Black Panther’s emergence in Captain America: Civil War, the critically acclaimed Marvel blockbuster that looms as the new genre standard, was met with cheers from both longtime comic book fans and moviegoers, and the character’s prominence could set Marvel on the path towards some much-needed diversification. And on Friday, when the news broke that Michael B. Jordan would be joining fellow cast members Chadwick Boseman and Lupita Nyong’o in Creed director Ryan Coogler’s Black Panther standalone film, the #BlackPantherSoLIT trended all afternoon and evening on Twitter.
But there is a lot for Marvel to rectify concerning the marginalization of non-white characters onscreen. If the studio is assertive and attuned to the audience and the culture, its latest big-screen star could change the way we see black superheroes onscreen, and the way we see race in blockbusters in general.
Marvel’s biggest blockbusters have often forced its black characters to the sidelines in its major movie storylines. The highest-grossing entry thus far in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, The Avengers, only featured Caucasian stars in principle roles, and none of Marvel’s non-white superheroes have gotten a standalone movie since Blade back in 1998. When Black Panther hits theaters in 2018, it will have been 20 years since that movie set the stage for all that Marvel has been able to accomplish in the arena of superhero film adaptations.
Indeed, Marvel’s comic book movie boom was foreshadowed—if not kick-started—by the success of Blade in 1998. The action-thriller grossed $131 million worldwide with Wesley Snipes delivering a glowering performance as the dhampir-turned-vampire hunter, a character that first appeared in Marvel’s Tomb of Dracula #10 back in 1973. The movie’s success led to two sequels: Blade II and Blade: Trinity. Blade was a breakthrough for Marvel characters at the movies, and within two years, Bryan Singer’s X-Men affirmed that audiences would flock to comic book flicks.
But while the success of the Blade series at the box office (and, to a certain extent, HBO’s celebrated Spawn animated series) helped spark the rush of Marvel-based movies that would dominate the decade, it didn’t lead to a similar boon for non-white characters at the box office or even in ensemble films. Singer’s X-Men films prominently center Hugh Jackman as Wolverine, with the friendship/philosophical battle between Patrick Stewart’s Professor X and Ian McKellen’s Magneto forming most of the subtext. Fans of the long-running franchise have been critical of the way it has depicted Storm, the X-Men’s most prominent black character and one of the most iconic in pop culture.
Since 2000, Storm has been a featured but very underdeveloped mainstay of the X-Men films, and in the most recent, 2014’s X-Men: Days of Future Past, she was among the non-white mutants who were reduced to voiceless casualties throughout the film as both of the major plotlines focused on its white characters. In the Marvel Cinematic Universe, which began with 2008’s Iron Man, its most prominently-featured black characters were all introduced in deferential roles to the white A-listers that were meant to carry franchises: Terrence Howard’s Col. Rhodes/War Machine came into the fray via friendship with Robert Downey Jr.’s Iron Man. Strangely enough, coming off a riveting turn in Crash and an Oscar nod for Hustle & Flow, Howard was paid $3.5 million for Iron Man—more than any other cast member, including Downey Jr. However, when they attempted to lowball him with $1 million for the sequel, he walked—and was replaced by Don Cheadle.
In addition, Falcon (Anthony Mackie) was introduced as a similar boy Friday to Captain America (Chris Evans). Even Sam Jackson’s Nick Fury is there to be more of a paternalistic figure for the Avengers—almost the MCU counterpart to the X-Men’s Charles Xavier—and wholly exists to assign or explain various plot points to the superheroes and audience. Thor’s Heimdall (played by Idris Elba) is more of a facilitator of the titular Norse god’s quest and inner conflict, and though Afro-Latina actress Zoe Saldana is one of the main characters in Marvel’s Guardians of the Galaxy franchise, a beautiful black woman portraying a green alien is no boundary-breaker inasmuch as it’s an uncomfortable throwback to the clichéd use of black actors’ “noble” alien characters on shows like Star Trek: The Next Generation.
With Black Panther, we have a character who isn’t BFFs with any of the pre-chosen Avengers and whose motivations and backstory exists independently of his entanglements with them. He enters Civil War with ready-made drama and gravitas, and he maneuvers in the film shrouded in a sort of mystery. Sam and Rhodey are affable “regular guys,” but there is nothing “regular” about T’Challa. He is a genius with a mythical birthright and the ruler of a kingdom. And his allegiances are only to his people and his history. With a character so firmly connected and rooted in his cultural identity, he could become a transcendent pop culture figure in mainstream films. Even Ta-Nehisi Coates’ limited series comic book run of Black Panther has been selling out left and right.
There have been less-than-stellar examples of studios pushing superhero movies with black stars. Halle Berry’s 2005 vehicle Catwoman was a box office disaster that was more of a tossed-off action flick than a major studio blockbuster even before it was infamously ignored by audiences. Michael B. Jordan’s turn as The Human Torch in 2015’s massive flop Fantastic Four didn’t do much to raise the profile of black superheroes; it will be remembered more for the controversy surrounding his casting. The powers-that-be in Hollywood should be warned against using these famously failed projects as reason to continue centering white superheroes; there’s far more evidence that audiences are eager for more varied presentations given the current cultural climate.
The backlash against films like Ghost In the Shell and Gods of Egypt has been loud and, in the case of Gods, directly affected its bottom line. Add to that the conversation sparked by #OscarsSoWhite and you have a brewing pop culture shift. If Hollywood is paying attention, it has already recognized that audiences are savvy enough and vocal enough to make an impression on how an upcoming film will be received—and “all white everything” is no longer a viable option.
Also, studios shouldn’t solely limit their scope to the well-established spandex-clad heroes that have battled on the pages of Marvel and DC for decades. While those characters could be understandable groundbreakers as it pertains to non-white heroes in major studio films, taking things a step past that means also green-lighting projects that are born of acclaimed indie fare created by black writers and artists. New York-based Paul Louise-Julie’s indie hit The Pack, about a team of werewolves, or South Africa’s super-powered teen Kwezi (created by Loyiso Mkize) are excellent candidates for big-screen adaptations. And films based on non-mainstream material like Sin City and Hellboy have seen success over the years.
There’s a lot of room for things to improve here and Black Panther shouldn’t be treated as the measuring stick for everything that happens after regarding black cinematic superheroes and non-white characters taking center stage. But Ryan Coogler’s movie has become one of the most highly-anticipated films in the Marvel canon for good reason: This is where audiences see if change really has come in the way blackness is depicted onscreen and in major summer blockbusters. Blade was a harbinger of things to come back in 1998, but the ball was dropped. Now Marvel has a chance to make things right. Here’s hoping there won’t be another 20-year wait after this one.