With the notable exception of Blade, pre-2018 Black characters in superhero films were always the sidekick, never the star.
In a June 2017 essay titled “Ambiguous Mr. Fox: Black Actors and Interest Convergence in the Superhero Film,” Ezra Claverie explored the way the character of Lucius Fox, played by Morgan Freeman in The Dark Knight Trilogy, exemplified Hollywood’s approach:
“So the blockbuster seeks to flatter white peoples’ self-conception as “not perpetrators of racism” while also offering nonstereotyped black characters, thereby signifying the filmmakers’ respect for black actors and spectators. These films offer to multiple audience segments the opportunity to feel valued by the film.”
Claverie notes that “after the success of Batman Begins, Marvel Studios began casting major black stars as sidekicks, confidants, and enablers to white heroes while isolating them from any black social or political context. Heroes get lovers, dreams, and social histories; sidekicks do not.”
Claverie prophetically writes of the then-announced Black Panther stand-alone movie, hoping it will give T’Challa a love interest and will speak about Wakanda’s technology, its relation to colonialism, and the transatlantic slave trade.
Fortunately, Black Panther was not the only Black superhero to make his mark that year. The animated Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse cast the biracial Miles Morales as the new Spider-Man, at least in his universe.
Both Black Panther and Spider-Verse were huge critical and blockbuster hits. Black Panther was nominated for Best Picture, while Spider-Verse won Best Animated Feature. Sequels are being made for both.
It’s too early to tell if their success means permanent change for superheroes and race. But it does set a positive precedent and momentum for the future.