(Warning: While the following doesn't contains any major plot SPOILERS for Marvel movies, it does contain some in-depth discussion about the way the Marvel Cinematic Universe operates behind the scenes. Since knowing how movies work is a little bit like learning how sausages are made, feel free to proceed with whatever level of caution your internal sense of joy and wonder suggests is wise.)
Now, for one of the most widely beloved creators of cultural content in the world today, Marvel sure has been on the receiving end of a whole lot of controversy of late. From gender-imbalanced toy lines to problematically "so white" movies and comic books, Marvel Entertainment has been struggling of late to reverse the widespread impression that it doesn't really care about diversity.
In recent months, a dramatically changed comic book line-up has helped matters - but it's to Marvel's most prominent product - its movies - that many fans are currently looking in the hope of spotting some more widely visible progress.
The Marvel Cinematic Universe Could Have A Big Problem
With the wider world around us gradually - if painfully slowly - finding ways of, y'know, not actively discriminating against anyone who isn't a straight white male, there's a huge risk for every major cultural outlet that, by not changing with the times, they'll be left behind.
Which - even putting aside the moral argument of treating (and representing) people equally because it's the right thing to do - is ultimately incredibly bad for business. Being seen as a bastion of old-fashioned values and anti-political correctness can win votes, sell chicken and sometimes garner a devoted core audience - but it's also an excellent road to financial irrelevance in a business world that's increasingly catering to younger, more socially liberal audiences around the world.
In other words, if Marvel - and, by extension, its parent company, Disney - was to become known as an old-fashioned, out-of-touch hub of anti-diversity cultural output, then it would likely lose money. Which, what with Marvel being a corporation (and therefore entirely dedicated to the making of money) and all, would be potentially catastrophic.
Fortunately for fans of the movies, though...
Kevin Feige Just Secretly Saved The Marvel Cinematic Universe
Yup, that's right - Kevin Feige, President of Marvel Studios since 2007, and therefore also the man who arguably created the MCU in the first place - may just have pulled off a maneuver that could save the Marvel Cinematic Universe (and possibly the comic book movie world as a whole) from the popular and commercial failure that looks set to accompany any major shift away from progressive filmmaking and diversity.
What's more, it seems as though he managed to pull it off without most of us realizing that he'd done anything at all.
What Did Kevin Feige Do, Though?
Well, essentially, he persuaded Disney to make Marvel Studios an independent part of the House of Mouse's empire - with Feige now answering directly to Disney head honcho Alan Horn.
The reason that matters, though, has less to do with Horn, or even Disney, but instead centers on the man who Feige had to report to up until last summer: Marvel Entertainment CEO Ike Perlmutter.
Y'see, Marvel Studios has historically been a subsidiary of Marvel Entertainment - which, as a parent company of both the movie and comic book divisions, has long been focused more on the company's overall commercial growth, and therefore on licensing and merchandising opportunities.
And as it turns out...
Ike Perlmutter Was Probably Behind Every Decision In The MCU That You've Ever Disagreed With
The shadowy figure - he refuses to be photographed, and famously attended the Iron Man premiere in disguise - has long been intensely focused on the commercial needs of Marvel, with storytelling requirements and fan service both losing out. He's also, however, a man with very strong - and very old fashioned - beliefs about what movies should contain.
And as it turns out, that doesn't include a whole lot of diversity, and it certainly doesn't include a whole lot of representation for anyone who isn't a straight white dude.
As a steady trickle of media reports have revealed over the past few years, Perlmutter is the reason we haven't seen a Black Widow movie - he doesn't believe that female-led films make money - and, as Iron Man 3 director Shane Black recently revealed, was the direct cause of that movie not having a lead female villain, as well as of reducing the roles of the female characters it did have (all because female action figures supposedly sell poorly).
In other words, it seems that Perlmutter - a substantial financial supporter of Donald Trump - is adamantly opposed to a balanced representation of women in Marvel movies. With Marvel's films having also long been distinctly straight and white in their casting and characterization, it's also hardly surprising that some have speculated that Perlmutter's old-fashioned ideology extends beyond gender - not least because he allegedly once argued that no one would notice that Don Cheadle had replaced Terrence Howard as James "War Machine" Rhodes because "black people look the same."
Kevin Feige's de-facto promotion, then - one that gives the reportedly far more forward-thinking President the freedom to actually pursue a diversity-filled movie slate - can be seen as a major victory for anyone who'd rather not be stuck with a movie industry consisting almost entirely of a small gang of straight white guys.
Why Does That Matter, Though?
Well, aside from the obvious fact that hundreds of millions of people have been under-represented - and often actively maligned - for years now, the change from a corporate position based on the active exclusion of anyone who isn't a straight white guy is, as discussed above, an increasingly necessary business decision.
Now, as Charlotte Finn over at ComicsAlliance recently argued so astutely, corporations such as Marvel are ultimately designed purely to make money, and not to "do the right thing," or to encourage cultural progress. At the end of the day, Marvel as a whole isn't like us:
"A corporation doesn’t have feelings to stir, or a heart to break. They lack the capacity to love for anything other than selfish reasons."
And, crucially, no matter how much any one of us loves Marvel:
"Marvel, by its nature, cannot love [us] back."
Marvel cannot love its characters in the same way we do, because for a corporation they exist purely to generate profit. Protecting them - and even staying true to their origins or key themes - can play a part in that, but not because the corporation believes it to be the right thing to do morally or ideologically. While individuals within that corporation can - and surely do - make decisions based on what they believe is right, the company as a whole is almost certainly legally required to make its owners or shareholders the greatest possible profit. Whether that comes from adopting progressive policies or old-fashioned ones is unlikely in the end.
Which is precisely why Kevin Feige taking over full control of Marvel Studios is so important.
Marvel Studios Is Now Free To Evolve With The Times
This story ultimately has a (potentially) pretty depressing ending: If companies such as Marvel - and Disney, and Fox, and everyone else making mainstream cultural products - begin to sense that the market is moving in an anti-diversity direction, then that is ultimately what we'll see reflected on our screens, in our comic books, and everywhere else around us. The 1980s were flooded with movies like Rambo, Rocky and Red Dawn because there was an old-fashioned anti-communist market for them. The Red Dawn remake, by contrast, arguably failed because that market has largely disappeared - much as Creed transformed the Rocky franchise into something far more progressive than it has been since the 1970s.
In other words? We get the movies we - or at least, the majority of us - ask for.
Which, with Marvel Studios being influenced by the evidently out-of-touch Ike Perlmutter, was something that Marvel was at risk of failing to do. With Kevin Feige standing unobstructed at the helm, on the other hand, Marvel Studios is free to finally make fan-pleasing (and potentially hugely profitable) movies like a Black Widow solo movie, and to actually attempt to balance out the endless hordes of straight white dudes with slightly different facial hair that make up much of the pre-existing MCU.
Captain America: Civil War was a good start, and with Black Panther and Captain Marvel now looking set to further expand Marvel's new diversity policy - it's notably easy to imagine Perlmutter insisting that the majority of Black Panther take place in America, or feature a largely white cast - it looks as though we may finally begin to see a genuinely diverse Marvel Cinematic Universe emerge. The recent controversies surrounding cultural appropriation in Doctor Strange and Iron Fist suggest that there's still a long way to go, but it's good to see that - thanks, it seems, to Kevin Feige's assumption of control at the top - we're finally on our way to seeing an MCU that actually reflects the world we live in, and that adequately represents each and every one of us.
And, when we finally - some day - see that MCU arrive? Well, then we're just going to have to fight to keep it more profitable than any reactionary, racist, sexist, homophobic or otherwise "good old days"-inspired trends that try to overtake it. After all, so long as progress makes money - and, of course, the absence of it causes PR problems - it'll keep on coming. And maybe - just maybe - that can start to help change the world as a whole for the better.