In 1998, New Line Cinema released what would become the first official Black superhero film, Blade, with Wesley Snipes as a vampire-human hybrid who protects people from blood-sucking fiends. The movie, based on the Blade comic book series from Marvel that appeared in the early ’70s, was a worldwide success. (It opened at No. 1 in Spain and Australia, challenging the notion that Black characters don’t play well overseas.) The action-horror flick even performed impressively enough to spawn two sequels.
“All three of those projects generated more than $100 million in sales and made everyone take Black superhero movies a lot more seriously,” says Reginald Hudlin, producer-director (Django Unchained) and partner at Milestone Media, an African-American comics company. “But despite that success, there has not been another film franchise like it.”
So where are all the Black superhero franchises? Even though the genre has seen prominent African-American roles on the big screen since Blade, none of their stories has led to movies framed around those roles. Critics panned Catwoman (2004) starring Halle Berry as the title character, and although Berry has also appeared multiple times in the popular X-Men movies as the caped mutant Storm, her character has yet to spin off into her own film domain as has Hugh Jackman’s Wolverine. Will Smith played a disgruntled immortal in Hancock (2008), which grossed an astonishing $624 million internationally, but it didn’t become a franchise or even garner a sequel.
Fast-forward to 2015 and Avengers: Age of Ultron. As super-hero blockbusters go, its A-list cast includes more characters of color than film audiences have seen in a long time. Anthony Mackie (the Falcon); Samuel L. Jackson (Nick Fury); Don Cheadle (War Machine); and Idris Elba (Heimdall) all reprised roles that originated in popular Marvel Studios movies including Captain America: The Winter Soldier, Iron Man, Iron Man 2 and Thor, respectively. In 2014, network TV also made an effort to expand the look of its casts. So, how much more can we expect for the diversification of the superhero across these platforms?
“There are two levels of the relative dearth of Black faces in the cinematic mix,” explains Selwyn Seyfu Hinds, writer-creator of the Vertigo Comics series Dominique Laveau: Voodoo Child. “The first is cultural. Superhero tales are our current-day myths. And there is a feeling that Hollywood is incapable of envisioning the full and organic participation of Black and brown people.” In addition, he says, “It’s also about business. Movie franchises built from superhero sources are among the surest economic bets in a really tough business. So Black actors can be locked out from participation because we have such scant presence in fictional universes built decades ago.”
Read more in the June 2015 issue of EBONY magazine, on stands now!
Miles Marshall Lewis is the Arts & Culture Editor of EBONY.com. He’s also the Harlem-based author of Scars of the Soul Are Why Kids Wear Bandages When They Don’t Have Bruises, There’s a Riot Goin’ On and Irrésistible. Follow MML on Twitter and Instagram at @furthermucker, and visit his personal blog, Furthermucker.