As Superhero movies continue to solidify their place as the top dog on the filmic landscape, we finally begin to see the black heroes come out of the shadow of their white counterparts.
Mainstream Black Superheroes have existed for well over 40 years now, since Marvel introduced Sam Wilson, or Falcon, in 1969. He was the first African-American comic book hero, along with Black Panther (T’Challa) being the first African. Unfortunately it took this long for them to find their way onto the screen, with Anthony Mackie first starring as Sam Wilson in Captain America: The Winter Soldier.
Chadwick Boseman will take the role of Black Panther, which won’t be released until 2018/19.
Meanwhile we’ve seen countless superhero films over the years, from both Marvel and DC, whitewashing audiences and potentially misleading children about what a superhero looks and sounds like. Such has been the star power of heroes like Bruce Banner, Spider-Man, Iron Man, Thor, Star-Lord, and Captain America you wouldn’t blame the black community for feeling a little left out. In fact, no black superhero appeared on film before 1993’s The Meteor Man.
Even when they have managed to get their production made their stories have not been about saving the world like the rest of the popular heroes, but rather protecting their immediate territory or achieving redemption. As The Atlantic puts it:
‘Traditionally, movies have done a curious thing with black heroes: Charge them not with saving the world, but rather with protecting their immediate, ethno-specific domains, or, in many cases, to put it bluntly, the ghetto.’
Examples include Steel, Spawn, and Catwoman which are all characterised by the black leads either safeguarding their family and neighbourhood or undertaking a mission of revenge, where good deeds done are incidental. More recently, Blade, widely regarded as a classic of its time, features Wesley Snipes as a half-vampire confined to the dark corners of dark and dirty places, again pursuing a personal vendetta. He is also the last black lead in a superhero movie until Black Panther comes along.
Unless you include Will Smith in 2008’s Hancock, where he plays a hero that is often drunk and causes more damage than he prevents until his final redemption. Once, more it’s about overcoming personal battles instead of saving the world.
Black Panther doesn’t look likely to break this particular trope either, as his origin story is based around protecting the fictional African nation of Wakanda.
So not only have black superheroes been receiving limited production, the path placed before them is usually not the one of a traditional hero such as Thor, who prevents worldwide destruction, while sporting long blonde hair and blue eyes.
Has there been widespread prejudice against what black superheroes can be and what they can do? Is that why they’ve been absent from the cinema? What kind of message does this send to audiences, the majority of which are impressionable children? On the other hand It should be added they haven’t been prevalent as villains either. Rather, excluded to an extent.
Despite these concerns, Hollywood now seems to be turning things around, with Anthony Mackie appearing twice this year in The Avengers: Age of Ultron and Ant-Man and will feature in Captain America: Civil War. Will Smith will play Deadshot in Suicide Squad. Storm, played by Alexandra Shipp will appear again in X-Men: Apocalypse. Black Panther is in production, along with Cyborg, and Johnny Storm has been recast, with Michael B. Jordon taking his place in the newly released Fantastic Four.
His casting has been met with a tremendous amount of media attention, given that in the previous version of the film his character was white and his sister Sue is played by white actress Kate Mara. Many sections of the public couldn’t get their heads around the concept. This interview went all kinds of wrong.
Some fans of the comics are also panning the decision completely with comments such as: ‘they’ve destroyed it’, ‘a black guy? I don’t like it’, and ‘they must be doing it because Obama is president.’ There is the theory that Hollywood is now trying to cash in on the fights that black people and women have fought to be viewed as equals by filling racial and gender quotas. Jordan hit back, saying it was simply a creative choice by the director, Josh Trank:
“Some people may look at my casting as political correctness or an attempt to meet a racial quota, or as part of the year of “Black Film.” Or they could look at it as a creative choice by the director, Josh Trank, who is in an interracial relationship himself—a reflection of what a modern family looks like today.”
Anthony Mackie is also very supportive of the choice and says, with complete justification, it shouldn’t matter who is cast as each character.
Whatever the case, Black Panther will be a very important film in the context of the current landscape. The news has been filled, especially in America, of black people being subordinated by police, often white police. To send the message, and make it clear, that black people are just as likely to be heroes as white people is an important one. In further encouraging news, Sam Wilson will eventually take over as Captain America. Marvel have announced a new comic that will cover the story arc of Steve Roger’s retirement. Just as all other fields need to break barriers, film and TV do too. Despite the fact American entertainment is still a long way from reflecting the ethnographic make-up, It looks like things are going in the right direction.
What’s your view on the Michael B. Jordan casting and who is your favourite hero?