Black Adam and the History of Black Superheroes
This upcoming October 21st, Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson will debut as the first live-action rendition of Black Adam, the archnemesis of DC Comic’s superhero Shazam. While Johnson’s version of the villain is likely to be played as more of an anti-hero for the sake of being a protagonist, the character is still expected to make the grisly and overpowered mark on the movie that fans hope for. While Johnson is certainly not the first black superhero to deliver punches on the big screen, there actually isn’t a very long line of predecessors before him. Black superheroes not commonplace even still today, and it has taken several passionate creators and actors to get the gears turning on a new era of superheroes that finally represent their true fans.
Often credited as the first black superhero, Stan Lee and Jack Kirby debuted Black Panther in 1966’s Marvel’s Fantastic Four #52. Even before this, however, black journalist Orrin Evans created All-Negro Comics, the first all-black comic book. The book was written solely by black artists and only included black characters and heroes, serving as a direct contradiction of the overwhelming norm at the time. Ace Harlem, Sugarfoot, Bubba and Lion Man were just some of the names that came out of the book’s many stories and represented a group of readers that had yet to be recognized. Multiple aspects of Lion Man, ranging from him being a scientist to watching over Magic Mountain of the African Gold Coast, led to Stan Lee and Jack Kirby eventually rendering a very similar and much more familiar superhero.
Lee and Kirby created Black Panther when they finally realized just how many black readers they had. Like Lion Man, Black Panther was of African descent, had amazing physical training, and protected the people of his home. He also was and still is the richest superhero. This fact, along with his many other attributes, set him apart from the common black exploitation and stereotypes in comics at the time.
However, Black Panther was far from the first black superhero to debut in live action. That title goes to Robert Townsend’s Meteor Man, announced in 1993. His movie was a superhero comedy with James Earl Jones and Don Cheadle and was a story about a teacher gaining superpowers from a meteor crash. While the movie was overshadowed from a box office perspective by Tim Burton’s Batman film, it undoubtedly started a history that would include some of the most prolific black superheroes in comic history. Soon to follow was Michael Jai White’s horror-hero Spawn, but the most notable were yet to come.
In 1998, Wesley Snipes’ Blade became Marvel’s first major superhero adaptation in theaters. Snipes’ expertise in martial arts and physique allowed him to perform his own stunts. His brooding nature as an actor and character set a new precedent for superhero portrayals, and the actor is still regarded by many as one of the best superhero adaptations to date.
Further portrayals included Samuel L. Jackson as Nick Fury, whose comic counterpart was actually a white character. The creators of Iron Man (Jackson’s debut as the character) found out just how avid of a comic book fan Jackson was. With his extremely admirable background in acting, they ultimately went with him, and his casting hasn’t been questioned since. Miles Morales, while only rendered in animation so far, finally portrayed an alternate version of Spider-Man in 2018. In the realm of television, Mike Colter debuted as Luke Cage in the second season of Jessica Jones. His television portrayal would lead to future castings of black superheroes like Jefferson Pierce as Black Lightning and Joivan Wade’s Cyborg in Doom Patrol.
Ultimately, Chadwick Boseman’s Black Panther film in 2018 is seen as the most black-centered superhero film, simultaneously through its portrayed culture, cast, costume design, and story. The movie featured T’Challa, a prince recently promoted to king, bringing peace to the African kingdom of Wakanda. Every creative aspect of the civilization, from clothing to hair styles, is deeply culturally African. T’Challa takes the helm of Black Panther when he needs to stop villain Killmonger from attempting to take over the kingdom, and in the spirit of most superhero films, emerges victorious. Outside of the film’s narrative, its influence was almost immeasurable. Black lovers of the Marvel Cinematic Universe finally saw themselves represented either through T’Challa himself or through his surrounding friends and warriors.
There are still countless black superheroes that could entice moviegoers on the big screen, and as such there are endless opportunities for black actors to bring them to life. While the norm of representation in Hollywood is finally beginning to shift in the right direction, we are far from true and whole representation that actually speaks to the entire audience. Marvel movies have served as amazing indicators of cultural shifts in film, and they will hopefully continue to deliver new superheroes with amazing stories, cultures, and diversity.