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Black Panther to Spawn: A Brief Evolution of the Black Superhero in Film

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On May 2, 2008, Iron Man hit theatres everywhere, launching the Marvel Studios character into international fame, reviving Robert Downey Jr.’s career, and sparking the Marvel Cinematic Universe – a franchise that would go on to span 17 movies and $13.5 billion dollars at the global box office.

Now, almost 10 years later, the 18th movie in the franchise is just days away from hitting theatres: Black Panther, the story of T’Challa, newly anointed King of the technologically advanced country Wakanda, and the hero behind the Black Panther suit. Directed by Ryan Cooler (Creed), the film features a nearly all-black cast, starting with Chadwick Boseman in the titular role, with a bevy of incredibly famous co-stars, including Michael B. Jordan, Lupita Nyong’o, Danai Gurira, Letitia Wright, Daniel Kaluuya, Forest Whitaker, and Angela Bassett.

Critical reception for the film ahead of its release has been overwhelmingly positive, praising the supporting cast, the action, and visuals in particular, but it’s important to note – especially in an industry that has historically been dominated by Caucasian men – the groundwork that was laid for this film, many years ago.

Comic book movies have certainly been around for a long time, but the first one to truly bring a portrayal of a black man into the leading role of a superhero film was 1997’s Spawn. Based on Todd McFarlane’s 1992 comic of the same name, the movie follows Lt. Colonel Al Simmons (portrayed by Michael Jai White), a Marine-turned-CIA operative, who later dies because he had knowingly killed innocent civilians during his time with the Agency. Now in Hell, he makes a deal: in exchange for his soul, he gets to see his wife. Of course, as with all deals with the devil, there’s a catch – when he returns to the world, five years have passed, and his wife has not only moved on, but is now married to his best friend. Pretty dark, no?

Spawn is perhaps the first major, serious role a black actor has ever taken on in a superhero role, and a year later, another one was developed into a major motion picture. Blade, released in 1998, starred Wesley Snipes (White Men Can’t Jump, Demolition Man, U.S. Marshals) and was actually one of the first Marvel Comics properties to be developed into a movie. Following Snipes as Blade, a vampire hunter, the movie – which would spawn two sequels – grossed $70 million at the US box office, and $131.2 million worldwide.

It’s often considered the first major success for Marvel in the world of movies, and can be credited with pioneering the medium prior to the success later enjoyed by X-Men and Spider-Man a few short years later. As entertaining as those movies are, however, their triumphs at the box office meant that black superheroes were left by the wayside in favour of a “safer” status quo; with the few exceptions of Will Smith in Hancock or Suicide Squad, there have not been many non-white superheroes in a leading role in the years since – until now, that is

blade

These two films helped show that people of colour could be in a serious, gritty leading roles – they could kick ass and blow things up just as spectacularly as anyone else – and they did it years before Wolverine, Peter Parker, or Captain America. Now, we not only have properties such as Black Panther coming straight to theatres, but we have Black Lightning on Netflix, joining Marvel’s Luke Cage on the streaming service – the latter of which is an integral part of Marvel’s ongoing TV universe.

Hollywood has long been about trends – what is making money, what isn’t, and how can they maximize the former more than the latter. The trends being set by last year’s Wonder Woman, and now Black Panther, are extremely encouraging, as it is showing executives and studios around the world what audiences want to see: more diversity on the big screen.

Hopefully, this is just the beginning.

Black Panther leaps onto the big screen on Friday, February 16, 2018.

You can find Shoaib Alli on Twitter (@SNSAlli) for more thoughts about Black Panther and a number of other films, games, and more.

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