As everyone is well aware, we are in the midst of a superhero boom period. The comic book superhero genre is probably as popular as it has been in decades. The Marvel Cinematic Universe has become a blockbuster behemoth that has made over $9 billion worldwide since 2008 as well as a producer of quality television on both ABC and Netflix. DC comics has followed suit, attempting to recreate the magic that Marvel made seem effortless. Yet, just as with every other genre of entertainment, the comic book/superhero genre has had an issue with representation of Black people. Unfortunately, there has been a relative consistent trend of portraying Black characters as either non-superhero supportive characters or superheroes who may not necessarily be at the rank of sidekick, but tend to mostly play informal sidekicks to White superheroes. Most of my discussion will be revolving around film adaptations during the last decade or so, but will also refer to materials from this comics to play these portrayals into the broader historical contexts of the characters.
Storm (X-Men Franchise)
The first character I will talk about is Storm from the X-Men franchise. Storm has long been a fan favorite. Blessed with the ability to control the weather, worshipped by some as a goddess, and one of the longest tenured X-Men, she is a force to be reckoned with. Even with all this, Storm has never seemed to truly shine on her own accord in many instances. In Uncanny X-Men #201, she beat Cyclops in a duel for leadership of the X-Men. Rather than set-up Storm as a formidable leader more than capable of heading the X-Men, much of the issue was spent positioning Cyclops as someone who just didn’t have it anymore and was consistently distracted by marital problems and insecurities. It’s unfortunate because the actual fight in the comic was a rather impressive display of Storm’s non-superpowered skills. Then, there is her portrayals in the X-Men movies. Storm in the films lacked any major character development throughout the series and was just another character neutered for the sake of positioning Wolverine as the focal character. There was a significant lack of gravitas to her character in the films, particularly when compared to her comic book and animated TV counterparts. X-Men: Apocalypse may end up having the best film depiction of Storm, but she is still positioned as subservient to another character as one the four horsemen of Apocalypse, the titular character.
Falcon/Sam Wilson (Marvel Cinematic Universe)
Sam Wilson was introduced in Captain America: The Winter Soldier as a former soldier who was a part of military program that resulted in his signature wings. A comparably better origin than his comic counterpart, who was a former pimp. Progress. Yet, as with his comic counterpart, Sam Wilson is certainly shown as a sidekick type character to Captain America. This relationship is further cemented in Avengers: Age of Ultron and Ant-Man. In Avengers: Age of Ultron, we see Sam Wilson for only 1 scene and we find out that during the time of the movie, he is tracking down Captain America’s once-believed-dead friend Bucky Barnes (a.k.a. The Winter Soldier). In Ant-Man, Falcon makes another appearance as the lone Avenger left to guard the headquarters. There is a physical confrontation between Falcon and Ant-Man, who is attempting to break into the Avengers facility to steal an item. Ant-Man gets the better of Falcon by shrinking and then disabling Falcon’s wings from the inside. Ant-Man proceeds to escape with the item, while the scene ends with Falcon reporting what has just occurred asking the person on the other end to not tell Captain America what happened. In true sidekick fashion. To those who may hold out hope for Sam Wilson due to the fact his comic book counterpart has taken over the mantle of Captain America, I would not get too excited about that. Captain America’s long lost friend Bucky Barnes once took on the mantle of Captain America and I see that likely to repeat itself in the film.
Lucius Fox (The Dark Knight Trilogy)
Lucius Fox is the character who gives Batman most of his toys and gadgets, other than that, we do not know much about him. We at least know that Batman trusts him, given that he knows his secret identity and that Bruce Wayne trusted him with some level of control in Wayne Enterprises. Morgan Freeman is wasted in this series. You can give him so much more than “guy who gives Batman stuff.”
There are more examples of similar things happening to other Black characters in these movies. James Rhodes (War Machine) is always positioned as Iron Man’s sidekick coming to aid Iron Man when a task is too much. Heimdall is a servant of Thor’s Asgard as their guardian/gatekeeper, providing aid to Thor in times of need. Nick Fury is mostly portrayed as a behind the scenes character who will appear when one of the other heroes (likely Captain America or Iron Man) needs a good pep talk. We are never seen as truly running the show, always as background characters or the help.
Progress and Importance
Maybe given what is happening recently in comic books, the movies will be begin to follow suit. As mentioned before, Sam Wilson has taken on the mantle of Captain America, leading his own solo series. Marvel killed off Peter Parker in their Ultimate Comics and replaced him with Miles Morales, a Black Hispanic teenager. Miles Morales has since been positioned by Marvel comics as the main Spiderman, supplanting Peter Parker. Ta-Nehisi Coates is writing the new Black Panther comic coming out this year. The Black Panther makes his first cinematic appearance in Captain America: Civil War and will headline his own film in 2018’s Black Panther. Given Black Panther’s status as one of the first Black superheroes in comics as well as his demonstrated lack of deference to or dependence on the other main comic book heroes, this could be the start of more nuanced and impact portrayals of Black people in comic books movies.
These things are important not only because superheroes are very popular today, but because of the messages that are sent and the values that may be socialized through these movies. When Black characters are consistently shown as background characters or as sidekicks to a White superhero, it sends a message to the young Black children who likely watch these movies. It sends the message that no matter what heights they aspire to and achieve, they will always be second. Never first. When our superheroes are always secondary and subservient to others, what does that say about us mere mortals?