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Netflix and Marvel’s ‘Luke Cage’ and a Brief History of Black Superheroes

Was Shaquille O’Neal’s turn in the ’90s dud ‘Steel’ really one of the only superhero movies with a lead black character? Get ready for Netflix and Marvel’s ‘Luke Cage’ TV show.

The superhero movie genre is booming, raking in millions of dollars, destroying countless fictional cities, and now, merging multiple iconic characters into single 120 minute blockbusters. But where are all the black people?

It’s not that there haven’t been any black superheroes. There have been a few memorable turns in film: Hallie Berry as Storm in the X-Men movies, Don Cheadle as War Machine in Iron Man 2 and 3, and Idris Elba as Heimdall in the Thor franchise, to name a few.

Enter Disney and Netflix, who are developing four live action series based on Marvel’s Hell’s Kitchen street-level heroes Daredevil, Jessica Jones, Luke Cage, and Iron Fist. Each show is composed of 13 episodes and will be released over multiple years, starting in 2015. This will all culminate in a mini-series event called The Defenders. This is important because it essentially makes Luke Cage the first black lead character in the Marvel film and television universe.

Debuting in 1972’s Luke Cage, Hero for Hire, Cage (also known as Power Man) is a New York-based character with superhuman strength. He’s also one of the first black superheroes to star in an eponymous comic-book series. Between 2003 and 2006, a film adaptation was in the works at Columbia Pictures. Jamie Foxx, Terrence Howard, and Fast and Furious’s Tyrese Gibson were some of the names floated around for the lead role. Unfortunately, the film never left development purgatory, and the rights reverted back to Marvel in 2013.

In the last 20 years, there have only been a few mainstream projects featuring black superheroes in lead roles. One of those was 1997’s Steel, the universally mocked Shaquille O’Neal film that Rotten Tomatoes describes as “a badly-acted movie that indulges not only in superhero clichés, but also the sappy TV-movie-of-the-week ones.” Wesley Snipes’s turn in the Blade franchise was a watershed moment for Marvel when it comes to race. (While Blade is a comic book character, these films feel less like superhero flicks, and more like vampire films.) More recently in 2008, Will Smith starred as the original superhero Hancock.

A movie about Marvel’s Black Panther—the first mainstream black superhero in comics who debuted in 1966—has been in development since 1992, with Wesley Snipes as the driving force behind the project. Snipes was originally meant to star, but these plans never came to fruition, partially because of his attachment to the Blade franchise. In 2009, Variety reported that Marvel had hired writers to work on scripts for Black Panther and some of their less known heroes. Then in 2011, Marvel hired Mark Bailey to write a script for a Black Panther film. Sadly, Black Panther did not make list of films in Marvel’s Phase Two slate, which runs through November 2015.

DC Comics had a golden opportunity to bring a black superhero to the screen in the Green Lantern film. In the comics, there are several Green Lanterns, including the black architect John Stewart. The highly successful Justice League and Justice League Unlimited animated series had already made the John Stewart Green Lantern rather popular, thus it would not have been difficult to win over audiences with him in a live-action film. The decision to go with Ryan Reynold’s as the Hal Jordan Green Lantern—the character who’s a founding member of the Justice League in the comics—was probably in the hope that a Green Lantern film would eventually lead to a Justice League movie.

It doesn’t end there for DC. There’s Static Shock, a character who actually had his own animated series on Kids’ WB from 2000 to 2004. While the character Black Lightning may not be popular enough for his own feature film, DC could give him his own miniseries on a network like Netflix. There’s also Cyborg. A prominent character on Cartoon Network’s Teen Titans, Cyborg was a member of the Justice League series when DC launched its New 52, which relaunched classic titles.

If adapting an already black superhero has seemed problematic, another option open to studios is non-traditional casting, or changing the race of a more well-known characters. The most notable instance of this is Samuel L. Jackson’s turn as S.H.I.E.L.D. agent Nick Fury in The Avengers. Fury is originally white in the comics, but underwent a race change in the Ultimate Marvel comic book series in 2001. There’s also Michael Clarke Duncan as Kingpin in Daredevil, but no one really likes to acknowledge that movie.

When it was announced that Sony was rebooting Spider-Man, an internet campaign pushed for Community’s Donald Glover (aka rapper Childish Gambino) to audition for the role of Peter Parker. Stan Lee, the creator of Spider-Man, published a video in which he said that Glover should be given a chance. While there was avid support for Glover, there was also some vocal opposition. In his stand-up special Weirdo, Glover jokes about how people on the Internet compared him playing Peter Park to a white person-playing Shaft. Then again, there has been a black Spider-Man (Miles Morales) in the comics.

In October, it was reported that Fruitvale Station star Michael B. Jordan had signed a deal to play the Human Torch in the Fantastic Four reboot. This is unconfirmed. This is not the first time, however, that Jordan has been up for a role for a traditionally white comic book character. In an interview with The Daily Beast, Jordan revealed he had read for Harry Osborne in The Amazing Spider-Man 2 and for The Falcon in Captain America: The Winter Soldier. Maybe things really are changing.

As we head closer towards a mainstream black superhero (who people actually like) getting a movie, we may remember this as the moment the network that brought us Orange is the New Black, made black the new superhero. No offense, Shaq.