In the last few years of the Obama era, the phrase “ __ is the blackest thing ever” has become a bit overused. Beyoncé’s latest video is the blackest thing ever! This meme is the blackest thing ever! Barack/Michelle just did the blackest thing ever! And so on, and so on. The problem is that the only way something could truly be the blackest thing ever is if said thing were initially so white, so nonblack and so ultimately devoid of any color that, by default, adding people of color made it the blackest thing ever.
Traditionally, superhero movies have been about white male heroes saving the day while people of color are either nonexistent or shuttered into thankless small roles. So by that standard, Captain America: Civil War, which opens Friday, is literally the blackest Marvel movie ever made, while also being one of the best Marvel movies ever made.
The Captain America films have generally been of the highest quality within the Marvel Cinematic Universe, or MCU. While the Iron Man movies are about Tony Stark’s personal journey, and the Thor movies are about a young, godlike being’s quest to balance responsibility and desire, the Captain America films have been about world building. Starting with Captain America: The First Avenger in 2011 and then Captain America: Winter Soldier in 2014, we’ve journeyed through a world coming to grips with superpowered people, aliens and gods, all through the eyes of Steve Rogers (the titular Captain America, played by Chris Evans), who is trying his best to keep the American dream alive.
More important, unlike the Iron Man or Thor films, where black people are mostly sidekicks or amazing actors turned into intergalactic doormen, African-American characters have been a key part of every single Captain America movie. First there was Derek Luke as one of Captain America’s Howling Commandos in World War II, then Samuel L. Jackson as Cap’s superspy boss Nick Fury, and Anthony Mackie as Cap’s newfound friend and newbie superhero, Falcon, in Winter Soldier. Following in those footsteps, in Civil War, black heroes are a part of every aspect of the film, having evolved from sidekicks to team players.
Before I get into how these characters moved from the sidelines to the battle-worn front lines, here are a few (spoiler-free) sentences on what the film is actually about: In America’s Civil War, the nation is split over how to deal with the original sin of slavery. In Captain America: Civil War, the world is split over what to do about the growing number of superpowered people running around the planet and the destruction they cause for the “greater good.”
Civil War, the second-best MCU movie ever made (Winter Soldier is still the best), delivers a ridiculous amount of action, surprises and emotion in over two hours. The trailers do not do the film justice and, in fact, give away only about a third of the action. In addition, the true plot, by the time you get to the end of the film, is much more emotional than anything Marvel has ever attempted before. The storyline is complex yet easy to follow, even if you haven’t seen most of the preceding Marvel films. The conflict quickly moves from the political to the personal as the various characters begin to choose sides, and just about every other character from a previous MCU movie gets a chance to shine, especially the black characters.
For example, Civil War is the first Marvel movie to feature a black woman (Alfre Woodard) in a major speaking role. Go check IMDb if you’re not sure. (Zoe Saldana in Guardians of the Galaxy doesn’t count. She was in “green face” the whole time.) Considering that this is the 14th MCU film since 2003, it’s a little late to finally hear a black woman speak, but it is still a welcome step.
In Civil War, black characters War Machine (Don Cheadle) and Falcon play pivotal roles. Going into this film, I was initially worried that the two would be reduced to squabbling sidekick surrogates to Captain America and Iron Man—two black Robins on the periphery of the main story. That wasn’t the case at all. War Machine and Falcon, like Captain America, are military men, and how they came to their conclusions on the issue of “superhero control” was realistic and organic. In fact, War Machine was essentially Iron Man’s equal in the film, another hero with just a different boss (the U.S. government), and Falcon’s rivalry with Cap’s amnesic, long-lost bestie, Bucky/the Winter Soldier (Sebastian Stan), was both funny and nuanced.
However, what really puts the movie over the top into “blackest Marvel movie ever” territory is Chadwick Boseman as Black Panther. Civil War introduces two characters new to the MCU: Spider-Man and Black Panther. And while Spider-Man is fantastic and funny, it’s Black Panther who really undergirds the entire plot of the film. When T’Challa, aka Black Panther, weeps, you weep. When he’s angry, you’re angry. His personal quest for revenge and justice drives this movie as much as Captain America’s own storyline.
Is the movie perfect? Of course not. Boseman’s accent was somewhere between Will Smith mangling a Nigerian accent in Concussion and Trevor Noah code-switching. Also, the special effects haven’t entirely caught up with what the Black Panther can actually do. Nevertheless, Black Panther, the solo movie, is coming out in 2018, and I’m sure these issues will be fixed by then.
Civil War has already raked in over $200 million abroad and will likely break the U.S. box office this weekend, too. If you like Marvel movies, you’ll love it. If you just want to see an exciting film with a complex plot, amazing effects and passion, you’ll love it. And if you want to see black people as superheroes, with actual speaking lines and perspectives on the world, you can’t do better than seeing this movie. Civil War is by far the blackest thing Marvel has ever made—at least until Luke Cage comes out this fall.
Jason Johnson, political editor at The Root, is a professor of political science at Morgan State’s School of Global Journalism and Communication and is a frequent guest on MSNBC, CNN, Al-Jazeera International, Fox Business News and SiriusXM Satellite Radio. Follow him on Twitter.