Heroes in color: From pages to film

“‘Black Panther’ and other comic book adaptations pave the way for representation in film”

Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures/Marvel Comics
Black Panther made his comic book debut in 1966. The character’s first solo movie debuts Feb. 16, 2018.
20th Century Fox/Marvel Comics
Storm made her comic book debut in 1975. She has been portrayed by Halle Berry and Alexandra Shipp respectively.
Warner Bros. TV/DC Comics
Cyborg made his comic book debut in 1980. He most recently made his big screen debut in 2017’s Justice League.

■ By Kyle Selby / Reporter

The highly anticipated Black Panther film not only debuts during Black History Month, but during a Superhero Renaissance that has legions of fans already rallying behind it. But just like any hero, you can’t make a few friends without making a couple of enemies.
Big Hollywood names such as Steven Spielberg and Jodie Foster recently made headlines when each of them shared choice words about the booming superhero film genre that is dominating the global box office today.
“We were around when the Western died and there will be a time when the superhero movie goes the way of the Western,” said the Ready Player One director.
“It’s ruining the viewing habits of the American population and then ultimately the rest of the world,” commented Foster.
For years, superhero films were disregarded as rudimentary and have been the butt of cinematic jokes on too many occasions to keep track of. Nobody takes a grown man wearing underwear on the outside of his pants seriously, and why should they? Most often lacking the refined substance that makes films sophisticated and thought-provoking, the superhero movie long seemed like the low-budget, three-dimensional renderings of silly Saturday morning cartoons. However, that changed in 2002 with Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man.
Today, the genre commands the industry, and a simple, standard “superhero movie formula” is now anything but. Last year’s Wonder Woman, for example, broke box office records ($821,847,012 worldwide), debunking the idea that a female superhero couldn’t bring people to the theaters.
The creative team behind Marvel’s Black Panther now hopes to make similar waves.
“Black Panther is an historic opportunity to be a part of something important and special, particularly at a time when African Americans are affirming their identities while dealing with vilification and dehumanization,” explained Black Panther screenwriter Joe Robert Cole. “The image of a black hero on [this] scale is just really exciting.”

New Line Cinema/Marvel Comics
Blade made his comic book
debut in 1973. He has been most notably portrayed by Wesley Snipes.
Warner Bros. Television/DC Comics
Black Lighting made his comic book debut in 1977. Cress Williams currently portrays him in the popular CW show.

Titular star, Chadwick Boseman made history this February as the first black superhero to be featured on the cover of Time Magazine. With a nearly all-black cast, the movie directed by Ryan Coogler follows the story of T’Challa as he returns home to the fictional African nation Wakanda, where he inherits the throne from his late father, while also becoming the guardian of his people. Marvel Studios’ Captain America: Civil War introduced the Black Panther to moviegoers in 2016, and the character has seemingly made quite an impression since then, as the solo film is being hailed by critics as “Marvel’s most political movie.”
In anticipation of the film, hashtags have been trending on Twitter for weeks, including “#WhatBlackPantherMeansToMe,” for instance, where fans shared their reactions to seeing themselves represented properly in a superhero blockbuster at last.
“My seven year old grandson exclaimed ‘Superheroes can be Brown people too?!’” Tweeted one fan. “A film that connects Black American and African cultures in ways that aren’t all about trauma, conflict and slavery,” tweeted another.
Advanced ticket sales for the movie have already surpassed that of every superhero film before it, and the movie is still currently Fandango’s number one daily ticket seller. People want to see this movie.
The comic book hero was originally created by the patriarch of the Marvel Comics empire, Stan Lee, and the famed writer-artist Jack Kirby. The character made his first appearance in Fantastic Four #52 in July 1966, just before the foundation of the socialist Black Panther Party that same year. In the comics, the character famously marries one of Marvel’s other most recognizable black superheroes, Storm of the X-Men.
Hugh Jackman often gets high praise for his 17-year stint as Wolverine, but Halle Berry measures up as a close second after having portrayed the weather-sensitive mutant for 14 years in the same franchise. Berry also starred as the lead in the 2004 film Catwoman, however it was such a critical and box office disaster and often referred to as an example of why female-led superhero films don’t work. Today, a younger version of Berry’s X-Men character is currently being portrayed by Alexandra Shipp in the film’s current timeline, which briefly explored her Egyptian origins.

While the release of Black Panther seems almost ceremonious and groundbreaking, it is not the first solo black superhero film introduced to mainstream audiences. Some may forget that Wesley Snipes’ Blade trilogy (1998-2004) about African American vampire slayer, Blade, paved the way for a serious portrayal of the black superhero, although one could argue that that was long before this renaissance ever began to take shape.
However, that is about the extent of leading black superheroes in cinema. Other honorable mentions include Ray Fisher as Cyborg in Justice League (2017), Samuel L. Jackson as Nick Fury in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and to some degree, Michael Jai White in Spawn (1997; currently being rebooted), but the rest of black heroes in today’s superhero landscape more or less still largely play secondary roles to white leads. Although finally, Hollywood seems to have adopted an awareness to its lack of diversity in the medium.
In television, The CW Network’s fresh addition to their superhero roster this year, Black Lightning, opened with network record-breaking numbers, exploring the saga of a retired black superhero raising a family in urban America, in addition to representing black same-sex relationships, similar to Netflix’s Luke Cage (2016), which also tackled issues involving gun control, gang violence, and racism.
Superhero films (and TV) now are held to a much higher standard and have become about much more than spandex, masks and corny catchphrases. For awhile, it seemed as though black superheroes only “worked” when presented as comedic or incapable; Robert Townsend in Meteor Man (1993), Damon Wayans in Blankman (1994), Shaquille O’Neal in Steel (1997), and Will Smith in Hancock (2008) are all varying shades of this.
Today, while still predominantly white, the superhero movie now has a responsibility to deliver relevant social messages, triumphs for the oppressed, and lessons hopeful to inspire the mainstream consciousness. By promoting a figure sure to respectfully represent a large part of the world’s demographic, Black Panther already checks all of the boxes. Black Panther is in theaters everywhere Feb. 16.

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