The quality of representation for people of color has been slowly improved
The ethnic diversity of comic book movie superheroes still has a long way to go. | Illustration by Caleb Raney / THE CHIMES
“Black Panther” clawed its way to theatres on Friday, and its release has signaled a much needed change in the way Hollywood represents people of color in film, particularly superhero films. Though comic book companies such as Marvel or D.C. have strived to promote diversity in their printed content through ethnically diverse characters such as Luke Cage, Jefferson Pierce or John Stewart, onscreen portrayal of ethnic superheroes has been lacking.
Just a Sidekick
Historically, most ethnic superheroes in film have been relegated to the less coveted sidekick bench. Audiences will notice people of color—whether they be Asian, Latino or African-American—almost always act as a supporting character and do not receive too much attention. Myriad examples make that evident. This is Anthony Mackie’s Falcon in the Captain America films, Don Cheadle’s War Machine in the Iron Man films or Benedict Wong’s Wong in “Doctor Strange.” These superheroes take more of a supporting role while the central, often white hero does the heavy lifting.
Apart from the supporting roles, there has only been a handful of blockbuster level superhero movies where a person of color has been the lead, and most of them are movies that Hollywood tries to forget. The Blade Trilogy was perhaps the most critically successful, but that streak ended after the first movie. Only a year prior to “Blade,” viewers were stuck with the famously infamous “Spawn” and “Steel,” which boasted Michael Jai White and Shaquille O’Neal in the titular roles, respectively. The next inexplicable and downright awful punishment for moviegoers was 2004’s “Catwoman,” which starred Halle Berry, but it is best not to get into that. One might consider Will Smith’s “Hancock” in 2008, but that is not a comic book film nor was it critically successful. Notice, all these films utilize African-Americans as the lead, which is fantastic, but finding a major American superhero film with a lead from other ethnicities proves a difficult task. Unless one counts “The Mask of Zorro,” but as everyone knows, one does not count Zorro as a superhero film.
The lack of impartial representation has clearly lacked in comic book movies—a strange fact considering superhero films’ comic book counterparts have made significant strides to fairly represent ethnic superheroes. Numerous examples have been found such as Luke Cage, Jefferson Pierce, a.k.a. Black Lightning and John Stewart, a.k.a. Green Lantern. Apart from them, Marvel and D.C. comics have continued to integrate people of color as the primary hero. Take Miles Morales for instance. Morales, an Afro-Latino teenager took up the mantle as Spiderman after Peter Parker died in 2011. Fans were divided on this introduction, but the story was well received after its release.
Similar strides continue to happen in comics. An Asian man named Amadeus Cho has taken up the mantle of The Incredible Hulk, an African-American woman named Riri Williams has replaced Tony Stark as Iron Man and a Latino woman named Jessica Cruz is the current Green Lantern on the Justice League.
On Screen Progress
Thankfully, Hollywood is beginning to see the need for representing multiple ethnicities through the lead role of a comic book movie, as evidenced by “Black Panther.” D.C. will hopefully follow Marvel’s lead with their unconfirmed Black Adam and Cyborg films, which have Dwayne Johnson and Ray Fisher playing the title characters, respectively.
Similar progress has also been made on the small screen. Marvel’s “Luke Cage” proved a success on Netflix, and D.C. has released a “Black Lighting” TV show on The CW. Though the comic book genre still has a long way to go, “Black Panther” marks a shift in Hollywood’s mentality towards casting people of color in the lead superhero role.