The Rise of Black Superheroes: Why Representation Matters
The summer is coming to an end, and with it is the glorious run of superhero movies that provide us with the opportunity to suspend our reality so that the good guys always win. (Except with cliff-hangers.) I have been a fan of superheroes since, oh, maybe 8 years old. We were getting scholastic magazines, and they did a run on how various superheroes – Batman, Superman, Spiderman – came into existence. I was fascinated because it was sci-fi and fantasy wrapped into one. So, on Saturdays, I watched the Superheroes- Batman, Superman, Aquaman and the Justice League, in the evenings, I watched The Incredible Hulk and Wonder Woman. And sometimes I even dreamed that I would have magic powers.
The movie that truly launched the genre was when Christopher Reeve, with that amazing little twist of hair down the center of his forehead, became Superman in 1978. Since then, we have had three generations of Batman, three generations of Spiderman, two versions of the Fantastic Four, four Avengers movies, and eleven X-Men movies. And somehow, it took FORTY YEARS – in 2018, to get a real black superhero – the Black Panther. Oh, we had Blade and Spawn, but they were more of a horror genre, not really for children. Not that you could get into, cheer for, emulate. Not with a black cast, an African country, a super alloy that gave the country amazing technology, and a magic plant that provided the Black Panther with his powers. Plus woman warriors and a princess who was a technology expert. It was just the ultimate rush. I saw it three times.
I should point out that we did have Storm (Halle Berry) in the X-Men, but unlike Wolverine, she never had a major part in the movies an she never had her own.
You may wonder, how did this happen? And I want to tell you, it’s not because the producers had no one to choose from.
The TV shows of Netflix’ Luke Cage and CW’s Black Lightning were born of comic book superheroes in the 1970’s. Luke Cage first appeared in 1972 (Marvel Comics) and Black Lightning in 1977 (DC Comics). But no one tried to put them on TV until after the Black Panther first debuted on the Avengers in 2016. Storm in the Avengers actually appeared in comics in 1975 and was a major player in the X-Men, even leading the team. She got her own comic series in 1996, but apparently, no one was ready for a black woman superhero. Black Panther was actually created in 1996 as a villain of the Fantastic Four and got his own comic in 1973.
In the 1990s when I was in my 20’s, I was dating a major comic book buff, and so I heard about Milestone Comics,a spin-off of DC, which produced the black superheroes: Icon, Hardware, and Static in the 1990’s. Hardware is a genius inventor, a lot like Ironman, who uses gadgets to fight crime. Icon is a being from another planet who has the abilities of Superman and ends up with a sidekick, a girl named Rocket. Static is a teen like Spiderman who has been exposed to a radioactive chemical and gains the ability to manipulate electricity. Even though the comics were short-lived, Static ended up with his own TV series on Kids’ WB, while Icon and Hardware became part of the Justice League.
I decided to Google the answer to my question – why did it take so long? The official answer is “technology and money”. It costs a minimum of $130 million to produce a superhero movie, while the average movie is only $65 million. The special effects are phenomenal. So, it’s a risk. Sometimes it pays off. Black Panther cost $200 million to make, grossed $1.3 billion, and is the sixth highhighest-grossinger hero movie of all time, only topped by the Avenger movies. But Black Panther was still considered a “minor character” in the comic world.
I am glad that the risk was worth it because that is what made it possible to create Miles Morales, the latest Spiderman superhero, half black, half Puerto Rican. Because the movie was animated, it only cost $100 million to make, and it grossed $384 million (because it was AWESOME!), which made it less risky to make a sequel (Which I didn’t like.)
So, I think that’s how it’s going to go. The lesser-known black comic characters have a shot at getting TV shows. The black comic characters that have already been introduced in a major movie might get spin-offs. I am sorry to say, it may be a long time before we get another movie with Shiri as the Black Panther. I just don’t think the world is ready. However, we may get another TV show. There is actually a new millennial black female comic character. Her name is Riri Williams, Ironheart, created in 2016. She is an offshoot of Ironman, technologically savvy, representing black girl magic, with her greatest strength being her intelligence. My fingers are crossed.