrative signature. Diversity doesn’t have to be homework, Marvel Rising says, and while Luke Cage and Jessica Jones and Tandy and Tyrone might be battling grimness, it also doesn’t have to be hard. It can just… be.
But then, of course, there is the more popular film universe, in which this year’s Black Panther was the first not-a-white-dude tentpole the company felt ready to bankroll. Watching Marvel Rising (and Cloak & Dagger, and Runaways, and Big Hero 6, etc.) and trying to keep the excitement alive while remembering that Black Widow was downgraded to romantic interest before getting her own franchise is… hard. Eve Ewing announced this week that she’s writing Riri Williams’ Ironheart comic series, which, dang, wouldn’t Riri be so great in Marvel Rising? But then the memory of Black Panther [Infinity War spoilers] just months after anchoring the first film in his franchise pops up. Two things can always true at the same time, but these two things—the easy and ever-expanding diversity in print and on the small screen, and the granite wall of white dudeliness that persists on the big screen—are a real bummer.
Of course, Marvel is so huge and has such a well-planned (and mostly secret) development slate that any attempts to stick a pin in one moment in time and make steely claims about how diverse, how progressive, how anything it’s output is would be pyrrhic. Maybe the resolution to [Infinity War spoilers] will rock the balance of the MCU so hard that the landscape we’ve seen grow in the comic series and on TV will, in another snap of Thanos’ dumb gauntlet, be reflected in theaters. Maybe Marvel Rising means Daisy Johnson will lead her mini-Avengers team in to fill the film franchise’s voids. Maybe, maybe, maybe.
In the meantime, we have the BFHFs, streaming to the screen in your pocket.
Marvel Rising: Initiation is now streaming on the DisneyNOW app and Marvel HQ’s YouTube page.
Alexis Gunderson is a TV critic whose writing has appeared on Forever Young Adult, Screener, and Birth.Movies.Death. She’ll go ten rounds fighting for teens and intelligently executed genre fare to be taken seriously by pop culture. She can be found @AlexisKG.