From Kitt’s Catwoman to an animated Miles Morales.
2018 was a great year for comic book fans. We got eight major film adaptations, ranging from huge blockbusters (Avengers: Infinity War) to critical marvels (Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse). Nearly all of them were well received by not only die-hard comic book fans but by the general public, as well. And in some cases, even by those who would have never given a comic book a second thought.
Though bombastic fights and amazing visuals in these films helped sell the onscreen drama, there were far more significant elements that contributed to their standout presences. These films offered a subtler yet impactful theme: the positive representation of black characters. In honor of Black History Month, we decided to look back over the years to pinpoint seven of the most groundbreaking milestones in the evolution of that representation in comic book adaptations.
Note: We wanted to focus on moments consisting of television and film roles that were derived from a comic book, and not the other way around. So, while an actress like Nichelle Nichols (who played Lieutenant Uhura on Star Trek) should be championed for her role on a hit show, she wouldn’t be listed here considering her TV appearance came before the comic series was released.
1967 – Eartha Kitt Becomes Catwoman
Eartha Kitt was immensely talented. She could act, dance, and sing — the combination of which led to a positively-received series of performances on Broadway before starring on the big screen. To some IGN readers, though, Eartha Kitt is perhaps best known for her role as Catwoman on the 1960s Batman show. What made this a significant moment in history for its time, besides her distinctive portrayal of the classic villain, was the fact that she was a black woman.
Actresses like Kitt are celebrated because they were among the first black actresses to be given prominent roles on television. Before the 1960s, most black women were only given roles to play maids, nannies, and cooks. Kitt’s taking on Catwoman set a new precedent; though she wasn’t in every episode, she was seen as an integral part of the show. Her performances gave credence to the idea that black women could (and should) land meaningful roles. This, in turn, helped pave the way for future actresses like Simone Missick and Danai Gurira — who play comic book characters Misty Knight and Michonne, respectively — to be embraced in more substantial roles
1997 – Spawn Hits Theaters
Michael Jai White is a talented actor and an even better martial artist. He’s also the first black person to portray a major comic book character in a blockbuster film, beating out Shaquille O’Neal’s Steel by a mere fourteen days. He played the anti-hero Spawn, a character created by Todd McFarlane, back in 1997.
Say what you want about the quality of the movie — Spawn proved that a big budget adaptation of a black comic book character could be a success. Though it wasn’t a technical commercial success, it formed a following and helped further pave the way for mainstream, black-led superhero films. (McFarlane is now going to write and direct a reboot of Spawn, starring Jamie Foxx, which he promises will be scary enough to make children cry.)
1998 – Wesley Snipes Becomes Blade
Wesley Snipes was an action star way before stepping into the shoes of Blade, Marvel’s vampire-hunting superhero. It wasn’t shocking see him don the shades and leather, as many fans expected him to do a solid job of bringing the character to life. No one expected the 1998 film to be as successful as it was, though; New Line Cinema went on to create a series of films, making Blade the first comic book trilogy based on a black character. The franchise was more or less profitable, too. With a combined budget of $164 million, the films grossed $415 million worldwide.
Blade was Marvel’s first win at the box office. Interestingly enough, it didn’t follow the typical comic book formula. It was rated R, wasn’t super campy, didn’t require a huge heap of CGI, and it featured a black action star in the lead role. And yet, it was one of the best comic book-based films at the time. It even received higher critical acclaim than Batman and Robin, DC’s big hero film that released a year prior.
2000 – Static Shock Airs on Kids’ WB
Static Shock was a big deal when it debuted back in 2000. It had a charismatic lead in Static (a kid who can manipulate electromagnetic force), well-written stories, and a heaping layer of cheesy comic book goodness. Those traits alone aren’t what made the show stand out though — it was in how it presented struggles that are uniquely tied to black characters.
While it wasn’t the first animated television series that centered on a black superhero – Spawn: The Animated Series came first (though technically he’s an antihero) – it was the first that dealt with social issues like racism, and the solid writing allowed it to properly convey the right messages while still being entertaining.
Airing on Kids’ WB and Cartoon Network, Static Shock was a hit with pre-teens, regardless of race. In fact, it was so much so that, within a month of the first season, it was already picked up for another. It even went on to earn several award nominations during its four-year run. Unfortunately, like a lot of Cartoon Network shows, Static Shock didn’t sell enough merchandise to stave off cancelation. Still, it proved that an animated show could tackle complicated topics on the black experience in America and be successful.
2016 – Luke Cage Gets His Own Netflix Series
Netflix’s Luke Cage wasn’t the first live-action TV show centered on a black superhero – 2006’s Blade series took that honor – but it is one of the most critically acclaimed. This can be contributed to several factors, one being its authenticity. The Luke Cage showrunners anchored the series in a realistic depiction of the title character’s journey. Yes, he has bulletproof skin and lives in a world full of superheroes. But a lot of the show’s drama stems from modern issues, especially those affecting black communities in NY’s Harlem. Even the most stereotypical characters — as outlandish as they are in a fictional, comic book representation — are grounded in their associations with real, relatable issues.
Luke Cage often showcased these characters in a respectful light; good or bad, each one was written as a multi-dimensional character and not a caricature of a black person, as the original, problematic depictions of their comic book counterparts were often interpreted as. This gave the show a soul that resonated with audiences, regardless of race. That is why so many people were bummed to hear that it was canceled after its second season, apparently due to creative differences between Netflix and Marvel, a casualty of the two companies’ parting of ways.
2018 – Black Panther Breaks Records
Black Panther was more than a movie. It was a cultural event, celebrating what was a first for many black people. For the first time in what seemed like forever, the community was given the green light to create something grand. And in doing so, the filmmakers produced one of the most critically acclaimed and financially successful comic book films — of all time, no less.
What Black Panther achieved is indisputable. Among the film’s many distinguishing factors was how the majority of the people who worked on it — from the director to the costume designer — were black. It’s also the first Marvel film to have a predominantly black cast; a white actor wasn’t used to strum up more tickets. Yet, Marvel still offered up a huge budget (over $200 million) to produce the film. That’s unheard of. Period.
Black Panther also depicted black people in a positive light that is equal to the representation of white superhero counterparts. This film wasn’t a comedy with a central character that was (intentionally or not) created in a way that catered to negative stereotypes. It wasn’t a low-budget, low-priority affair or something tossed out by Marvel to appease a demographic. And while history-based films are important, Black Panther wasn’t another depiction of our past struggles. No. Black Panther presented something different. T’Challa wasn’t a slave or a down and out individual. He was a king. He had wealth. He was respected. He was a hero. More than that, he lived in a place where black people felt safe. A place where they belonged. The most technologically advanced nation on Earth.
The Black Panther is a fictional hero, but he’s also a representation of our pride as a people. He’s an awe-inspiring symbol of self-love that doesn’t come paired with a stark reminder of our past and current struggles. The same can be said for the women of Black Panther, as well. Lupita Nyong’o (Nakia), Danai Gurira (Okoye), Letitia Wright (Shuri), Angela Bassett (Ramonda), Florence Kasumba (Ayo) and the other woman featured in the film were the embodiment of Black Girl Magic. These actresses portrayed strong female characters who are just as important as the Black Panther himself. And, in some cases, even more so.
2018 – Miles Morales Gets Animated
Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse is the first animated feature film in the Spider-Man franchise. It’s also the first to star an Afro-Latino character. It offers a well-told origin story of Miles Morales, a hero originally introduced in the Ultimate Spider-Man series before swinging his way into the main Marvel Universe. There’s humor, drama, stellar voice acting, a slamming soundtrack, and the animation is insane. Basically, Into the Spider-Verse is arguably the best comic book film released last year. (IGN voted it as the Best Movie of 2018.)
It’s great that the first animated superhero starring a person of color is a critical and financial success; it even went on to win Best Animated Feature Film at the 76th Golden Globe Awards, before being nominated for an Academy Award. That isn’t the reason it’s on this list though. At least, not entirely. Into the Spider-Verse gives black and brown kids a hero that looks like them, a protagonist popular enough to get his own big-budget film, animated or otherwise. The story doesn’t dive into certain race-centered issues like Static Shock does. And that’s ok. Like Black Panther, it’s cool to start at an elevated place. Miles isn’t rich and he doesn’t start outright as a seasoned warrior, but his struggles don’t make him seem any less of a hero than Peter Parker either.
While these works were not the only ones that featured black characters in a positive light, all of them set a new precedent when it came to representation. Some of them defied the odds of their time with meaningful roles that helped change the perception of black actors and actresses in the wider industry and cultural landscape. The more that new properties continue in this effort, the easier it’ll be for future projects to get the support they deserve by major studios. Hopefully, in time, the success of black comic book characters with a predominantly black cast won’t seem like an odd utterance in Hollywood. It’ll just be a new status quo.
Kenneth Seward Jr. is a writer, editor, and illustrator who covers games, comics, and movies. Follow him at @Kennyufg.