In the 1990s, superhero films looked much different than they do today. The content was inherently silly, whether it was Superman flying around the world to go back in time or Batman playing hockey with a stolen diamond. However, Black hero flicks like Meteor-Man, Steel and Blankman chose to heavily rely on racial stereotypes, unlike their white counterparts, to deliver laughs.
When the movie “Black Panther”was announced in 2016, Black fans and non-fans alike salivated at the chance to see a Black man on screen in his own adventure. Fast-forward to Sunday when Batwoman season two premiered, bringing the first Black female superhero to the small screen. The journey toward exciting — and accurate — representation has been a long time coming and the vocal outcry for better content is just getting started.
It’s unclear why it took studios so long to understand that Black-led films can be profitable. The late 90s and early 2000s was full of black-led sitcoms, each more popular than the last, but apparently production companies thought these numbers were flukes.
The Marvel Cinematic Universe is the setting of three of the top ten highest-grossing movies of all time. The interconnected cinematic universe is Marvel’s, and subsequently Disney’s, most lucrative cash cow with the franchise having grossed $22.56 billion dollars over the course of 22 movies. Released in 2008, “Iron Man” is the first installment of the franchise, and star Robert Downey Jr. is credited with starting this historic series of sequels. While this was the start of the canon universe, the creative and profitable origins of the franchise began nearly a decade earlier.
The 1998 film “Blade,” starring Wesley Snipes, follows Marvel hero and vampire hunter Eric Brooks, also known as Blade. For three movies the Vampire-human hybrid shockingly protects the citizens of New York from the blood-sucking undead with a sword and a variety of gizmos made by his mentor Abraham Whistler. The films have a similar pace and feel to more recent superhero films in that it takes itself more seriously than its cheesy predecessors. The story is grounded and there are no campy lines, which had become a staple of superhero films at the time. The trilogy also killed at the box office, with both “Blade” and “Blade: Trilogy” grossing $131 million and “Blade II” earning $155 million worldwide.
The horror trilogy is remarkably different from previous super films like the 1987 “Superman IV: The Quest for Peace” and 1998 “Batman & Robin,” most notably in that Blade is not exactly the hero type. Blade is a no-nonsense, brooding Black man in a black leather jacket who goes out every night to avenge the death of his mother by brutally killing dozens of homo nocturnus, the film's scientific designation for vampires.
What sets “Blade” apart from current MCU installments is that while Blade is the hero of the film, he is not portrayed as one. Blade is an incredibly violent film, the studio spared no expense with the bloody visuals and special effects.
You would think a cult following and great box office numbers would incentivize studios to create more films about Black heroes. Butthis was not the case.
The Blade Trilogy was the first — and last — theatrically released Black-focused superhero film until “Hancock” was released in 2008. (Actually, there was one released in 2004, but we don’t talk about it.)
In 2000, Disney tried to make a name for itself in the superhero genre with the made-for-tv film “Up, Up and Away” some five years before the cult classic “Sky High” debuted. "Up, Up and Away” followed the adventures of a family of Black superheroes whose son had no powers. The film gave us an all-Black family consisting of Bronze Eagle, played by Robert Townsend, who also portrayed the hero Meteor Man in 1983, his wife Warrior Woman and their son Silver Charge. While it is articulated that the Marshalls are the best team of heroes in the world, the movie doesn’t always agree. This movie should not be considered for any representation awards.
All the characters in the main family are obvious knockoffs of previously established white heroes. Warrior Woman resembles Wonder Woman and Bronze Eagle looks an awful lot like Hawkman. Silver Charge has similar powers to Quicksilver and it seems the writers even partially copied Pietro Maximoff’s “made-up name” as well.
Throughout the film, the grandfather of the family, who is played by Jeffersons’ Sherman Hemsley, is the constant butt of super-comparison jokes. He flies slower than the speed of a car, he is bitter with Clark Kent for taking his nickname and he is rather useless in the climactic battle, showing up 10 minutes late. Wow, the ability to fly doesn’t negate Colored People Time. Go figure.
The Marshall family also appear to be the only Black superheroes in town. During a party for the Marshall’s mortal son, there is only one other Black hero present.very other guest is white. I won’t even go into Scott’s love story, which seemed forced in to make sure a young, white girl had a role in the Disney Channel Original Movie.
“Up, Up and Away” may be the first Black-led superhero film produced by Disney. But from watching the movie, it doesn't look like anyone with decision-making power looked anything like the super-family.. The non-threatening and inauthentic representation of the Marshalls makes this film difficult to relate to.
That same year, “X-Men” was released by 20th Century Fox, with Halle Berry playing the weather-manipulating X-Man Storm. Including Storm was a great win for representation, she was a powerful and likeable leader. For a property that is a metaphor for racism, 20th Century Fox missed a lot of opportunities to further push the envelope. Including the X-Men comics resident inter-racial couple by pairing superstars Halle Berry and Hugh Jackman would have been great for representation.
These films weren’t great. They were not wins for representation. But without them, we wouldn't have “Black Panther” or any future Black-led superhero films.
A few years after X-Men, “Hancock” flew into theatres. Columbia Pictures’ 2008 film follows a Black man with superpowers, played by Will Smith, as he attempts to rebrand himself as a hero after a lifetime of not giving a single fuck about anything.
Smith’s character portrays almost all the negative stereotypes of a Black man — drunk, lazy, angry and chasing after white women. It was odd to notice, but all the female characters he romantically encounters are white and only in a deleted scene did he court a Black woman. Hancock has almost no other redeeming qualities and is brazenly presented as a genuine asshole. His only hope is that PR consultant Ray and his wife are able to “civilize” him.
And because the character has the exact same powers as Superman, a traditionally white hero, Hancock is also basically just the directors' interpretation of a Black Superman. He has all the same powers as the traditionally white hero without the tights. The film wasn’t a critical success, but it made the studio a decent amount of money, further showing Black-led super films can be a commercial success.
On May 2, 2008, Marvel introduced the world to War Machine, also known as James Rhodes, who was played by Terrance Howard in “Iron Man” before being re-casted.
Colonel Rhodes’ character development was a slow burn. His early appearances in the MCU relegated him to a sidekick and designated-Black-friend role, but he eventually blossomed into an important character to the franchise. With more Black characters like Miles Morales, Falcon and Ironman successor Riri Williams, also known as Ironheart and, beginning to receive their deserved recognition it looks like Black characters are no longer exclusively sidekicks.
It seems like Marvel got the ball rolling for Black actors, as other production studios have also begun to embrace their Black characters. Season two of the CW’s “Batwoman” stars Javicia Leslie as the bisexual Ryan Wilson. Leslie replaced Ruby Rose in the title role after her departure for the series.
Marvel’s recent decision to not recast the late Chadwick Boseman’s role in “Black Panther 2” and instead focus on the wider mythology of Wakanda is a promising sign for the future of Black representation in film. It is important that Black audiences are able to see themselves in a film that is set in a Black nation, why do all super stories have to take place in the US?
The MCU is a historic franchise that deserves all the money and accolades they receive, but without Blade it wouldn’t exist. So when you are tweeting about the #MarvelGodFather, be sure to mention Wesley Snipes too.