February 16 marked the fifth anniversary of Ryan Coogler and Joe Robert Cole’s “Black Panther.” Marvel Studios’ first Black-led superhero flick, starring the late Chadwick Boseman as the king of Wakanda, was seen as a watershed moment for Hollywood representation. With all the chatter about Marvel and DC films prioritizing diversity and inclusivity as a step forward for the caped sub-genre, the success of “Black Panther” was less a step forward and more a return to what was once the status quo generations prior.
Comic book and/or superhero movies fronted by Black actors, like the “Blade” trilogy and “Men in Black” series, once kept comic book features alive, only for Hollywood to declare them essentially whites-only as “Spider-Man” turned the genre into A-level tentpole IP.
While Hollywood chased pulp-era nostalgia, smaller superhero films centered on Black heroes to relative success.
The industry spent the 1990s mistaking the success of Tim Burton’s “Batman,” which often played like a hardboiled post-World War II film noir, for an interest in 1930s and 1940s pulp heroes.
Whether this was a willful pursuit of nostalgic super heroics to avoid reckoning with present-tense issues or just a matter of effects technology not yet catching up to the needs of most modern-day superheroes, the post-“Batman” comic book superhero movie was dominated by sequels to Burton’s feature and period piece wannabes. “Dick Tracy,” “The Rocketeer,” “The Shadow” and “The Phantom” earned less combined, $200 million domestic, than “Batman” earned — $251 million – all by itself.
While major studios chased trench coats and homburgs, the superhero genres was kept commercially alive by films like “Spawn,” “Men in Black,” and “Blade,” not ironically, features fronted by Black actors.
Barry Levinson’s sci-fi/alien immigration comedy, starring Smith alongside Tommy Lee Jones, earned $589 million worldwide in the summer of 1997, more than any “Batman” movie, including 2.47x that summer’s “Batman & Robin,” up until “The Dark Knight.”
“You see [Will Smith as] Agent J in ‘Men in Black,’” director JD Dillard (“Sleight,” “Devotion”) told TheWrap. “And to see someone who speaks like you and cracks jokes like you — even as a kid, even if you’re unaware of why it hits differently — it hits differently.”
“Meteor Man” and “Steel” featured Black superheroes fighting poverty and gang violence
As director and actor Robert Townsend noted in a conversation with TheWrap in relation to his 1993 film “Meteor Man” being pegged as the true first Black superhero, “my timing was just a little bit off,” he said. “Meteor Man” kicked off a mini-wave of Black superhero sagas with Townsend starring as a heartbroken teacher using alien superpowers to protect his neighborhood.
Many of these Black-starring superhero features explicitly dealt with street-level gangland violence, institutional racism and structural inequality rather than — like the later “X-Men” movies — coding real-world struggles in less-impactful metaphorical fantasy.
Varying quality notwithstanding, Shaquille O’Neil’s Steel, released in August of 1997, was a disillusioned army weapons manufacturer fighting to keep his own military hardware off the city streets. Released in 1995, “Blankman” starred Damon Wayans a disabled wannabe superhero fighting organized criminals who murdered his politically active grandmother. As discussed in The A.V. Club, these films were less about saving the world and more about saving the local neighborhood, often presented as a battleground on the evening news.
“Blade” and “Spawn” made the genre safe for “X-Men” and “Spider-Man”
“Blade” starred Wesley Snipes as a half-human/half-vampire waging a secret war against the undead and was Marvel’s first successful film adaptation with $131 million worldwide in the summer of 1998. The R-rated fantasy was a dynamic meld of blaxploitation, Gothic horror and martial arts action in a crowd-pleasing superhero package.
“Blade” also, alongside Michael Jai White’s “Spawn” the previous year, kicked off a slew of present-tense, effects-driven superhero movies featuring IP that kids knew and liked. Much of the first “Blade” concerns Wesley Snipes’ superpowered vampire hunter holding his own against trigger-happy police officers. The latter was an adaptation of Todd McFarlane’s early-90s hardcore comic book featuring a dead CIA assassin protecting his family from demonic forces and the military-industrial complex.
While “Blade” and “Men in Black” were sold as star-driven action/comedy fantasies that happened to be based on a comic, the relative success of “Spawn” ($88 million worldwide plus strong post-theatrical revenue on a $40 million budget) was almost entirely based on the popularity of the IP.
“Blade” and other Black superhero features were, at least implicitly, conceived as or received as responses to racially motivated outrages such as the Rodney King beating in 1991 or the draconian Bill Clinton-signed crime bill of 1994. The L.A. riots, which occurred following the acquittal of the officers involved in King’s beating, played in the background during the Oakland-set “Black Panther” prologue.
Whether or not these films thrived specifically due to having Black leading actors, such casting was not a dealbreaker. Whether audiences showed up because of or in spite of such casting choices, conventional wisdom going back to the Hays Code about what was quantified as mainstream entertainment got rebuffed as kids who looked like Michael Jai White got to see themselves kicking superheroic ass onscreen.
Dillard, whose “Sleight” played like a high-quality variation of the street-level, socioeconomically honest superhero fantasy from the pre-“Spider-Man” era, further noted that “sometimes you want to see kids who don’t get to do the cool stuff doing the cool stuff.”
“X-Men” and “Spider-Man” signaled that the comic book superhero movie was safe for white actors.
As journalist and action movie expert Vyce Vyctis noted in “Blade: A Mythos Empowered, A Dream Deferred” the pop culture impact and trendsetting accomplishment rightfully owed to “Blade” was retroactively credited to “The Matrix,” “X-Men,” “Resident Evil” and “Underworld.” This was “an apparent justification of cultural appropriation in the eyes of film executives concerned with the bottom line.”
The success of “X-Men” ($299 million worldwide in 2000) and “Spider-Man” ($821 million in 2002) showed Hollywood the comic book superhero movie could be an A-level tentpole, partially because the effects technology had caught up to the four-color source material. However, as shown by trailers for Ben Affleck’s “Daredevil” and Eric Bana’s “Hulk,” both advertising 2003 release dates, superhero movies were about to become a white actor’s game. The local communities found in Black superhero films of the past became the domain for white superheroes who often presented themselves as salt of the Earth, living in areas riddled by crime.
The Columbine school shooting in early 1999 caused a moral panic about R-rated entertainment being marketed to kids while the 9/11 attacks in late 2001 traumatized the world and caused an overall back-pedaling, not just in pop culture entertainment, against social progress and toward conventionally righteous “white dude saves us from foreign enemies” narratives.
The national mood over 9/11 would shift the notion of “the movie we need right now” to something closer to Chuck Norris’ “Invasion U.S.A.” or Mel Gibson’s “We Were Soldiers” than Carl Weathers’ “Action Jackson” or Samuel L. Jackson’s “Shaft.”
Hollywood almost embraced diverse movies and then walked it back.
Meanwhile, an emerging pursuit of overseas box office caused a hard push toward globally-targeted, four-quadrant, one-size-fits-all big-budget action fantasy franchises, a notion representing itself in PG-13 superhero/action fantasies like “Pirates of the Caribbean,” “Transformers” and “Spider-Man 2,” all of which starred young white men saving the day.
By 2004, “Blade: Trinity” would eschew Wesley Snipes and focus on Ryan Reynolds and Jessica Biel’s sidekicks. That same year, Halle Berry’s “Catwoman,” a campy $100 million origin story flick sans connection to Selina Kyle or Batman, flopped in what felt like glorified sabotage in spite of Berry’s Oscar win or her previous role as superhero Storm in “X-Men.”
As a result of all of these concurrent variables, mainstream theatrical releases like “Anaconda,” “Rush Hour,” “Waiting to Exhale” and “The Birdcage,” films that seemed to show Hollywood understanding the general audience appeal of mainstream movies that happened to focus on “not just a straight white guy,” vanished almost overnight.
The Bush-era superhero movies featured white heroes and anti-heroes reacting to 9/11.
The next 15 years saw a deluge of big-budget, franchise-friendly comic book superhero movies like “Batman Begins,” “Fantastic Four,” “Ghost Rider” and “Green Lantern,” alongside multiple attempts to turn Wolverine into a solo franchise and reboot The Punisher, Spider-Man and Superman. Many of these pictures featured muscle-bound white dudes wrestling with relative morality while saving the city or the world from fantastical Osama Bin Laden stand-ins.
Robert Downey Jr.’s “Iron Man” earned $585 million in the summer of 2008, which launched the Marvel Cinematic Universe while grossing less worldwide that summer than Will Smith’s “Hancock.” That rare exception, a Black-fronted superhero action comedy, grossed $624 million worldwide. The Peter Berg-directed action comedy, a parable for America’s reluctant role as “world cop,” would remain the second-biggest-grossing solo, non-sequel, non-reboot superhero movie, behind “Spider-Man,” until “Wonder Woman” ($821 million) in 2017.
The modern superhero movie boom left Black audiences behind.
Blame the still pervasive myth about films with Black leads not traveling overseas and Hollywood’s dedication to writing off any such success stories — “Beverly Hills Cop,” “Sister Act,” “Remember the Titans,” “Think Like A Man” and “Hidden Figures” — as flukes.
Blame the simple fact that Marvel movies were following a long-laid-out game plan while DC was hyper-focused on rebooting their core Batman/Superman/Wonder Woman universe. Through it all, considering his popularity in the early-2000’s “Justice League” animated series, there’s still no excuse as to why John Stewart’s Green Lantern hasn’t shown up by now.
Moreover, in a cruel irony, the underperformance of “Man of Steel” in 2013 led Warner Bros. to focus the sequel not on Henry Cavill’s Superman but on Ben Affleck’s Batman. Yet the underperformance of “Batman v Superman” in 2016 led Warner Bros. to focus “Justice League” not on Ray Fisher’s Cyborg — a co-lead in Zack Snyder’s eventual four-hour version, but a supporting character in the 2017 theatrical cut — but on Ben Affleck’s Batman.
Concurrently, Kevin Feige’s initial Marvel Studios plans were A) overseen by the famously anti-diversity Ike Perlmutter and B) focused on the most well-known characters. Once “Guardians of the Galaxy” proved folks would show up for almost anything bearing the MCU seal, and Feige no longer had to answer to Perlmutter, “Black Panther” and “Captain Marvel” were announced as key Phase Three titles in October of 2014.
“Black Panther” arrived too late.
Marvel, and Hollywood in general, waited so long to diversify that Marvel’s post- “Avengers: Endgame” commitment to inclusivity came right as general audiences were starting to grow comparatively weary of the superhero movie as an automatic theatrical event.
Diversity is now, 26 years after “Spawn,” considered a key selling point in the next wave of superhero movies just as the bloom is coming off the rose and the movie star system is dead.
Non-white superhero movies were good enough when the genre was finding its footing, and now are good enough after its popularity has peaked. It was only in the last 20 years, when it was king of the blockbuster mountain, that it was designated too important for minority leads.
That’s the entire industry in a nutshell, now finally committed to turning folks like Constance Wu, Regé-Jean Page or Jenna Ortega into marquee draws just as the actor or actress is no longer the prime butts-in-seats draw. Xóchitl Gomez and Dominique Thorne may now get the chance to be superheroes. Once upon a time, they might have had the chance to be movie stars too.