As colorful as comics are, they have not always been kind to people of color. Even though Stan Lee and Marvel were bold enough to create the X-Men in reaction to the civil rights movement, not everyone else was so enlightened or has been so enlightened since (see #DonaldforSpiderman).
The gap is noticeably present in characters that make the jump from the comic page to television and movies. Many times relegated to the status of sidekicks, black heroes are just now being fleshed out. For every Luke Cage dealing with issues of gentrification and respectability politics headlining a project, you eventually run across a Batwing, as presented in Batman: Bad Blood, via shallow, halfhearted swings at inclusion. In this case, Batwing presents as a black Robin-type character in the Batman universe uncreatively named after Batman’s second-most-iconic vehicle.
After the Black Panther trailer dropped Monday, the internet did not hold back its excitement. It was the blackest black-superhero thing ever beheld. The only problem is that the movie is still four months away. But here are some heroes with at least two seasons or three movie appearances that you can watch to fill the time until Black Panther hits the big screen in February 2018.
Aqualad, aka Kaldur’ahm (Young Justice)
The addition of Kaldur’ahm to the show Young Justice as a founding member of the team of sidekicks-turned-Justice League D-League was a strong move. Besides the fact that there is already an established Aqualad in DC Comics, the choice to make the present Aqualad black was a considerate move not only of inclusion but also of storytelling (more on that later).
His abilities in the show are largely reflective of his being a former partner-sidekick of Aquaman. Kaldur’ahm, or Kal/Kaldur for short, is empowered with the ability to survive in underwater environments and with enhanced strength. Unique to him is the ability to control water and electricity through the use of magic, as well as excellent hand-to-hand combat and swordplay abilities.
During the series, he often exchanges the role of commander with the Dick Grayson version of Robin/Nightwing, even though they are two of the younger members of the team. His presence during missions commands respect, and he is often the voice of reason on the team.
During the show’s second season, Kaldur’ahm experiences a story arc that sees him infiltrate an intergalactic shadow organization that has him working side by side with his father, Aquaman archenemy Black Manta. One interesting note about Black Manta and his potential Aquaman connection for future films and TV series is that at one time, Black Manta proposed that the world of Atlantis become a sovereign state for black people, since the colonization of the land by white people and culture made it a place unsuitable for his people.
Kaldur’ahm’s place on this list is also of interest because the voice actor who portrays him voices another character on this list …
Cyborg, aka Victor Stone (Teen Titans)
Cyborg’s inclusion on this list matters not only because he’s also voiced by Khary Payton, who is currently enjoying a stint on The Walking Dead as King Ezekiel, but also because of his multiple roles on the team. Cyborg’s origin story shifts slightly depending on the medium and continuity. Most stories do, however, acknowledge him beginning as Victor Stone, a star football player who had an accident in his parents’ lab, where his life was subsequently saved when his damaged organs were replaced with mechanical parts.
Over the course of the show, Cyborg serves as the team’s engineer, developing multiple modes of transportation and often being the team chef. Season 3 of Teen Titans features a Cyborg-centric story arc in which he ventures out into team leadership, leading the West Coast Titans.
One of Cyborg’s central themes is his humanity, because of his character’s intelligence and abilities before his superhero origins. He has always had some struggle to retain what humanity he has and not let himself simply become a robot playing a human hero. Since the advent of DC’s New 52 run and 2012’s Justice League Doom, Cyborg has been upgraded to full-time Justice Leaguer in his revamped origin. Partially because of his inclusion in the comics, he is also featured in the upcoming live-action Justice League film.
War Machine, aka James Rhodes; and Falcon, aka Sam Wilson (Captain America Civil War)
James “Rhodey” Rhodes and Sam Wilson make this list as a single entry because of their parallel comic lives. Both heroes started out as sidekicks: Rhodes to Iron Man Tony Stark and Wilson to Steve Rogers’ Captain America. Both have stepped up throughout their comic book runs to take on the mantle of the main hero multiple times because of death or disability. Also, both serve to ground their main heroes in reality when the get tunnel vision or their goals get a little too lofty.
For me, the reasoning behind their entry can be captured in a single scene that occurs in Captain America’s third movie, Civil War. Up to this point in their respective heroes’ series, they’ve been dependable, noble and funny, though there is some depth to be culled from the visual story being told on-screen (in how they’re both positioned over each side of Steve’s shoulders), and the actual argument they’re having that is cut short by a third party.
In this scene, the Avengers crew is having an argument over whether or not they should be overseen by a governing body. What’s so fascinating is that it is not the marquee characters Iron Man and Captain America that are having the argument. The two men hashing out their vantage points are two black sidekicks, both of whom have modern military experience, as opposed to Stark, who never served, and Captain America, who has never seen a modern battlefront. These two men who offered life and limb to military service are really having a discussion about what it means to protect innocent people and to be personally responsible in that decision, come hell or high water. In this moment we get a glimpse of depth often reserved for the expositional pages of comics that are occasionally overlooked.
Both Falcon and War Machine serve as military-trained personnel with flight experience and hand-to-hand-combat expertise while also, in their respective movies, often serving as a comedic foil to their main characters.
Green Lantern, aka John Stewart (Justice League)
As is the case with many superheroes, the mantle gets passed on to other individuals when the storyline finds it beneficial, often in the event of a superhero’s death or severe injury. What’s interesting about the mantle of Green Lantern is that it’s a title designed to be held by numerous individuals, since it is the intergalactic equivalent of a police force.
In the case of Earth, the abnormality is that it lies in a sector assigned to multiple humans. In some cases, they work in tandem; at other times they serve as alternates. John Stewart was the third human to be recruited into the Green Lantern Corps.
Green Lanterns are equipped with a ring that channels their willpower. The ring grants them a protective aura to withstand attacks and space flight. It also allows them to direct their energy into offensive energy blasts and to form solid objects, called “constructs,” to achieve goals.
John—who, prior to hero life, was a Marine and engineer—is considered to be the Lantern who forms the most solid constructs, over-engineering every nut and bolt of the forms he projects.
In the Justice League (and Justice League Unlimited) TV series, John is naturally strong-willed but always willing to sacrifice for the greater good. One of his noticeable differences from other Green Lanterns is that he refuses to wear a mask, having famously stated, “This black man lets it all hang out.”
Storm/Ororo Munroe (X-Men: Evolution)
Storm’s run in the animated series X-Men: Evolution extended to all four seasons, unique for a show that had a rotating cast of characters. Storm’s origin story does vary slightly between incarnations, but it is generally held that she first displayed her powers in Africa after being orphaned because of a plane crash.
Storm has the ability to control the weather, whether on Earth or other planets. This ability has earned her the nickname “Weather Witch” in many shows and books. Another notable point in her biography is that in many comics, she is either married or betrothed/engaged to Black Panther … yes, that Black Panther.
Many readers might prefer the 1992 X-Men series’ incarnation of Storm. Her look is more in line with her iconic comic book appearance, although the 2000 Evolution series provides a bit more storyline around Storm outside of her origin. Both are adequate, though the ’90s series doesn’t feature much dialogue from the hero except to show her casting spells to control the weather or featuring her singular weakness, which is claustrophobia.
In the Evolution series, she’s featured as a mentor and instructor to students in the Xavier Institute, as well as an aunt to new recruit Spike. In other media, her portrayal by Halle Berry kind of makes up for the movie Catwoman. Also, more than 20 years later, Storm’s original animated outing is still giving us life via black social media.