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Rise of the Black Superhero

Comic Riffs

Superheroes have stood astride the American pop-culture landscape for eight decades, but racial diversity has largely been left in the margins. So while we have had black superheroes for much of that time now, in the movie adaptations their roles have often been secondary. That’s why 2016 feels like a watershed year.

Earlier this month, “Captain America: Civil War” became the first mainstream movie to co-star three black superheroes: War Machine (played by Don Cheadle), the Falcon (Anthony Mackie) and the Black Panther (Chadwick Boseman). Now, “X-Men: Apocalypse” spotlights Storm (Alexandra Shipp); and in August, DC Comics’ “Suicide Squad” will be led by Viola Davis and Will Smith.

The quintessentially American art form that is superhero comics is embracing fictive worlds that look like America itself. And in 2016, black capes matter.

Here is a primer of 16 notable black characters from comic book history who have received, or likely should soon receive, live-action iterations.


Black Panther

POWERS: Superior intellect, suit laced with super-strong metal vibranium, expert combat skills

Arguably the most important and well-known black superhero of all time, T’Challa the Black Panther made his Marvel debut in a Fantastic Four comic in 1966. What excited black comic fans, in part, was the fact that Black Panther, who didn’t have superpowers, could take on the Fantastic Four and win.



POWERS: Stealthy master thief, highly acrobatic, trained in martial arts, deadly with a bullwhip

In the campy Batman TV show of the ’60s, Eartha Kitt’s performance as Catwoman in 1967 is one of the earliest instances of a black performer in a comic-book role. She went up against Adam West’s Batman in her own unique style — not nearly as sexually suggestive or romantic as Julie Newmar’s Catwoman, perhaps because of the social climate. But as a villain she was just as formidable.



POWERS: Hand-to-hand combat skills, wings that let him fly

Making his first Marvel appearance in 1969 and a frequent partner to Captain America, the Falcon/Sam Wilson appears in multiple Marvel movies, including “Captain America: Civil War.”


John Stewart/Green Lantern

POWERS: Green Lantern ring allows him to turn anything in his mind into green energy

Stewart, an African American Green Lantern, debuted in DC Comics in 1971. He was introduced to a wider audience when he joined the Justice League animated series as the power-ring-wielding Green Lantern in 2001 on Cartoon Network. Whether he will be the Green Lantern in a future live-action Justice League movie remains to be seen.


Luke Cage

POWERS: Super strength, invulnerability, indestructible skin

Cage was a hero for hire in the pages of Marvel Comics when he debuted in 1972. Armed with indestructible skin, Cage made his live-action debut (played by Mike Colter) on Netflix’s “Jessica Jones.” In his early years in the comics, Cage would gladly save the day if you could pay the bill. For many he is still one of the first names to come to mind when thinking of black superheroes.



POWERS: Ability to manipulate all forms of weather, can fly by affecting wind

Her appearance on the X-Men Saturday-morning cartoon may have left more of an impression with a generation of fans, but Halle Berry’s portrayal of Storm in the first X-Men movie in 2000 was just as memorable. A mutant with the ability to control the weather, she debuted in Marvel’s X-Men comics in 1975. Storm remains one of the most well-known black superheroes in comics. “X-Men: Apocalypse” will spotlight a new Storm, portrayed by Alexandra Shipp.


Black Manta

POWERS: Battle suit allows him to function underwater, helmet fires optic blasts

What the Joker is to Batman and Lex Luthor to Superman, Black Manta is to Aquaman. First appearing in an Aquaman comic book in 1967, this villain has always been one of Aquaman’s most recognizable foes — and the most mysterious. So it was a surprise when it was revealed, in 1977, that the “black” in Black Manta may have referred not to his all-black underwater armor but to the man underneath it, who was African American.


War Machine

POWERS: Ability to fly, armed with a dizzying array of weapons via his heavily armored suit

The role of James “Rhodey” Rhodes, one of Tony Stark/Iron Man’s most trusted allies who first appeared in Iron Man comics in 1979, initially went to Terrence Howard in the first Iron Man film. When it was time to suit up as War Machine in 2010’s “Iron Man 2,” however, it was Don Cheadle inside the armor. Cheadle has appeared in two Iron Man movies, an Avengers film and will fight alongside Iron Man in “Captain America: Civil War.”


Amanda Waller

POWERS: Expert tactician, well-versed in espionage, master manipulator

The boss of the Suicide Squad made her first comic book appearance in 1986 and is one of the coldest and most ruthless people in the DC Comics universe. Which is what you have to be when in charge of a team of converted supervillains. The character will appear in the Suicide Squad movie in August alongside DC characters Deadshot, Harley Quinn and the Joker.



POWERS: Ability to absorb energy and redistribute it as an offensive attack

One of the more popular X-Men characters after making his comic book debut for Marvel in 1991. The time-traveling Bishop jumped from the pages of X-Men comics to the X-Men animated series before making his movie debut (portrayed by Omar Sy) in “X-Men: Days of Future Past” in 2014.



POWERS: Superhuman strength and speed

Spawn’s popularity in the ’90s played a large role in the rise of Image Comics and even inspired an animated HBO series and a movie starring Michael Jai White in 1997. Spawn’s alter ego, Al Simmons, is a former Marine killed in a setup; he makes a deal with a devil-like being and is sent back to the land of the living as a demonic, superpowered antihero. The first issue of Spawn debuted for Image Comics in 1992.



POWERS: Superhuman strength, resistant to age, accelerated healing powers

“Deadpool” isn’t the first time a Marvel Comics character had box-office success with an R-rated movie. Blade (Wesley Snipes) is a half-vampire, half-human who proved that comics characters don’t always have to be PG-13. The success of “Blade” in 1998 came a decade before Marvel Studios’ first movie hit, “Iron Man,” in 2008 and served as an early reminder to Marvel that its library of characters could work in films.


Nick Fury

POWERS: Advanced armed-combat skills, master technician, demolition expert

After Marvel Comics created an alternate “Ultimate” storytelling universe in 2000, Nick Fury, who had always been depicted as white, was re-created as a black man, eventually using actor Samuel L. Jackson as an influence. Jackson has portrayed Fury in his ongoing role as the leader of the Avengers in the Marvel Cinematic Universe.


Wally West

POWERS: Superhuman speed, highly intelligent, superhuman reflexes

Although he has yet to show the super-fast speed he’s known for on the CW series “The Flash,” few doubt that West will be running alongside the Flash as Kid Flash. Keiynan Lonsdale debuted as Wally West on the show in 2015. For decades West was white, but DC Comics changed his race in 2014. The TV series decided to use those most updated versions of Wally and his sister (and possible future love interest to the Flash), Iris West, played by Candice Patton.



POWERS: Ability to fly, enhanced strength, combat skills, armed with her signature mace

A popular character in the Justice League animated series, Hawkgirl is played by Ciara Renée on the CW’s new show “DC’s Legends of Tomorrow.” The winged warrior was white in her DC Comics appearances and in animated form but was cast as a person of color for “Legends of Tomorrow.”



POWERS: Extremely precise marksman/assassin, weapons expert

Will Smith assumes the role of one of DC Comics’ most lethal marksmen (who in the comic books, cartoons and TV show has always been white) when he portrays Floyd Lawton/Deadshot in “Suicide Squad” in August.

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