WARNING: SPOILERS FOR SPIDER-MAN: ACROSS THE SPIDER-VERSE (and I guess Street Fighter 6?)
I’ve had the pleasure lately of experiencing two of the finest works of media this year: Street Fighter 6 and Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse. Both are at the pinnacle of their respective genres (fighting games and superhero movies) and seem to draw all the right lessons from the past. But one thing both titles really have in common—and which I think is so indicative of their approach—is strong character designs that are profoundly respectful of their casts’ diversity in terms of culture, background, and circumstances.
The idea of an international roster far predates both works and even their respective origin points, i.e.g Street Fighter the arcade game and the Spider-Man comics. Often, these past portrayals end up being flawed, if well-intentioned. Be it a manga like Kinnikuman featuring heroic wrestlers built entirely on stereotypes or having the brilliant detective Charlie Chan played by an actor in yellowface, it’s historically a mixed bag. These instances frequently betray a lack of exposure to other cultures by ones that consider themselves the default.
SF6 and AtSV know that their audiences aren’t limited mainly to one ethnic group anymore, and either have people from more diverse cultures on staff, or at least people eager to listen to people from other groups. Both SF6 and AtSV had to meet the challenge of revamping many existing designs—the former because many returning characters are supposed to be older, and the latter because it draws from so many different portrayals of Spider-Man. In this regard, both succeed in spades.
Here are a few examples:
In SF6, Chun-Li’s update conveys through her mannerisms and outfit that she has matured while still being undoubtedly recognizable as the queen of fighting games. Her clothes draw directly from Chinese culture without bordering on parody, and some of her animations have been changed to draw from actual Chinese kung fu styles. Her new standing medium kick, for example, is actually the Separation Kick from tai chi.
Zangief still looks like a hulking wrestler, but they actually changed his body type. In previous games, Zangief has more of a body builder’s physique—extremely chiseled all around—but in SF6, he exchanged that physique for one with a bit more fat around his massive muscles. In other words, he looks more like he trains for practical strength, and the fact that the developers did this actually goes a decent way in diversifying the body types in the game while remaining true to Zangief’s character.
Similarly, AtSV had Pavitr Prabhakar, an Indian Spider-Man whose costume feel less like symbols of India added to Spider-Man and more like what a Spider-themed superhero might look like if they grew organically out of Indian culture. Moreover, the writers of AtSV actually consulted with Indian and Indian American writers as well as Pavitr’s voice actor, Karan Soni, because they wanted greater cultural specificity and authenticity.
And even with all of this consideration for ethnicity, gender, sexuality, etc., all these characters are attractive in their own right. People like to see good-looking characters, but there’s no one standard of beauty. Both creative teams seem to understand that.
A major factor in both works’ success is starting from the understanding that not just one group of people are going to enjoy it. Kimberly Jackson in SF6 is black and one of the three most prominent heroes, and the only one with a story that ties directly to the main antagonist. The protagonist of the Spider-Verse movies, Miles Morales, is Black and Puerto Rican—and he reflects many of the aspirations and anxieties of those who grow up in non-White households in the US.
It can be easy to forget that the first Miles Morales film, Into the Spider-Verse, came out in 2018—before the murder of George Floyd and the increased mainstream awareness of the deeply rooted problems with police in the US. In 2023, however, I couldn’t help but notice the views expressed on that topic in AtSV. Both Miles and another character, the Spider-Woman Gwen Stacy, have dads who are on the force. They’re officers of the law who honor and respect the people, and having them be positive role models is part of the Spider-Man lore, but making the police and unalloyed good would never be compatible with the lived experience of so many black and brown people, not to mention other groups.
At one point, Stacy (a white girl) outright states that the reason her dad took on the role of captain is because he would inevitably be replaced by someone worse than him. In other words, contrary to the idea that cops like the one who murdered George Floyd are simply “bad apples,” it is the tree itself that is rotten, and the occasional good apple is the exception rather than the rule. While perhaps the film could have stated it more directly, it goes to show just how much AtSV is trying to express perspectives beyond what is comfortable.
The greatest strength of Street Fighter 6 and Across the Spider-Verse is that both works come across as genuinely wanting to engage with as many cultures as possible from all sides. They’re not just paying lip service to the notion of diversity but actually making it happen in a satisfying way. I hope that both Capcom and Marvel continue to draw inspiration from the world in all its glory and shame, and in turn, encourage others to do the same.