EDITORIAL: The Conundrum of Black Superheroes In Film
A recent editorial on this site posed a hypothesis that a black superhero movie stands a very small chance of being made in Hollywood regardless of the source material (notably Marvel or DC). But their problem is not their race, it's the lack of rogues in their galleries
A recent editorial on this site posed a hypothesis that a black superhero movie stands a very small chance of being made in Hollywood regardless of the source material (notably Marvel or DC). The issue is making certain that the character transcends the color barrier as most black heroes have now done. There should be some veneration and acknowledgement of the black heroes that have already been a success on the big screen.
Will Smith is the contemporary action hero stand who is able to stand toe to toe with anyone starring in an “Expendables” movie, Tom Cruise, Matt Damon (as Jason Bourne), or the “Lethal Weapon/Mad Max” Mel Gibson. Repeatedly, Smith has portrayed the everyman protagonist liked by the greater cinema’s audience. The testament to his success can be seen in total box office dollars or merely his action film resume, which should include tentative sequels to “I, Robot,” “Bad Boys,” and “Hancock.” The argument could be made that the movie sold because the cast wasn’t majority black. There isn’t an argument that Smith didn’t pull off each role and enhance its success with his performance. Again, the focus is the black hero bringing in box office revenue.
“Blade” is the first comic book, superhero movie that appealed to a greater audience in the post Reeve as Superman era. Why was it so good and successful? It was the traditional swashbuckling hero movie wherein the hero, though himself dysfunctional, is defined by how evil his nemesis is. Wesley Snipes showed a grittier side and broke from making his version of the “Die Hard” movies.
Denzel Washington, of course, has quite the resume of heroes on film. The focus here is cinematic comic book/sci-fi heroes (after all, superheroes are very much a part of science fiction).
What is the real hindrance in the advancement of the black superhero? Most of these characters originate in a time when it was progressive or popular to create a black superhero or a black version of a known hero. This was done in the previous twenty plus years with super heroines. The 1970’s are the best example of such production: Power Man/Luke Cage in a very ‘70’s garb, the Falcon sprung from Harlem, Black Vulcan (Lightning) shot to fame on “Superfriends,” and John Stewart as Green Lantern. The secondary issue is creating black or African-American superheroes with ‘black’ in the name (include Black Goliath in the list). Now this isn’t meant to disparage the creators or these creations. These characters aren’t silly, lame, or overly redundant. At one time or another, certain black heroes were seen only as sidekicks or partners, rather than stand-alone heroes.You cannot simply make an established hero black, nor can you simply add black in name to that creation. Fortunately, that time is over much in the same way super heroines are increasingly stand-alone now. Their common weakness is the lack of a good nemesis. It has nothing to do with who they are, their skin color, or their point of origin. Most of these characters stand on their own today, yet you are hard pressed to name each one’s villain. Aside from Panther's Klaw, who is the antithesis of Luke Cage, War Machine, or the Falcon?
The lack of an arch nemesis that the audience is able to loathe is the sole reason that black superheroes on screen are so hard to find. [Side note: Again, this is the same problem with female superheroes.] The villain defines the hero. It is the villain that illustrates how good, powerful, and triumphant the hero can and will be. Batman is never more brilliant than in the face of the Joker’s ‘jokes.’ Spider-Man is never better than when he bests the Green Goblin. Superman is at his finest in the face of Lex Luthor’s sinister machinations. Captain America is lucky enough to have an arch nemesis who is the epitome of the world’s nemeses: the Nazi’s Red Skull.
Where does that leave the refined and interesting plethora of black superheroes hoping to make the screen? In wait. Only the Black Panther possesses a rogue’s gallery with the potential to develop a big screen villain that would be vile, sinister, or despicable enough to counterpoint how amazing, skilled, and brilliant the Panther is. Static Shock may be a distant second. His rogue’s gallery will take a lot more refinement. He has the environment to make it on screen.
Chuck’s editorial regarding the questionable nature of the African setting of Wakanda and a white villain is correct in mentioning a potential lack of reception. Yet, Wakanda is not an existing nation. It has all of the elements of a land of wonderment between technology, magic, and the reality of being in an African environment. It can represent so many concepts and allegories to so many. It may be the perfect setting for a superhero movie and potential setting for a sequel to “Marvel’s The Avengers.” Its offerings are as great and varied as “Thor”’s cinematic portion of the universe…except for snow.
In conclusion, race and gender are two delineations which enrich superheroes. These are not enough to make a hero super. It is his (or her) villain that broadens the appeal and deepens the character in books and on film.
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