Black superheroes have been saving the world for decades: Ororo Munroe literally blessed the rains down in Africa before becoming Storm, John Henry Irons turned murderous tech into a tribute to truth and justice as Steel, and John Stewart burned bright as day when he became Green Lantern. But something special happened to Black superheroes in 2018: They conquered the mainstream.
This year, Black superheroes took charge and flew beyond minimal screen representations on TV and film, expanding their reach and appeal to even our non-nerd cousins. We’re amazed by the leaps, bounds, and “up, up and aways” Black superheroes have taken to get from mere dream to the mainstream in 2018, and here’s why.
Our First Black Superhero on Network TV
Black superheroes have existed in the TV space for years, but mostly as supporting characters and sidekicks. Luke Cage did get his own titular show on Netflix, but network TV hadn’t yet lent a spotlight to a Black-led superhero show.
The Arrowverse on the CW has consistently killed it over the years in terms of representing characters of color and queer folks — with notable examples like John Diggle, Cisco Ramon, Iris West-Allen, her father Joe West, and his son, Wally West, Mr. Terrific, Wild Dog, J’onn J’onzz, James Olsen, Alex Danvers, Nia Nal — a trans superhero who is played by a trans actress for the first time ever — Sara Lance, Constantine, Amaya Jiwe, Zari Tomaz, Ava Sharpe, The Ray, Kendra, Gary, Jefferson Jackson (half of Firestorm) and, in some dimensions, Leonard Snart — so it makes sense that the network finally gave us the first network TV show led by a Black hero: Black Lightning.
As a true hero of color should, Black Lightning doesn’t shy away from beating baddies while also tackling difficult social issues. The show’s theme song may seem corny and on the nose to some, but its declaration is powerful to many. “Last night I saw a superhero, he was Black. He said, ‘This is for the street, Black Lightning is back.”
An Animated Hero for Kids
This year also brought us a reimagined reboot of the beloved ‘80s hero She-Ra: Princess of Power with Netflix’s new animated series She-Ra and the Princesses of Power. The show has its issues — the blond-haired, blue-eyed heroine comes too close to perpetuating the white savior myth for comfort at times — but overall the characters and themes can make a queer heart soar. And no character will make your heart soar higher than Bow, the sweet, dark-skinned archer boy with two fathers who’s voiced by Marcus Scribner of Black-ish fame.
Bow is a loyal and honest friend, a shanty singer, and a total badass in battle when needed. He’s a reminder that a big heart is a sign of strength, not weakness. A new Black hero for young viewers — one who gets to be heroic, playful while often being the voice of reason, is important.
A New Spider of Color
On the Afro-Latinx front, Miles Morales made his big screen debut in Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse. No spoilers, because this movie is brand new, but Miles has been a fan-favorite since his debut in the Ultimate Marvel Universe. He’s been featured in cartoons and even got that sweet, too-brief Childish Gambino nod in Spider-Man: Homecoming, but Into the Spider-Verse introduces Morales to a new audience — and trust us, you’re gonna love this little try-hard.
Stan Lee famously said, “What I like about the costume is that anybody reading Spider-Man in any part of the world can imagine that they themselves are under the costume. And that’s a good thing.” There will always be a version of Peter Parker to love — pick your favorite movie adaptation — but in Miles Morales, now Black kids, Latinx kids, and Afro-Latinx kids have a hero who looks like them and deals with the same problems.
Of Course, We Have to Talk About Black Panther
It seems obvious, but of course, we’re going to talk at length about Black Panther — I have personally spoken at length about Black Panther’s importance. Having a mainstream Marvel Cinematic Universe movie starring a Black hero from a Black-ass country so technologically advanced it might as well have been set in outer space made a fantastic start to this year. People rallied to make sure Black children saw this movie. Many charities, celebrities, and activists bought out whole showings to make sure kids could see it — including folks like comedy duo Desus and Mero of the Bodega Boys podcast and record labels like Interscope. Many others volunteered to buy tickets, like rapper and actor TI and Zendaya.
And then something even more special and unpredictable happened: Everyone loved it. The movie has made over a billion dollars in box office earnings and was universally praised by critics. It was so globally adored that it’s become an Oscar favorite, turned Chadwick Boseman into a household name, and gave every public gathering of more than two Black people an official greeting.
T’Challa Is More Than a Great Black Superhero
T’Challa reigned supreme over iconic Black cinematic movies past — from Steel’s weak plot and cheap costumes to Blade’s fun R-rated camp — that didn’t have the benefit of the Marvel machine driving them. Black Panther didn’t just become a great Black superhero movie, it became the best standalone superhero movie in Marvel’s towering canon (fight us). They totally did that.
The Black Panther love has even circled back and extended to the printed page. Marvel, as they often do, revamped an old comic series to meet the Black Panther content demand — and then utilized a new fan favorite: Shuri. In the comic Shuri, T’Challa’s occasionally villainous sister even steps in and acts as the Black Panther herself. The first printing of Shuri #1 — which sold out — was helmed by author Nnedi Okorafor. The movie adaptation of Black Panther brought Afro-futurism — an aesthetic and philosophy characterized by its vision of science and technology through the lens of Africa and the African diaspora — into the mainstream. And it’s more than notable that Okorafor was acknowledged as an Afro-futurist author on Marvel’s official site.
Black Heroes Became Heroes for Everyone
For Black folks, it’s an emotional experience to see mainstream media embrace our cherished few heroes. To walk into a store in mid-October and see all of the Black Panther, Shuri, and Dora Milaje Halloween costumes waiting to be picked up by a child who will never want to take it off is deeply touching. This year, Black heroes were embraced by all people — not just people of color. We saw white kids embrace Shuri — and unlike the many, many, many, many, many, (sigh), many, many, many Halloween costumes featuring white folks donning Blackface to play Black characters, it didn’t come off as an offensive caricature. It came off as true fandom.
Black superheroes became mainstream heroes this year — kids dressed up like them because they were heroes, not because they were the only Black costumes available. Boys and girls of all races and creeds respectfully dressed as Shuri and T’Challa, excited to channel their personalities and power. It wasn’t just people of color celebrating the long-awaited arrival of mainstream heroes who look like us. The world saw them — saw us — and didn’t find it novel or odd.
The kids of 2018 are the first generation who don’t know — who have never known — a time when Black superheroes weren’t normalized. Stan Lee’s vision of kids imagining themselves under the costume no longer dissipates when the mask comes off. Now, when that mask comes off, they still see themselves.