The Future of Black Superhero Movies

Into the Spider-Verse_Black Panther_Split - Publicity - H 2019
Courtesy of Sony Pictures Animation; Matt Kennedy/Marvel Studios
Where does Hollywood go after the successes of 'Black Panther' and 'Spider-Verse'?

When Sony's Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse took home the Oscar for best animated feature on Sunday, it capped off 12 months that have changed the notion of what a superhero movie could be. Spider-Verse, which centers on Afro-Latino teen Miles Morales, and Marvel Studios' Black Panther gave black and brown kids superheroes who looked like them, and also won over movie audiences and critics alike.

"When we hear that somebody's kid was watching the movie and turned to them and said, 'He looks like me,' or 'He speaks Spanish like us,' we feel that we've already won," said producer Phil Lord during the team's acceptance speech. Added co-director Peter Ramsey: "We want you all to know, we see you, you're powerful, this world needs you."

Black Panther, which earned more than $1.34 billion at the box office, made Oscar history by being the first superhero movie nominated for best picture. While it didn't take home that prize, it did nab statues in three categories. Ruth Carter became the first African-American woman to win in the costume design category, while Hannah Beachler was the first African-American woman to take home a production design win, sharing it with Jay Hart. And Ludwig Goransson won in the original score category.

Panther and Spider-Verse proved to studios that black stories — specifically black-led superhero stories — can excite and resonate with audiences of all backgrounds. The questions now is, what's next for representation in the superhero genre?  

“I’d like to see more and deeper explorations of the core ideas of the superhero genre — responsibility, idealism, resilience, compassion. But those are the things I’d want from any movie in this genre," Spider-Verse co-director Ramsey tells The Hollywood Reporter. "I guess what I’d want most would be stories and characters that bring something truly new to the idea of superheroes by embracing as much of the reality of black life and its nuances as possible.”

There are a number of representative comic book films in the works. Director Ryan Coogler is signed for Black Panther 2 for Marvel, which also has Asian superhero movie Shang-Chi in development. A Spider-Verse sequel and spinoff are in the works at Sony, while Jamie Foxx's Spawn is set up at Universal and Blumhouse. Over at Warner Bros. and DC, a Blue Beetle movie about the Latino superhero is in development.

Meanwhile, Black Panther star Michael B. Jordan's production company Outlier have stated they are looking for stories like Black Panther. It is teaming with Warner Bros. to adapt Marlon James' novel, Black Leopard, Red Wolf. Jordan and Netflix are also adapting the Dennis Liu short film Raising Dion, about a superhero family drama following a young black boy who develops superpowers.

In addition, comic books continue to champion more inclusive characters that could someday make their way into the movies. Spider-Verse protagonist Miles Morales was introduced in 2011 by writer Brian Michael Bendis and artist Sara Pichelli. A few years later, Bendis and artist Mike Deodato introduced Riri Williams, an African-American engineering genius who became Ironheart, a hero similar to Iron Man. She currently stars in her own Ironheart series written by University of Chicago assistant professor Eve Ewing.

"People like a dose of humanity with their superhumans," says Ewing says of the appeal of characters like Riri Williams. “Being asked to think about how racism and history and identity and culture and politics intersect with the other big themes that superhero films tackle...that all just makes it more interesting.”

Hollywood may be getting a clue about content for diverse audiences, and Captain Marvel star Brie Larson has also shined the spotlight on diversity amongst those covering her upcoming Marvel film by requesting that her press tour be made more inclusive. It's a sentiment appreciated by USC assistant professor Miki Turner.

“I’ve been in rooms where there have been only all-white journalists from xyz.com covering films featuring ethnic themes. There are a couple reasons why this is wrong,” says Turner. “One, studios need to realize that there is a certain awareness that comes from people of color being able to report on films with cultural themes. Secondly, the studios need to get over themselves. Some publicists continually underestimate the power of ethnic outlets and publications and in 2019 that is a gross misjudgment of the power of the press.”

Ramsey notes that the appeal of Spider-Verse transcends its lead character's background.

“Yeah, it’s about a guy in a funny costume, but the core story of Spider-Man — that ordinary people called by chance can rise above their limitations and problems — is big enough to hold anyone, no matter who they are or where they come from,” Ramsey says. “So to me, Miles means that 10-year-old me who read and loved Spider-Man comic books belonged, even when I didn’t think I did, and always did belong, and always will.”