This month, an elderly Steve Rogers relinquished his role as Captain America, a position he held in one capacity or another for some 73 years. Taking up the mantle in his stead is the young black hero Sam Wilson, formerly known as Falcon. In a recent interview with Vox, Captain America comic-book writer Rick Remeder spoke about the significance of transitioning from Steve to Sam in a Marvel universe that’s becoming more and more diverse.
"Sam's wearing the American flag," Remeder said. "That means he represents all of America. And not just that, but the spirit of the character is that he tries to represent all of the world."
Remeder's remarks came after news of Marvel Studios' plan to produce a movie based on Black Panther, the first major black superhero to show up in Marvel's pages, back in 1966. Currently scheduled for 2017, it will be the first superhero film to feature a black lead since Wesley Snipes hung up his vampire-skewering samurai sword and sunglasses in Blade.
What remains to be seen, however, is whether Remeder's philosophy regarding a black superhero's role as a universal representative will carry over into film. Traditionally, movies have done a curious thing with black heroes: Charge them not with saving the world, but rather with protecting their immediate, ethno-specific domains, or, in many cases, to put it bluntly, the ghetto.
The 1977 blaxploitation film Abar, the Black Superman, may be of questionable filmmaking merit, but is essential in defining the tone of black-superhero movies to come. In it, an affluent black doctor and his family move into a white neighborhood, prompting anger, protests, and even threats of violence. A local black leader, Abar, steps into help protect the Kincaids and is able to do so until extreme circumstances force him to take a serum of Dr. Kincaid's creation, granting him invincibility and psychic powers. Abar then goes on a quest to vanquish racism and the machinery of oppression. It’s an (amusing, absurd) empowerment fantasy, but it’s also a limited one—about the men and women next door, not mankind itself.
Black superheroes remained absent from the screen until The Meteor Man and Blankman appeared in 1993 and 1994, respectively. They picked up where Abar left off: "He's come to save the world… one neighborhood at a time," says the trailer for Meteor Man. The 1993 superhero spoof stars Robert Townsend as Jefferson Reed, a Washington, D.C. school teacher who, after receiving some vaguely Superman-esque powers from a falling meteor, resolves to save his neighborhood from a marauding street gang called The Golden Lords. Reed makes short work of the rascally Lords, then sets about shutting down drug dealers, stopping robberies, and brokering a peace treaty between the police, the Crips, and the Bloods (played by Cyprus Hill and Naughty by Nature, respectively). When Reed begins to lose his powers and the Lords return, it's the neighborhood's own residents, now imbued with Reed's courage, who end up saving the day.
Blankman, written by and starring Damon Wayans, is not all that dissimilar. Wayans plays Darryl, an eccentric and nerdy inventor with an undying love of Batman. He uses his skills to turn himself into the movie's incompetent titular hero. Armored in bulletproof long johns and dishwashing gloves, Darryl ventures out to fight crime and save his deteriorating community.
While there is certainly value and meaning behind Meteor Man and Blankman, they are, at their core, spoofs that derived a good deal of their humor from the implied absurdity of a black man in a cape and cowl in a world where white heroes have are the dominant figure of authority. Like Abar, both of these are defined by place and territory, specifically black territory.
The trope returned a few years later, when NBA star Shaq starred in the critically and commercially repellent comic-book adaptation Steel. Directly inspired by the black folk-hero John Henry, Steel begins life as John Henry Irons, a weapons engineer who must protect his home and family after his own deadly creations end up on the streets of his community.
There is obviously nothing wrong with the messages behind these films—that real heroes come from and protect specific places. But taken together, over time, they contribute to the stagnant idea of what a black hero can be to the world. Even when moving outside of the neighborhood-watch paradigm, black heroes still aren't granted the mantle of universal protector bestowed on their counterparts. Spawn (1997) and Catwoman (2004), the latter widely regarded as one of the worst movies ever made, both feature black leads (at least before Spawn's Al Simmons gets turned into cooked burger meat) but their narratives are tied to tales of personal revenge, where any worldly do-gooding is merely incidental.
Even Blade, perhaps the pinnacle of black superhero movies in terms of sheer quality, is characterized by a distinctly urban quality. While his contemporaries soar into cosmic vistas, Snipes's Blade is confined to streets, alleyways, and subway tunnels. The film plays like a strange vampiric tribute to the blaxploitation films of the ‘70s, with vampirism as the poison of the streets. While later movies would make vampirism into an enviable condition of inherent beauty, Blade treats it as a condition akin to a disease or drug addiction. Blade's mother is bitten when he is in the womb, killing her (so he believes) and cursing him with his own addiction as if he’s a vampiric crack baby. His story, like his predecessors, becomes one of personal vengeance against the purveyors of the disease that ruined him.
The most interesting take on black superheroes may actually be 2008's Hancock with Will Smith. In it, Smith plays the titular Hancock, a drunken wreck blessed with super strength, invulnerability, and flight. Though he often attempts to use his powers for good, he remains under constant scrutiny from the public for the collateral damage he causes. The movie spent years in development limbo, undergoing numerous re-writes, and it shows, particularly in its second half when the plot goes incoherent. But the premise, a black hero undergoing an image rehabilitation campaign, remains a clever skewering of the media and the public's relationship with black figures of power. "Life here can be difficult for me," he says during an apologetic press conference. "After all, I'm the only one of my kind. You deserve better from me. I will be better." When was Superman made to apologize for excessive property damage? Or had his origins so publicly scrutinized?
Can Black Panther be a revolutionary step forward for black heroes, or will it succumb to the same narrative tropes as its cinematic predecessors? Stan Lee and Jack Kirby wrote the character as the protector of an ethno-specific domain, the fictional isolated African nation of Wakanda, a nation of high culture and technology but a history of conflict with the outside world, specifically white colonialists looking to exploit its resources. The Black Panther of the print universe had decades to move beyond this narrative, eventually being named official protector of Hell's Kitchen in New York. But if Marvel is intent on starting with his origin story, as it seem inclined to be, his status as a protector of what is essentially an auto-segregated enclave will feature prominently. By contrast, other heroes like Batman or Aquaman have had their characters defined by places like Gotham City or the undersea kingdom of Atlantis, but these definitions are not based in race. Gotham mostly exists as a self-contained universe, of which Batman is an all-encompassing protector.
If Black Panther doesn’t break the pattern, Warner Brothers’ Cyborg movie, currently slated for 2020, might. Created in 1980 by Marv Wolfman and George Pérez, Cyborg (alias: Victor Stone), the son of two scientists who used him for experiments, was never so defined by a locality or ethnicity. Under DC's New 52 continuity reboot, Cyborg will share global responsibility with the likes of Batman, Wonder Woman, and Superman—protectors of all Earth. How novel.