An Encouraging New World for Superheroes

The Marvel and Warner Bros. presentations at Comic-Con this year finally featured films with stars who look more like their audience.

Ryan Coogler, Lupita Nyong'o, and Chadwick Boseman at Marvel's 'Black Panther' Comic-Con Panel. (Chris Pizzello / AP)

The pageantry of San Diego Comic-Con proceeds along the same lines every year: Big movie studios gather their stars together, and use them to pitch upcoming products to a friendly audience of dedicated fans, effectively rolling out the red carpet for the next year of blockbusters. As the long-range vision of superhero franchises like the Marvel Universe has become the norm, these press conferences have turned into sweeping proclamations of the future of Hollywood, laying out a studio’s next five years of movies with bullish confidence. They don’t always present the freshest vision, but at least this year, the future looked like it will finally bring some diverse faces to the big screen.

The “Marvel Cinematic Universe” has existed since 2008 and produced 13 movies so far, all of them starring white men, with four more coming before Black Panther (due out in February 2018) and Captain Marvel (March 2019). Even with the long wait ahead, those two movies were the hottest news from this year’s Comic-Con, and the official announcement of the Black Panther cast and crew was its most memorable moment, with the actors Chadwick Boseman, Michael B. Jordan, Lupita Nyong’o, and Danai Gurira joining the director Ryan Coogler on stage to hype the film. Progress in Hollywood is always painfully slow, but with their appearance—coupled with the diverse leads of Star Wars last year, the release of Ghostbusters, and Warner Brother’s first release of footage from Wonder Woman—there’s real evidence of change taking hold.

That’s especially important considering that Hollywood’s current business calibration is so heavy on the superheroes. Though Marvel has billions of dollars to show for its investment, its leading characters remain Captain America (Chris Evans), Thor (Chris Hemsworth), Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.), the Hulk (Mark Ruffalo), and Guardians of the Galaxy’s Peter Quill (Chris Pratt), along with Black Widow (who has never been given her own film to star in). Over the next two years, the studio will roll out Spider-Man (played by Tom Holland), Doctor Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch), and further sequels to Thor and Guardians before getting to Black Panther (Boseman) and Captain Marvel (who will be played by Brie Larson, a piece of casting announced at Comic-Con).

“The superhero field is a field where there’s not a lot of representation,” Coogler told Entertainment Weekly at the convention. “It’s traditionally white male, but the fans look like the world. So, naturally, people are going to yearn to see someone flying around doing these incredible things that looks like them ... That’s what keeps me up at night—for better and for worse.” Coogler has already had a hand in reviving one major franchise with a lead of color, writing and directing Creed last year with Jordan playing a new protégé for the boxing champion Rocky (Sylvester Stallone).

In Black Panther, Jordan will play the villainous Erik Killmonger alongside Boseman’s King T’Challa, the leader of the fictional African country of Wakanda, who was introduced in the Marvel film Captain America: Civil War this year. Perhaps even more intriguing was the revelation that Nyong’o and Gurira would play members of a secret-service squad called Dora Milaje. “One of the most amazing things about Wakanda is they have these women who are the best fighters in the kingdom,” Coogler said. News of Captain Marvel was comparatively brief, as the film doesn’t even have a director assigned yet, but Larson (who won an Oscar this year for her performance in Room) is representative of the kind of A-list talent Marvel can now attract to its brand.

Competing for attention was Warner Bros., which is trying to build out a rival brand of superhero movies based on the heroes of DC Comics. Its efforts so far, including Man of Steel and Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, have largely faltered with critics, but in the long-range Hollywood economy, that hardly matters—such duds can be quickly buried by an upcoming wave of heroes. Footage from the 2017 team-up film Justice League focused heavily on humor, with some semi-sparkling banter between Batman (Ben Affleck) and The Flash (Ezra Miller), suggesting a welcome change from the gloom of previous entries in the franchise.

More exciting, though, was the first footage of Wonder Woman, inarguably the most famous female superhero in the history of comics. She’s existed since 1941, debuting only two years after Batman was created, but there have been nine feature films made about him in the intervening years, and none about her. Wonder Woman, directed by Patty Jenkins, comes to theaters in 2017 after decades of failed attempts. “It’s overdue, but it also feels like the best time in the world to make this movie,” Jenkins said. After years of fans clamoring for heroes that represent their viewing audience, her sentiment feels particularly apt.