Get to Save the World?
DANIEL D. SNYDER
DANIEL D. SNYDER
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.
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.
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.