We’re all used to the typical superhero story by this point. A man struggling with his identity also struggles to save the world. Think Spiderman, Superman, Batman. Three iconic heroes who all have to come to terms with the way their abilities affect both their lives and the well-being of those around them. We’re seen this narrative play out in multiple ways: dark and gritty, like Christopher Nolan’s version of Batman. Surreal and fun, ala Tim Burton. But no matter how these heroes are portrayed, they always have a couple things in common, specifically that they’re white and male.
But that narrative is slowly changing, and lately we have a front row seat to the cultural shift that’s taking over how we view superheroes. Now, between movies like Black Panther (which opened February 16th!) and series like Black Lightning (CW) and Runaways (Hulu), we’re finally seeing more and more superheroes of color in the spotlight.
It’s hard to trace where exactly this cultural shift started, though the success of Wonder Woman represents a clear moment of change. Leading female superheroes, or superheroines, were already starting to creep into pop culture again in recent years, particularly with the success of the 2015 Netflix series Jessica Jones, and the highly-anticipated reboot of Supergirl, which eventually found a solid home on The CW. Still, no one really knew if Wonder Women – which starred Gal Gadot and was directed by Patty Jenkins – would succeed. But it blew the box-office out of the water, becoming the 3rd highest grossing film of 2017 and the highest-grossing superhero origin movie of all time. Its success proved to movie execs something that the public was already keenly aware of: people were sick of seeing the same-old superhero narrative. We wanted something new. We wanted diversity in our heroes.
But while Wonder Woman and Jessica Jones represent great steps forward in some ways, both of their leading ladies are still white women. And in a culture that is becoming more and more cognizant of the lack of representation on our screens, it’s time for a new story. It’s time for marginalized races and voices to have a platform where they too can be represented as the hero. Thankfully, the powers-that-be have been paying attention (if a little late). It’s only February, but it’s safe to say that 2018 is already shaping up to be the year of the under-represented superhero finally taking center stage.
The seeds of this expanding narrative were planted in 2016 when Luke Cage premiered on Netflix, starring Mike Colter. In a year where the news cycle was dominated by stories of police shootings (particularly of black men), a hero like Cage – who is literally bullet proof – became instantly compelling. Then this fall, Marvel’s Runaways premiered on HULU to strong ratings. Runaways, about a group of special teenagers who find themselves pitted against their evil parents, boasts a diverse leading cast. Of the six main teenage characters, three are actors of color, four are women, and all their storylines are given equal weight and importance throughout the first season.
Cut to the past month, where we’ve seen the premiere of Black Lightning on The CW and a rising fervor around the coming release of Black Panther – which both feature a mostly all black cast. About a former-superhero-turned-principal with the power of controlling electricity, Black Lightning had the highest ratings of a CW premiere in two years and was immediately praised by critics as a new take on a classic genre. The show stars Cress Williams as Black Lightning (or Jefferson Pierce), and it focuses on his return to superhero status, as well as the lives of his two daughters – Jennifer (China Anne McClain) and Anissa (Nafessa Williams). What sets Black Lightning apart from the other DC shows on the network is precisely what makes it feel so representational: it blends together superhero elements like powers and the responsibilities they bring with the reality of what it means to be a black family in our current political climate. When Jefferson repeatedly finds himself pitted against the police, even knocked to the ground by two white officers for committing no real offense, it’s everything he can do to not utilize his given power.
The Black Panther movie was in theaters February 16th, but it’s almost an understatement to say that people could not wait. As soon as the movie became available for pre-sale it broke records, becoming the most pre-sold Marvel Studio film in history. We’re not surprised. Not only is the film action-packed and riveting, but the movie has a stellar cast, including Lupita Nyong’o, Danai Gurira, Angela Bassett, Michael B. Jordan and more. Chadwick Boseman stars as T’Challa, or Black Panther, the king of a secret African nation called Wakanda, who’s struggling to find his place as its new ruler. Early reviews are were awesome, with critics already throwing around words like “monster hit.” The movie is projected to gross one billion in worldwide sales this weekend and it is clear excitement around this film indicates how culturally starved we are for a more diverse superhero’s tale.
This growing trend in superheroes isn’t regulated just to the screen, either. A few weeks ago, it was announced that John Ridley, the Oscar-winning screenwriter of 12 Years a Slave, will be penning a new comic book miniseries for DC called The Other History of the DC Universe. Ridley isn’t new to comics – he wrote an alternative history comic for DC back in 2007 called The American Way (and is reportedly working on a sequel!). This new endeavor will feature major moments in the DC Universe retold through the point of view of classically marginalized characters like Vixen, Katana, Supergirl, John Stewart, and more. The comics will focus not just on their adventures as superheroes, but on the reality of their lives behind the masks as well.
Both this new miniseries and the growing numbers of films and TV shows with a focus on underrepresented characters proves how far we’ve come culturally – but also how far we still need to go. Still, it’s not just that we’re seeing more content featuring diverse leading men and women, it’s that we’re seeing that content succeed and in record-breaking numbers. Movies like Black Panther and retold comic book narratives are just the beginning. The public is clearly clamoring for alternative superhero narratives, and it’s time to give them what they want: heroes who truly represent the diverse and complicated world we live.
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