When Disney announced that they had purchased Marvel, they opened themselves up to three things: jokes, cross-promotional opportunities, and new material from which to create new stories. The first two have been well in supply, while the third has just made its debut in the form of Big Hero 6, a 3DCG film loosely adapted from a Marvel comic series of the same name. The result is a movie that wears its lineage as the offspring of Disney and Marvel upfront, and which for the most part benefits from combining the raw, simple excitement of superheroes with the old Disney desire of creating family-friendly and uplifting animated films.
Story-wise, Big Hero 6 is an overall strong affair. The film centers around a 13-year-old boy named Hiro Hamada, a young robotics prodigy from the awkward portmanteau of “San Fransokyo” who mostly squanders his talents. Due to the influence of his older brother Tadashi, as well as Tadashi’s own creation in the form of a gentle healthcare robot named Beymax, Hiro is set on a path that leads him to not only pursue his ambitions but become a full-fledged superhero in the process. Big Hero 6 balances humor with action and a bit of tragedy, and it’s amazing how much can be done with a simple fistbump joke. On top of that, though, there are two qualities in the film, or I should say the protagonist, that stand out to me.
First, Hiro is an Asian protagonist in a field that is classically connected to the image of white heroes. At first, this might not seem that important because both Disney and Marvel have histories with Asian characters. Disney has Mulan and American Dragon Jake Long, and if we’re counting the Middle East as part of Asia as well, then there’s also Aladdin. Marvel has numerous superheroes that are ethnically Asian, such as Sunfire and Jubilee. However, I what’s special about Hiro is being able to see an Asian hero at the center of a big, important Disney + Marvel movie as someone whose abilities are not derived from his “Asian-ness,” especially because of how both companies have historically projected an image of “whiteness,” intentional or otherwise. Both companies have most recently shown a greater concern for diversity in characters (see Princess and the Frog and the new Ms. Marvel for a few examples), and while Big Hero 6 may not be the first, it is a clear and concerted effort to further show heroes of all kinds. To have powers derived from some mystical East Asian aspect is not inherently a bad thing, but it is quite overdone. While there is the risk of the association of Japan with technology and thus a kind of Techno-Orientalism, it never comes across that way even as San Fransokyo greatly resembles a Disney-fied Blade Runner Los Angeles.
The second important aspect of hero, which I’ve already mentioned, is that he’s a nerd. At this point nerd chic is old hat, and we’re at a point where so many people play video games that there’s little of the stigma that used to be there, but I think this is still important because of the portrayal of nerds in media, especially in Disney and Marvel properties. Again, both companies are not inherently against hyper-intelligent characters; Phineas and Ferb, a comedy about two genius kids, is one of Disney’s most successful properties in recent memory, while Marvel has characters like Professor X leading the X-Men. However, in both cases the go-to formula for hero vs. villain primary conflict has been some form of brawn vs. brains, where intelligent characters are scheming connivers: Scar to Mufasa, Jafar to Aladdin (who granted is more clever than anything else, but it’s a different type of smarts), Captain America vs. the Red Skull, Hulk vs. Leader. Big Hero 6 doesn’t just flip this into a good brains vs. evil brawn scenario, but actually makes it brains vs. brains. At the climax it’s a matter of pitting intellects against each other (albeit intellects redirected to look a whole lot like brawn) which are doing battle.
Of course, the brainy Asian who’s good at math is still a prominent stereotype, but this is mitigated by the fact that many different characters, Asian and non-Asian, are shown to be intelligent and into robotics. The rest of the core cast, which is mostly comprised of Tadashi’s college friends, are Asian, Black, White, etc., who are all so enthusiastic about developing technology that they went to college to accomplish that. Additionally, these characters have not just ethnic diversity but also a kind of physical diversity as well. While it doesn’t go as far as to include, say, handicapped or transgendered characters (which is still probably a risky step for a company like Disney and so unlikely to happen), the characters have a wide range of body shapes and sizes. Compare for example the difference between the tall and thin Honey Lemon and the shorter and rounder Gogo, both of whom are portrayed as beautiful in their own ways without their beauty being their most defining features or their primary functions in the narrative.
Speaking of diversity, the character Wasabi, who in the context of the film is the nickname for a black character, was originally a source of some controversy because his name was “Wasabi-no-Ginger” for an Asian character. I can see why this got a bad reaction, but I do wonder if it was supposed to be a reference to how manga characters are sometimes named. Most famously, Toriyama Akira, creator of Dragonball Z, names most of his characters after food (Vegeta), food-related products (Freeza), or underwear (Trunks). Here, the choice to change a Japanese character with a potentially offensive name into a black character might in a vacuum be considered on the same level as turning a non-white character into a Caucasian, but I think the contexts are different. My opinion on this is still undecided, but I think it’s the result of both an increasing awareness of cultural sensitivity and how important that can be, along with Disney responding to a market that increasingly cares about this issue.
This being primarily an anime and manga blog, I also want to mention all of the references and similarities to anime and manga that litter the film. From Hiro’s not-Mazinger Z wall clock to the fact that his superhero outfit looks awfully similar to Priss Asagiri’s hardsuit in Bubblegum Crisis, there’s much love paid to mecha in a way similar to Pacific Rim and even anime like Robotics;Notes which are also love letters to robot shows. Having seen it only once in theaters I couldn’t go over it with a fine-toothed comb, but attention is paid to Japan and its own history of animation. Given Frozen and its enormous success in Japan, I wonder if Big Hero 6 with its Japanese protagonist can perform similarly
Overall, Big Hero 6 is a strong first step in a lot of different areas. It’s good as the true debut of the Disney-Marvel alliance, and even better as a product of both companies’ increasing efforts to represent and inspire a multicultural environment. There’s clear intent at franchising this film, so I’ll be curious as to where it all goes.