Black Panther is premiering to an overpowering amount of hype, excitement, and anticipation for the all-star, mostly black cast. The fervor, for many people of color, is due to the film’s unforeseen amount of representation both in front of and behind the camera. This, and the popularity of 2017’s Wonder Woman (the top grossing live-action hit by a woman director) are hopefully the beginning of more authentic storytelling for underrepresented audiences in genres across film and TV.
However, we know that Black Panther is not the first time a black superhero has been portrayed in live-action form on television and film! In honor of Black History Month, let’s check out those in leading roles who donned capes, masks, and spandex as our favorite comic book and original black heroes. Here’s a list in order of quality and general dopeness from my least to most favorite:
14. Shaquille O’Neal as John Henry Irons/Steel in Steel (1997)
Starring Shaquille O’ Neal, Steel depicts the story of the DC character of the same name. John Henry Irons designs weapons for the military that would harmlessly neutralize soldiers. But when the project is sabotaged and ends up harming a close ally of his, he leaves in disgust. When he sees gangs using his weapons on the street, he uses his brains and his Uncle Joe’s junkyard know-how to fight back, becoming a real man of “steel.”
Even though the film is laughably bad and was critically panned, it’s important to note that Shaq had to learn his lines and work with an acting coach in between games and training for the 1996 Summer Olympics. But no matter how much work he put in, there’s nothing he could have done to save us from seeing his horrendously bad super suit. Even the Batman nipple fiasco is better than this!
13. Carl Lumby as Dr. Miles Hawkins/M.A.N.T.I.S. IN M.A.N.T.I.S. (1994)
M.A.N.T.I.S was a TV series on Fox that aired from August of 1994 to March of 1995, and it was the first superhero show to feature an African American lead. Dr. Miles Hawkins, played by Carl Lumby, is an affluent, mild-mannered doctor who is shot in the spine by police during a riot. He becomes paralyzed from the waist down, and attempts to sue the police officer responsible, but loses. He then uses his company’s resources to build an exoskeleton suit that allows him to walk and have superhuman abilities, which he uses to fight crime as a vigilante.
After the pilot aired, so many major changes were made that the rest of the season was almost entirely different from its first episode. This may have been why M.A.N.T.I.S was so short-lived and thus, forgotten. But, Lumby’s appearance on Supergirl as the Martian Manhunter’s father allowed for him to drop some M.A.N.T.I.S. gems in dialogue, giving us a little reminder of his stint as a major black hero. Considering his origin story and how relevant it is still today, this would be an interesting one for Fox to reboot without having to fall to Marvel or DC’s mercy.
12. Damon Wayans as Darryl Walker/Blankman in Blankman (1994)
Blankman stars Damon Wayans in the eponymous role, as well as his In Living Color castmate David Alan Grier. In this superhero parody film, Darryl, an appliance repairman with a knack for inventing, goes on a crusade with his brother Kevin to fight the corruption in their city and to avenge the killing of their grandmother. The Wayans tend to keep it in the family with their productions: both young Kevin and young Darryl are played by Damon Wayans’ sons Michael and Damon Wayans Jr.
Although it was panned by critics and bombed in ticket sales, Blankman is a cult classic, giving us classic Wayans humor and the saying “slap me around and call me Susan.”
11. Robert Townsend as Jefferson Reed/Meteor Man in Meteor Man (1993)
Meteor Man is a superhero comedy supported by a majorly black cast and with a giant list of cameos that includes Cypress Hill, Don Cheadle, Luther Vandross, Sinbad, and other huge stars. Robert Townsend plays the titular character, a teacher who takes to the streets to protect his community from gangs. In anticipation of the movie’s release, Marvel created a limited 6-issue series of Meteor Man.
If you love Black Panther’s soulful soundtrack, checkout Meteor Man’s — it features Michael Jackson, Teddy Riley, Shanice, MC Hammer, and other black artists of the 90s, and it’s sure to get you steppin’ to the beat of justice.
10. Tomar Mayo as John Abar in Abar, the First Black Superman (1977)
Many folks think that Meteor Man or Spawn were the first depictions of a black superhero on the big screen, but it’s this film that holds the title: Abar, the First Black Superman. This Blaxploitation film from 1977 follows Dr. Kenneth Kinkade as he moves his family to an affluent white neighborhood where, he feels, they can be safe and happy. Unfortunately, their bigoted neighbors don’t feel the same, greeting them with racism via vandalism and threats. John Abar steps in to serve as their bodyguard, helped by a special elixir created by Dr. Kinkade that gives him abilities such as super strength and the power to turn any corny line into something badass.
I love me a good Blaxploitation film because they can be so campy and cringy they force you to enjoy them. This one in particular is a good watch because there’s just something about a black man fighting back against racists and bigots that is extremely satisfying; please check out the trailer at least! And shoutout to Mafia III the video game, which used this film to help create its own storyline.
9. The Marshall Family in Up, Up, and Away! (2000)
Up, Up, and Away! is a 2000 Disney Channel Original movie starring Michael J. Pagan as Scott Marshall, a boy who must save the world when his superhero family cannot. Scott, however, doesn’t have any powers. This film features an all-star cast that also includes Robert Townsend, Sherman Hemsley, and Joan Pringle.
While Robert Townsend is on this list twice, I should recognize that he also directed this film, making him one of the few directors of color for a Disney Channel Original movie.
8. Michael Jai White as Al Simmons/Spawn in Spawn (1997)
Spawn, starring Michael Jai White, depicts the origin story of the title character with the murder of soldier/assassin Al Simmons. He is resurrected as Spawn, the reluctant demonic leader of Hell’s army. He ultimately turns away from evil by refusing to lead the army in the war against Heaven and using his powers for good. Spawn is the first film to feature an African American portraying a major comic book character.
Many folks think this movie is campy and the graphics are outdated, but it’s also surprisingly funny. Plus, the themes of Spawn’s story are dark, which I tend to gravitate toward. Creator Todd McFarlane of Image comics, always said he wanted to do an R-rated reboot of the original. After the success of Deadpool and Logan, this became a real possibility! Production of the reboot has begun, and hopefully 2019 graphics will give Spawn a better looking cape and underworld.
7. Wesley Snipes as Blade in the Blade Trilogy (1998-2004)
The Blade Trilogy depicts the Marvel antihero of the same name, played by Wesley Snipes. Blade, first called Eric Brooks, was born when his mother was being feasted on by a vampire. That vampire somehow inadvertently passed some quasi-vampiric abilities on to Blade, and now he uses these powers to become a vampire hunter and fight the evils within their ranks.
The film rights have since reverted to Marvel studios, and Wesley Snipes has been in talks about bringing the franchise back to theaters. There has also been some commentary from Kate Beckinsale about a possible crossover with the Underworld universe, which would be a great way to re-introduce Blade.
Wesley Snipes has been outspoken about his issues with being one of few actors of color involved in this particular set of films. At one point, he even tried to greenlight Black Panther himself, so I’m excited to see what the future of Blade looks like.
6. Ray Fisher as Victor Stone/Cyborg in Justice League (2017)
In a brief sequence in 2016’s Batman vs. Superman: Dawn of Justice, the biological portions of Victor Stone are shown to be experimented on by Silas Stone, his father. We find out in Justice League that Victor is still struggling to come to grips with his newfound abilities. Ray Fisher will reprise his role in the upcoming Justice League sequel and in Flashpoint. Cyborg will also be receiving his own standalone film in 2020!
DC has a real opportunity to do something big with Cyborg on the heels of Black Panther’s success. Since they have missed the mark with everything besides Wonder Woman, my expectations are low. But Cyborg is such a revered character with such a great storyline! And even though he’s a guy, I found so much in common reading his story: he’s a football player AND he’s super smart AND he liked robotics?! This was one of the first instances of breaking racial stereotypes that I could relate with. So, fingers-crossed that for once DC can get this right: hire black writers and a black director, give us a kick-ass storyline, and really do something for the culture.
5. Halle Berry (2000-2004) and Alexandra Shipp (2016 to present) as Ororo Munroe/Storm in the X-Men Franchise
Storm, of Marvel comics and X-men fame, has long been considered one of the most powerful mutants within the franchise. She has been portrayed on the big screen by Halle Berry in X-men, X2, X-Men: The Last Stand, and briefly in The Wolverine and X-Men: Days of Future past. Newcomer Alexandra Shipp took on a younger version of Storm in X-Men: Apocalypse. Besides her abilities to use the weather, Storm is known to be excellent at hand-to-hand combat and thievery, as well as a great marksman.
With the possible use of X-Men stories by Marvel Studios, the future for Storm on the big screen is a little brighter, due to her popularity and her history with Black Panther. Storm’s story is just too good for it not to have been told by itself yet; I know I wasn’t the only one who rolled my eyes when Fox went with Wolverine’s origin first. Considering her standing as a fan favorite and the fact that she’s the only woman on this list, let’s hope she gets more screen time than the collective 48 minutes Storm has appeared in all of the X-Men films.
4. Jacob Latimore as Bo in Sleight (2016)
A young street magician, Bo turns to dealing drugs at parties to support his little sister. When she is kidnapped by his supplier, he uses his sleight of hand and keen intelligence to find her. Premiering at the Sundance Film Festival, Sleight has been lauded for bending genre norms and for Jacob Latimore’s performance as Bo. There’s also been praise for the film’s writer-director, JD Dillard for changing the narrative of a superhero’s origin story.
There’s been some comparison between Sleight and Chronicle, which does feature Michael B. Jordan as a lead, Steve Montgomery. If you love superhero lore but haven’t seen this film, this will satisfy your need for something fresh and original.
3. Will Smith as John Hancock in Hancock (2008)
Hancock stars Will Smith in the titular role as a vigilante hero whose reckless actions cause millions of dollars in damages to the city of Los Angeles, leaving him to lead a life of not helping. One day, a man he saves tries to “rehabilitate” Hancock to show restraint and use his powers in a responsible and helpful way. All is well until Hancock’s past catches up with him.
Although discussions from director Peter Berg and the films stars have been positive regarding a sequel, there have been no new updates on Hancock 2 since November 2016. This falls so high on the list because I’m a sucker for a bad-guy-gone-good scenario. Plus, I guffawed when he shoved that one guy up another guy’s ass: that’s some Deadpool level-funniness.
2. Mike Colter as Carl Lucas/Luke Cage in Luke Cage and Jessica Jones (2015 to present)
Mike Colter stars as Luke Cage (previously Carl Lucas), a former policeman and convict who was experimented on while in prison. The experiments left him with superhuman strength and impervious skin. He escapes prison and changes his name, going to New York City for a new start. Later, he crosses paths with private investigator Jessica Jones. Following the events of Jessica Jones, Cage moves to Harlem for a new beginning, only to have to eventually use his powers to protect the community from the corrupt.
Created by Cheo Hodari Coker, Luke Cage has been hailed for its representation in front of and behind the camera, as well as its stunning visuals. I know seeing a black man in a hoodie, riddled with bullet holes yet still walking and living gave me life! Its sophomore season will be released later this year.
1. Cress Williams as Jefferson Pierce/Black Lightning in Black Lightning (2018)
As a younger man, Jefferson Pierce, portrayed by Cress Williams, protected his community as Black Lightning. But, he retired after choosing to live a safer, normal life with his family. Years later, the issues that plagued his community have returned tenfold. Once again, he must protect the city as Black Lightning.
The story of DC’s first black superhero has been given care and comfort with great writing and visuals from Salim and Mara Brock Akil. With black creators and a majorly black cast and writing staff, the series has been praised for its intersectionality of race, family life, and community issues — and it’s only four-episodes in to its inaugural season. And not to spoil the weeks to come, but here’s to looking forward to seeing Thunder and Lightning, Jefferson’s crime-fighting daughters, giving some much needed black queer and black woman representation in main roles!
Chadwick Boseman as King T’Challa/Black Panther in Black Panther and Captain America: Civil War (2016 to present)
Since Black Panther comes out today, I haven’t seen the movie yet to add it to my list. But, I’m already positive it’s going to jump to one of my favorites. In this depiction of the first ever black comic book superhero, King T’Challa returns home to Wakanda following the events of Captain America: Civil War. There, he finds enemies conspiring to bring down the kingdom. Along with the help of the CIA and the Dora Milaje, Wakanda’s all-women special forces team, T’challa fights to protect Wakanda and the world from oncoming war, as Black Panther.
And can we just talk about the Dora Milaje for a moment? When I saw little Diana Prince run around watching the Amazons practice their fighting and use of weaponry, I teared up, because as a little girl, I used to run around and do the same. However, when I finally get to see a group of bad-ass, beautiful, black women protect their king because they’re the superior fighters, I may just ugly cry in public. This movie means so much because there’s been nothing like it before for fans of superhero lore. Black Panther has already begun setting records in anticipation of its premiere. Where will you be when the revolution begins?
Of course, there are a few actors and their comic characters, particularly from the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) and DC Television Universe (DCTU), who should be recognized. These characters warrant more than just a cameo appearance, but their screen time, compared to other characters in films and shows, is abysmally low:
- Terrence Howard (2008) and Don Cheadle (2010 to present) as James Rhodes/War Machine in the Iron Man, Captain America, and The Avengers franchises
- David Ramsey as John Diggle/Spartan in Arrow (2012 to present)
- Anthony Mackie as Sam Wilson/Falcon in the Captain America, Ant-Man, and The Avengers franchises (2014 to present)
- Echo Kellum as Curtis Holt/Mr. Terrific in Arrow (2015 to present)
- Franz Drameh as Jefferson Jackson/Firestorm in DC’s Legends of Tomorrow and The Flash (2016-2017)
- Maisie Richardson-Sellers as Amaya Jiwe/Vixen in DC’s Legends of Tomorrow (2017 to present) and Megalyn Echikunwoke as Mari McCabe/Vixen in Arrow and DC’s Legends of Tomorrow (2016 to present)
While strides have been made to create more diversity in television and film, there’s still work to be done. In this list alone, there was nearly a 15 year gap between the Abar, The First Black Superman and Meteor Man. Luckily, the resurgence of black heroes within even the last three years has somewhat made up for a lack of representation throughout the entirety of superhero lore on television and film.
The future looks bright: By casting and highlighting women, people with different sexual orientations, and people from a wider variety of cultural backgrounds, studios will create more opportunities for more and different demographics to engage with their productions. Audiences will always respond well to shows that are filled with people like themselves. It’s way past time for the world to recognize that the default human being is not a straight, white man, and that our fictional characters could represent more than just that.
Featured image via m-a-d-luvs-comics.