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Does Black Panther’s Cinematic Debut Mean The End of Black Sidekicks?

When Captain America: Civil War hit U.S. cinemas on May 6th, there was outrage from the politically correct and racially sympathetic, and for good reason: In the third act of the feature length film, Don Cheadle who plays James Rhodes — A.K.A. War Machine, Tony Stark’s best friend and fellow super-powered comrade — was left crippled in part due to a misfire from teammate Vision via a brawl with the Falcon as they were in pursuit of the Winter Soldier. For fan boys, this was not exactly a foreign concept, that there would be a causality of sorts in the “Civil War” storyline.

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Upon the 2006/2007 release of the original “Civil War” comic book series, Marvel aficionados exploded in fury at the death of African-American superhero Bill Foster, A.K.A. Goliath. For the series, the character was resuscitated from oblivion, apparently with the lone purpose of being executed; he was also the sole martyr in the divergence amid the superheroes. Set to debut in June, within the “Civil War II” comic book series, War Machine is seemingly killed when Thanos — the cosmic super-villain who resurfaces on Earth under mystic circumstances — punches through his armor, according to Jim Cheung’s artwork. So, by comparison, being left paraplegic with cybernetic implants to walk is not the worse thing that could have happened to the high-tech government-sanctioned vigilante.

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Nevertheless, outrage continues to spark as the film resumes its record-breaking blockbuster ticket sales. While Nick Fury (played by Samuel L. Jackson) was the only prominent fictional black character in a speaking role among the men in tights within the Marvel Cinematic Universe, when Cheadle premiered as War Machine in 2010’s Iron Man 2, he was the first superhero of color in the MCU, and before the introduction of the Black Panther (played by Chadwick Boseman) in Captain America: Civil War, the actor was one of only two super powered characters of color in the entire movie line-up, opposite of the highflying paratrooper turned computer genius Falcon (played by Anthony Mackie), the first African-American superhero in comics.

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Many critics believed that there was an ill-fated implication that the Marvel Cinematic Universe placed a restriction on how many active black superheroes there would be at a given time, by relegating one of its most high-profile and super-powered African-American gladiators in both of the comics and live action motion pictures to a causality, with the intent of creating anguish and providing an incentive for the effortlessly visible white characters. Sadly, the theory is not exactly stranger than fiction.

Since working with Marvel, Nate Moore, 37, the solitary African-American producer in the film division at Marvel Studios has figured out a magic equation on how to make a superhero film with black talent that appeals to a mass market, resulting in Captain America: Civil War being the most diverse film (outside of Guardians of The Galaxy) than any superhero film to date, all the while pushing it to become 2016’s “first billion dollar earner worldwide” and the highest grossing film of the year. That could prove useful to some of the other projects the production studio is fast-tracking.

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In the months leading up to the film’s cinematic release, there was skepticism in regards to the apprehension detractors felt when it was announced that Black Panther would be featured. After gaining critical praise for his performance as iconic Major League Baseball second baseman Jackie Robinson in Brian Helgeland’s 42 and funk legend James Brown in Tate Taylor’s Get on Up, Boseman earned the opportunity to become the first black actor to lead a solo superhero project to multiple-movie success since Wesley Snipes’s Blade movies.

With Black Panther being directed by Ryan Coogler, one of the most critically acclaimed young directors working in Hollywood today, and a live action series based on Luke Cage debuting on Netflix in September, three key variables remain: How will these characters be reinvented for contemporary audiences? Will these black crime fighters brandish dramatic agency tantamount to or greater than their white counterparts? And, is black pride on in film and television bankable in Hollywood?

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After all, Luke Cage who made his first comic book appearance in 1972, was a prison inmate wrongly-convicted in a miscarriage of justice before he was turned into a super soldier with unbreakable skin in an top secret government experiment, while Black Panther, who made his debut in 1966, inherited his name from the revolutionary black nationalist and socialist organization that operated during the civil rights movements of the time. One explores the school-to-prison pipeline and the other explores afro aristocracy.

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At the moment, everything is going smoothly, even with Marvel having been recently accused of whitewashing and gender-swapping the character of the Ancient One in the upcoming Doctor Strange, substituting a mystic Tibetan monk for a white Celtic monastic sorcerer played by chameleon actress-auteur Tilda Swinton. When it was announced that Michael B. Jordan and Oscar-winner Lupita Nyong’o were cast in the forthcoming Black Panther film, which is being co-written Joe Robert Cole, a black writer who wrote a few episodes for FX’s recently popular The People v. O.J. Simpson, #BlackPantherSoLIT dominated Twitter. Not to mention, in an unprecedented newsflash, the reboot of Black Panther #1 by award-winning writer Ta-Nehisi Coates became the best selling comic of the year. So, what’s the problem? Outside of films about slavery, could films that speak on social justice, inequality, black leadership and black solidary be mainstream even when it’s hidden in the tapestry of the CGI-dripping cinematic world of crime fighters?

Regardless, the live action Black Panther film presents ample opportunities to show blackness unapologetically. In the Marvel’s Civil War, T’Challa accompanies his father, King T’Chaka (played by John Kani), to a United Nations conference for the signing of the Sokovia Accords, a document regulating an intercontinental senate to govern the Avengers’ vigilante operations. His majesty is slain in a terrorist bombing and T’Chaka, a newly minted monarch, is forced to retaliate in bloody revenge against his father’s killer. In the upcoming self-titled film, the superhero will be required to uphold the interests of his citizens in Wakanda — a sequestered, autonomous country that is the source nation of vibranium, a highly valuable material. What would it be like to see black royalty of that nature be explored on film?

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Also, given the history of Hollywood exploring inherited trauma on film it would be magical to see Black Panther’s arsenal fully explored on the big screen. For one, he possesses various super abilities that were not portrayed in the recent Captain America film, like the ability to control the undead and possesses the powers and knowledge of all the previous Black Panthers. Imagine: What would it be like to see the future looking back at the chain-breakers and ground-shakers in a superhero film? By that margin, the future of live action crime fighters of color seems limitless.



About

MARCUS SCOTT is a playwright, songwriter, dramaturge, sketch comic and journalist. His work has appeared in Elle, Out, Passport, Essence, Uptown, Trace, Backstage, Giant, Hello Beautiful, NewsOne, The Urban Daily, Madame Noire, Styleblazer, Clutch, Artvoice, Bleu and Krave, among others. He has interviewed Fefe Dobson, VV Brown, Elle Varner, SWV, Danity Kane, Ryan Leslie, Rose Byrne, James Earl Jones, Annaleigh Ashford, LaMarr Woodley, Mehcad Brooks, Lisa Raye, Shaun Ross, Columbus Short and Boris Kodjoe, among others.


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