How 90’s Movies Solved The “Black Superhero Problem”…And Promptly Forgot

As the above picture might indicate there is a very real trend in recent superhero movies. Black superheroes are support, while classic white superheroes are the main protagonists. Just as their source material intended.

Sidekicks? Sure, let Anthony Mackie don wings and goofy-ass goggles. Advisors? Certainly. Tony Stark always needs wise friends to ignore. But heroes, as in the center-stage variety, are nary to be seen (until we finally get that Black Panther movie that’s long overdue.)

Cracked readers noticed this unbalance too.

Cracked.com

Medium.com has articles from 2016 about black second-fiddle heroes. Readers on the IGN boards were pointing this out back in 2012. And any moment now Reddit will have threads popping up, retroactively claiming that they had arrived at this very unfairness independently, long before the first electrons were being passed around on the internet.

Google Images / Clipart

“First!”

But what if I told you there was a glorious place where black, center-stage superheroes walked the land like golden gods? What if I told you we’d already solved this multi-racial-cape disparity? What if I told you there was a place where well-spoken white people became their sidekicks instead? That place was 1990’s cinema.

As of 2017 we have Luke Cage, Black Panther, and Will Smith’s Deadshot. That last one could be argued in a number of ways. 1) He’s in an ensemble cast (Even though we only give one dusty rat’s fart about Deadshot and Harley) and 2) He was originally a white guy in the comics.

But Deadshot still counts, says I.

Now let’s look at the center-stage black superheroes from the 1990’s:

From top left to bottom right we have; Meteor Man (1993), Blankman (1994), Kazaam (1996), Spawn (1997), Steel (1997), and Blade (1998). Plus we have The Mantis, if we’re including TV Shows.

So what?” says the straw-man I’ve invented for this argument. “There were tons of superhero movies in the 90’s, at least a few of them were bound to star black actors.

Actually, from 1993 to 1998, only 2 to 6 superhero movies were released per year on the big screen. In fact, if we limit our scope to that period (’93 to ’98) we only see 28 “Superhero” genre-movies. Of those 28, 6 starred black actors as the main character. For a 5-year window that was more than 1 in 5. Compare that to the last 5 years of superhero movies; 46 theater releases, with only one center-stage black superhero…Suicide Squad. Which is, I guess, 1 in 46?

Google Images / Suicide Squad

Beloved black actor plays a white villain who turns hero but wears a white hat when he’s feeling villainous…what’s to be confused about?

I guess we could also add Diablo and Killer Kroc to the minorities side of the scale since they were fairly popular. But they were never the main protagonist. And again…Suicide Squad.

So what the hell changed between the mid ’90s and now? Why did we decide as a culture that superhero movies shouldn’t feature solo black protagonists? Success of the genre is what happened. And, unfortunately, greed from production companies.

Back in the early ’90s, while studios were willing to experiment with black actors playing goofy off-shoots and barely-known comic heroes, the genre was remarkable in another completely un-funny way. We saw an influx of disastrous mainstream titles. Well-loved superheroes like Mr. Fantastic, the Human Torch, and Ben Grimm were sacrificed on the pyre of greed because the studios didn’t want to relinquish the movie rights, so they made the worst never-released film known to man, just to keep the Fantastic 4 title in their pocket.

Or take the Batman franchise, which became more concerned with expanding their lucrative toy line after the 2nd movie than writing good stories. It’s no coincidence that Batman Forever (1995) and Batman and Robin (1997) featured more villains per movie, more vehicles, and more colorful gadgets than its predecessors. It was all about hawking plastic crap to the kiddies, folks.

During the ’93 to ’98 black protagonist period we also got movie adaptations of The Shadow ($40 million budget, $48 million return) Mighty Morphin Power Rangers ($15 million budget, $66 million return) The Phantom ($42 million budget, $17 million return) and Goddamn Batman and Robin ($125 million budget, $238 million return, 11% on Rotten Tomatoes)

Google Images / Batman and Robin / WB

“We won’t have enough toys for our Christmas catalog? Make them change costumes a few more times.”

It’s almost as if the studios were actively trying to kill off beloved superheroes as a matter of course. Respect for the superhero genre was at an all-time low, all while Damon Wayans and Shaq were having a ball. Sure, both Kazaam and Steel brought in less money from the box-office than they spent on production (like most Superhero movies of the ’90s) but someone, somewhere allowed Shaq to act. That’s gotta be worth something!

Then, in the year 2000, comic book movies got serious with the introduction of one grunty, sideburn-rocking, cigar-smoking cage fighter. You may recognize him as the genre-changer from 2017 as well…

Wiki / 20th Century Fox

That’s right. The Wolverine giveth, and the Wolverine taketh. In 2000, at a time when mainstream superheroes were being pimped to peddle toys and studios were still willing to take chances on black protagonists (or anything not Fantastic 4-flavored) a new hero emerged. Bryan Singer’s Wolverine movie *ahem* sorry, X-Men movie, brought in $296 million, from a budget of $75 million. That’s not just a victory for movie adaptations of comic books. That’s a complete game-changer for the industry. That’s why of the top ten highest-grossing movies of 2016, four were ensemble comic book films.

But if we’re looking for black superheroes during a pivotal shift when comic-movies were regaining momentum, X-Men had one Halle Berry and one blue person. So…win?

To further cement the trend of not risking big titles on black superheroes, Spider-Man, a notoriously shitty title in previous films and an impossible-to-cast unicorn, came out in 2002 with a whole new bag of tricks and a generous budget. It starred Toby Maguire, and had Macy Gray singing in the background of that one scene…

It also made $871 million from a $140 million budget.

Take a gander through that wiki-list of superhero movies we linked above, and you’ll see that X-Men and Spider-Man were the pivot point. That’s where the genre changed from whimsical and experimental to lucrative. In the post-Spider-Man world of cinema we wouldn’t see black stars donning tights for solo movies until Catwoman in 2004, and then Will Smith’s Hancock in 2008. One was about a depressed drunk with Superman-like powers, and the other was just…depressing.

Aside from Hancock which was 10 years ago (damn I’m old!) if you want to see black superheroes you’re pretty much limited to side-kicks and wise black friends. Just like the Cracked info-graphic above illustrates.

Wow. I really thought we were headed somewhere positive with this article. I guess I’ll just click the refresh button on the Black Panther IMDb page for the next…9 months? Sonofabitch…

Wiki / Marvel

Thanks to Tylor Merritt for assisting with the initial research of this article. If we missed your favorite movie in our lists, or if you have corrections, please leave them in the comments.

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2 thoughts on “How 90’s Movies Solved The “Black Superhero Problem”…And Promptly Forgot

  1. Or maybe we could just focus on making good superhero movies and not worry about the melanin density of the actors. I’d rather have an excellent superhero movie with a dark-skinned sidekick than suffer another abomination like Catwoman just because the protagonist is played by a non-white actor. But then again, I got kicked off RPG.net for suggesting Wonder Woman was female, so maybe I’m just too old fashioned for the 21st century.

    • Aside from posting rebuttals to cracked’s infographics about racial equality, I agree. Good story pretty much trumps everything. I mostly wanted to point out that that the golden age for equality in hero movies was the mid 90’s, and it was goofy as gooseshit.

      If you really want to see nerds in a confused froth about racial lines in comics, check out the Marvel discussions on reddit. For real, Marvel has replaced half of their main heroes with racially diverse stand-ins, and watching people in the forums argue equality vs legacy (of comics) is an ouroboros of idiocy. For reference Hulk is now Korean. Capt. America, Spiderman, and Iron Man have been or are currently black. Thor is a woman. Etc.

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