It’s fitting for more reasons than one that Marvel’s latest superhero spectacle, “Black Panther,” is opening during Black History Month, The movie’s star, Chadwick Boseman, has quietly but impressively made a specialty out of taking on characters both of color and major cultural note. The movie opens Friday.
Last fall, Boseman played Thurgood Marshall in director Reginald Hudlin’s “Marshall,” a portrait of the US Supreme Court’s first African-American justice in younger years. Before that, he was James Brown, in “Get on Up” (2014), and Jackie Robinson, in “42” (2013). In another sports biopic, “The Express” (2008), he had a supporting role as football All-American Floyd Little.
While Boseman’s new hero might be fictional, this one, too, comes the actor’s way with a fair amount of historical significance attached. The character is credited as the first superhero of African descent in mainstream American comic books, having debuted just over half a century ago. (The comic predated the political party’s formation by a few months.) And Black Panther’s imprint can be found on a number of other costumed icons currently patrolling movie and TV screens. Here’s a survey of the territory, starting with the big cat himself.
Created by the legendary Marvel Comics team of Stan Lee and artist Jack Kirby, Prince T’Challa of the fictional African nation of Wakanda first appeared in a 1966 issue of “Fantastic Four,” a super-agile protector in a technologically enhanced ebony costume. He went on to be featured in the early ’70s Marvel title “Jungle Action” — yep, it was a different time — as well as various more recent showcases written by, among others, Boseman’s “Marshall” director, Hudlin.
Black Panther has also been a fixture of Marvel’s “Avengers” comics at points, hence his screen bow in the 2016 release “Captain America: Civil War” — or “Avengers 2.5,” for all intents and purposes. (Additional crossover-validating: Cap’s unbreakable shield is made from “vibranium,” the chief natural resource of T’Challa’s kingdom.) Further weaving the character into Marvel’s cinematic fabric, Wakanda is a featured setting of “Avengers: Infinity War,” due in May.
Meanwhile, Boseman’s “Black Panther” castmate Michael B. Jordan adds another genre foray to his found-footage superyarn “Chronicle,” his color-blind casting as Johnny Storm in Fox’s “Fantastic Four,” and his self-produced superhero family drama. “Raising Dion,” streaming soon on Netflix.
Anthony Mackie’s high-flying Avenger has played wingman to Captain America for decades in the comics, beginning with a 1969 issue and extending through a seven-year run in which he and Cap shared title billing. While Black Panther is recognized as a pioneering character of African descent, Falcon, a.k.a. Sam Wilson, ranks as the first African-American superhero.
Netflix viewers know Mike Colter’s character as the studly, seriously imposing urban hero they’ve seen in “Luke Cage” and companion series “Jessica Jones” and “The Defenders,” a take that’s in keeping with his recent Marvel print incarnation. That’s a long way from Cage’s blaxploitation-styled origins in the ’70s title “Power Man,” in which he boasted the same impenetrable skin but also a disco-chic ’fro, a metallic headband, and suspect “street” dialogue (“Sweet Christmas!”). Still, the book was an entertaining read for the grindhouse crowd, particularly once Power Man began sharing title billing with new partner and chopsocky master Iron Fist — a connection that Netflix has tapped as well.
Although a comparatively recent “Justice League” recruit in print, actor Ray Fisher’s Cyborg, a.k.a. Victor Stone, has been a part of the DC Universe since the early ’80s, when he helped “Teen Titans” rival Marvel’s best-selling “X-Men” comics. A far less angsty version of the teched-out character can be seen in the animated romp “Teen Titans Go!,” a Cartoon Network staple of the last few years. DC and Warner Bros. are also eyeing a “Cyborg” solo feature starring Fisher.
Halle Berry played weather-manipulating mutant Ororo Munroe in four “X-Men” installments before Alexandra Shipp revamped the character in “X-Men: Apocalypse” (2016), giving audiences a glimpse of the African expat’s troubled Cairo youth. Storm was introduced by Marvel Comics in 1975 as part of a landmark, multiculturally bold X-Men roster overhaul, one that also included a Native American hero, Thunderbird, and a Japanese mutant, Sunfire, along with Wolverine. Shipp reprises her take on the character in “X-Men: Dark Phoenix,” coming in November.
It’s not as if just anyone can be Iron Man . . . but it does help that the basic concept behind old Shell-head involves a person strapping on an armored outfit. In the comics, Don Cheadle’s James “Rhodey” Rhodes first stepped in as a replacement for his hard-drinking pal Tony Stark in a 1983 issue, and stepped into his personalized War Machine persona a decade later. And the Shell-head game continues: With Stark MIA since the recent comics event story line “Civil War II,” a teenage African-American girl named Riri Williams has been suiting up in the armor under the code name Ironheart.
Samuel L. Jackson’s eyepatch-sporting S.H.I.E.L.D. espionage boss had always been a middle-aged white guy until Marvel’s continuity-ditching Ultimate comics line recast him as African-American in the early 2000s. The first issue of “The Ultimates” (read: “Avengers”) even name-checked Jackson as a visual comp — years before the actor first appeared as the character in “Iron Man” (2008). Jackson’s version has proven so definitive that Marvel did figure out a way to incorporate him into the publisher’s Byzantine mainstream continuity — although technically he’s the old Fury’s long-lost son, Nick Jr. Another Ultimate Marvel tweak that’s stuck: replacement Spider-Man Miles Morales, an Afro-Latino teen who took over from Peter Parker, and who’ll be featured in the animated feature “Spider Man: Into the Spider-Verse,” slated to hit theaters in December.
The prolific Jackson, not too surprisingly, also has more metahuman material on the way. He’ll return as animated do-gooder Frozone in “Incredibles 2,” coming in June, and as reality-grounded supervillain Elijah Price in M. Night Shyamalan’s “Unbreakable”/“Split” tie-in, “Glass,” due next January.
The CW has built a far-reaching TV franchise in a short stretch with its DC Universe series “Arrow,” “The Flash,” and “Legends of Tomorrow” (whose lineup includes English-Gambian actor Franz Drameh’s nuclear-powered Firestorm). Last month came the latest addition, which casts Cress Williams as Jefferson Pierce, righteous urban educator by day, high-voltage bad-ass crusader by night.
DC introduced Black Lightning as its first spotlighted black superhero in 1977 — according to the comics fan publication Wizard, as the prudent alternative to a proposed character named the Black Bomber, a white racist who’d involuntarily morph into a hero of color. We say again: It was a different time, all right.Tom Russo can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.