Black Panther, War Machine, And More: How 2016 Looks Like The Age Of The Black Comic Superhero From Black Panther to Luke Cage, filmmakers say audiences today demand superheroes that better reflect their world. Comic creators say it's about time TV and movies caught up with diversity in comics.
NPR logo

2016: Age Of The On-Screen Black Superhero

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/477089249/477141368" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript
2016: Age Of The On-Screen Black Superhero

2016: Age Of The On-Screen Black Superhero

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/477089249/477141368" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript

LYNN NEARY, HOST:

As "Captain America: Civil War" racks up box office dollars and critical raves, it's also making history. The movie features more black superheroes than any other recent big-budget superhero flick. NPR TV critic Eric Deggans explains why that will help make 2016 the year of the black superhero.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "CAPTAIN AMERICA: CIVIL WAR")

CHRIS EVANS: (As Steve Rogers/Captain America) This job - we try to save as many people as we can.

ERIC DEGGANS, BYLINE: Fans finally basking in the long-awaited superhero brawl "Captain America: Civil War" may not have noticed something special about this movie. It has three black superheroes on the front lines. There's Don Cheadle's War Machine, Chadwick Boseman as Marvel's first African superhero the Black Panther and Anthony Mackie as the Falcon, asking Captain America if he really wants to resist governmental control of superheroes.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "CAPTAIN AMERICA: CIVIL WAR")

ANTHONY MACKIE: (As Sam Wilson/Falcon) I just want to consider all our options. Those people that shoot at you usually wind up shooting at me too.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

DEGGANS: Given all the criticism recent superhero movies have faced for featuring mostly white males, this may seem like a decisive rebuttal. But Nate Moore, an executive producer on the film, says the lineup of nonwhite superheroes was a coincidence of storytelling.

NATE MOORE: I don't think at any point did we think well, this is going to feel like a political move on our part or this is part of a larger trend. It's sort of us as people in Hollywood catching up to what audiences inherently want to see. Even though the images weren't out there, I think people were ready for them. I just don't think we were making them fast enough.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE WINTER SOLDIER")

MACKIE: (As Sam Wilson/Falcon) Hey, Cap, how do we know the good guys from the bad guys?

EVANS: (As Steve Rogers/Captain America) If they're shooting at you, they're bad.

(SOUNDBITE OF BLAST)

DEGGANS: Executive producer Moore says it was his idea to introduce the Falcon as Captain America's best friend and backup in the previous movie, "Winter Soldier." And he says the Black Panther debuts in "Civil War" in a similarly pivotal role. He's the ruler of a super high-tech African nation who stands equal to Iron Man and Captain America. Now, that's a level of independence we haven't seen in black characters in recent big-budget superhero movies.

MOORE: You know, we kind of think of him sort of as Obama if Obama was also James Bond. He both has to lead a country, but also has to be the country's best fighter who has to go into really dangerous situations and solve them.

DEGGANS: And he's not alone. Other black superheroes we'll see in TV and film this year include Will Smith playing Deadshot in the upcoming "Suicide Squad" movie and Alexandra Shipp as Storm in "X-Men: Apocalypse." On Netflix, Mike Colter stars as Luke Cage in the new TV series of the same name.

Brian Michael Bendis is a comic book, TV and film writer. He wrote the comic book storyline in which a half-Hispanic, half-black 13-year-old takes over as Spider-Man. Bendis says it's about time movies and TV shows caught up with the diversity of current comic books.

BRIAN MICHAEL BENDIS: It's ridiculous that every superhero is a white man who's 30 years old. It's completely unrealistic. It's not the world we live in.

DEGGANS: Years ago, the comics industry pushed to diversify characters, fearing comic audiences had become too insular. Bendis says changing the ethnicity of Spider-Man came from a simple question - does the character really have to be white?

BENDIS: Kid lives with his aunt. He's a science nerd. There's really not a reason that kid should be white, and it took off. To this day, it's quite shocking how eager the fans were for it.

DEGGANS: Black Panther first appeared in comic books in 1966. He was the first black superhero in modern comics, a nod to the Africanism of the civil rights movement. Luke Cage appeared in the comic book six years later, an ex-convict character influenced by blaxploitation

films like "Shaft" and "Super Fly." But with a Black Panther movie set for 2018 and the Cage series debuting on Netflix in September, the question remains - how will the characters be reinvented for today's times?

Cultural critic Jamie Broadnax, managing editor of BlackGirlNerds.com just hopes filmmakers won't repeat the mistake they made with the X-Men movies. They cast a biracial, light-skinned Halle Berry to play the African superhero known as Storm.

JAMIE BROADNAX: Hollywood has a huge colorism problem - huge, especially when it comes to black women. And now we're seeing the new Storm in "Apocalypse," which I think she's basically, like, a baby version of Halle Berry, but we have yet another light-skinned Storm.

DEGGANS: As increasingly diverse audiences demand superhero films and TV shows that better reflect their world, the pressure will only grow for projects like the Black Panther film and Luke Cage series to deliver groundbreaking and successful depictions. I'm Eric Deggans.

Copyright © 2016 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.