Muslim Supervillains: a tired stereotype
Image description: Supervillains clockwise from top left, Iron Man 1 (2008), The Boys TV (2020), Batman vs. Superman Dawn of Justice (2016), and Wonder Woman 1984 (2020). Please note the frequent use of Yellow Filter.
I decided to list all the times Muslim and Muslim background actors and/or characters (also referred to as SWANA and/or MENA, which stands for South West Asia and North Africa, and Middle East and North Africa) have been given the role of 'supervillain' in live action superhero movies.
Spoiler: it's a lot.
It's also more times than any Muslim actors have appeared as 'good guys' in a superhero movie which, obviously, is really bad typecasting and overt racism.
In chronological order:
Iron Man (2008)
The Ten Rings, a terrorist group made up of multiple MENA and Muslim groups, led by pantomime-level villain Raza (actor Faran Tahir), and also including actor Sayed Badreya among the supporting villains without names.
Sayed Badreya commented on being typecast and always killed in Hollywood movies in this GQ article: "I die in Iron Man," says Sayed Badreya. "I die in executive decision. I get shot by everyone." (x)
Batman vs Superman (2016)
From the theatrical cut of the movie we have an unnamed African 'General' and some rando mercenaries/terrorists that Lois Lane interviews in Nairomi, Africa, referred to only as "the desert" throughout.
All reference to the General's actual name are only available in an extended/deleted scene. So, all in all, a very shallow depiction of these characters and merely used as a prop for the Lex Luthor angle.
There is one baddie for the entire movie and he's played by Riz Ahmed, a British actor (just like the lead actor, Tom Hardy, is also British).
Riz Ahmed plays Carlton Drake, a somewhat stereotypical supervillain doctor who has basic and forgettable world domination goals for reasons.
Despite the fact Ahmed gives a great performance, and the fact that at least here is a MENA supervillain that isn't dressed or presented in any of the stereotypical ways these movies usually present MENA and Muslim supervillains, he is still a Muslim actor playing a one and done bad guy, and it's pretty two dimensional.
Technically he plays two supervillains in this movie, being the voice actor for his symbiote, Riot. He still dies, though.
The Boys (2019 - 2020)
Alright so The Boys is a TV show, but I have to give it an honorable mention for such a spectacularly racist depiction of a Muslim supervillain character, who is not only badly written but barely appears onscreen for more than a couple of minutes in total at the end of season 1 (2019) and the first couple of minutes of season 2 (2020).
See my post on Naqib here.
Wonder Woman 1984 (2020)
Arguably the most cartoonish and racist depiction of Arabs and Muslims as generic villains and baddies (since The Boys TV) with no motive other than to 'bomb stuff' for 'reasons', set against a generic White Savior narrative. (Yikes.)
I honestly don't think there is anything redeemable about this movie either, and I'm pleased it got fair drags from critics upon its release for multiple issues, not just the overt racism and Islamophobia. (x) (x)
But the fact that Warner Bros thought this racist depiction of Arabs and Muslims was okay to release in 2020 really says a lot about the racist state of Hollywood generally (but that's another post).
There we have it!
That is a full list of Muslim supervillains (and in the case of Venom, a supervillain played by a Muslim actor).
And sadly that's also it for Muslim character representation in live action superhero movies. They are all bad guys!
(Wow, who saw that coming /sarcasm.)
Read on for side notes, and how upcoming Disney Plus show Ms Marvel isn’t going to automatically fix this industry wide problem when it has its own casting problems:
Side note: there has been a fleeting glimpse of a nameless background character here and there, but only once in a movie and twice in TV shows.
A couple of fleeting glimpses from nameless extras hardly makes up for all the Muslim supervillains we've had to see over the years.
For example, it took Marvel/MCU/Disney 13 years to show any Muslim characters onscreen at all, from Iron Man in 2008 all the way up to Disney Plus show Falcon and Winter Soldier (2021). Please see my post about how badly Disney failed at good rep for these nameless extras.
Now, before anyone pipes up with 'but Disney Plus is bringing in Ms Marvel soon!', let me inform you that many of us are wary of and upset with Disney for their casting decisions, and many other problems to do with the Ms Marvel show (x) debuting in 2022.
One stand out problem is the casting choices which further perpetuates colorism.
Colorism means favoring white, light skinned, and western features in actors, therefore affecting the casting and depiction of SWANA, MENA, and Muslim characters, lending a distorted, white-washed, western, and Orientalist lens to SWANA and Muslim representation.
What we've seen so far with the Ms Marvel supporting cast (not the lead herself) is a cast made up of way too many non-Muslim and non-Pakistani actors to play Muslim and Pakistani characters.
Brown people are not interchangeable, yet studios (especially Disney) rely on the ignorance of western audiences to get away with this blatant colorism.
The Ms Marvel show also has light skinned, biracial, and even Christian actors cast to play monoracial, brown skinned, Muslim characters. That is not okay!
Yet of course, when it comes to the one character who will likely be the villain on the show (as he is in the comics, Kamran) the actor cast to play him, Rish Shah, is quite clearly darker skinned than say, Aramis Knight, also cast in the show to play another love interest to the lead, Kamala, and general good guy. This is colorism; brown skin = baddies, light skin = goodies.
Casting white and more western actors for the good guys, but brown and Muslim actors for the bad guys, is typical colorism and Islamophobia at play within the industry.
So, no: the Ms Marvel Disney Plus show won't 'fix' Islamophobia in superhero movies.
We still have a long way to go.
Have you spotted any Muslim, MENA, and SWANA characters in superhero media lately? Tell me!
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