Note: This feature originally ran in February 2020 for Black History Month. Amid the ongoing civil unrest around the country, TV Guide is re-publishing this story and others like it to help foster greater understanding and awareness around issues of racial justice. Black lives matter. Text DEMANDS to 55156 to sign Color of Change's petition to reform policing, and visit blacklivesmatter.carrd.co for more ways to donate, sign petitions, and protest safely.
Superheroes are thriving on TV, and an unprecedented number of them are African American. But it hasn't always been this way; historically, superheroes of color have had a slow and difficult journey to receiving the kind of fame that their white counterparts have enjoyed all along.
Superman, the first superhero to get his own comic book, debuted in 1938, but it would be 28 years before T'Challa, otherwise known as Black Panther, would make his debut in a 1966 issue of Fantastic Four, becoming the first black hero to appear in mainstream American comics. The first superhero feature film, Superman and the Mole Men, premiered in 1951; the first black superhero to lead a movie was Meteor Man, in the film written and directed by and starring Robert Townsend some three decades later in 1993. On TV, The Adventures of Superman became the first superhero leap from comics and film to the small screen in 1952; audiences didn't see a black superhero in a lead role until Fox's M.A.N.T.I.S. in 1994, and that only lasted one season; its pilot was well-received, but underwent extensive changes that effectively whitewashed the show before it went to series. It's been a long time coming, but after decades of being ignored, sidelined, and in some cases even recast as white characters, black superheroes are suddenly, finally proliferating on-screen.
It was just four years ago that Luke Cage knocked down doors as the first Marvel show with a black superhero lead, and in the years since, Dion (Ja'Siah Young) of Raising Dion teleported to Netflix, the Pierce family of Black Lightning lit up The CW, and the incomparable Sister Night (Regina King) achieved near-immortality on HBO's Watchmen. And those are just the leads. From Doom Patrol to The Umbrella Academy to The Flash, black characters like Cyborg (Joivan Wade), Allison (Emmy Raver-Lampman), and Iris West (Candice Patton) play integral roles within their teams, with storylines that show them as complex and multidimensional as opposed to mere helpers to other (white) caped crusaders. In 2020, black superpower is finally flourishing on television, and in recognition of Black History Month, TV Guide presents The Rise of the Black Superheroes, a celebration of pioneering and perhaps forgotten characters who changed TV for good, and a salute to the heroes making history now.
It's been a long time coming, but classic characters like Black Panther (Chadwick Boseman), The Falcon (Anthony Mackie), and Luke Cage (Mike Colter) are getting the widespread recognition they deserve. Meanwhile, new additions to the caped crusader pantheon — such as Watchmen's Sister Night (Regina King), Raising Dion's Dion (Ja'Siah Young), and The Umbrella Academy's Allison (Emmy Raver-Lampman) are expanding perceptions of what a black superhero can look like.
Keep reading to see the most memorable, influential, and all-around best black superheroes of all time...
Candice Patton knew from the start that her casting in The Flash was going to get people talking. When The CW announced that the black actress would play Iris West, who is canonically white in the comics, the news was celebrated by fans of color and attacked by online trolls. What Patton didn't know was that it would take over five years before the show would begin to embrace her blackness. For five seasons, Iris' race was never really acknowledged by the show or its characters. But then, something changed in Season 6: The Flash hired its first black showrunner.
Keep reading to find out how The Flash star Candice Patton and new showrunner Eric Wallace are finally introducing the real Iris West...
In celebration of Black History Month, some of Hollywood's most popular black superheroes (and a few villains) are reflecting on their iconic roles and the influence their characters have had. In this TV Guide exclusive video, Mike Colter (Marvel's Luke Cage), Don Cheadle (Marvel Cinematic Universe), David Ramsey (Arrow), Ja'Siah Young (Raising Dion), China Anne McClain (Black Lightning), Joivan Wade (Doom Patrol), and Wayne Brady (Black Lightning) discuss how far black superheroes have come and the important role their characters have played in their own lives, in pop culture, and in the culture at large.
Watch the video to find out what the stars behind Luke Cage, War Machine, John Diggle, and more black superheroes had to say...
Cheo Hodari Coker Reflects on Luke Cage's Legacy and Creating 'A Deep Meditation on Blackness with Superhero Flavor'
Luke Cage, a bulletproof black man played with sturdy, studly aplomb by Mike Colter, was not the first black superhero lead of a TV show, but he was the first for Marvel, the first of the 2000s, and surely the first black superhero to bring a hip-hop soaked "unapologetic blackness" to television. Shepherded to the screen by executive producer Cheo Hodari Coker, Marvel's Luke Cage earned an enthusiastic reception from fans and critics and helped vault actors Colter, Mahershala Ali, and Simone Missick to stardom. And then it all came crashing down. No one expected the series' cancellation — particularly given that pre-production on Season 3 was well underway. Coker never said much publicly about what exactly happened, nor revealed details about what he had planned for Season 3. But when he heard TV Guide was celebrating black superheroes for Black History Month, he agreed to share what he could about Luke Cage's cancellation, its lasting impact on the culture, and what we might have seen if the show had lived on.
Keep reading to find out what Cheo Hodari Coker had planned for Luke Cage Season 3...
Applauded for its elegant execution and the way it marked a sea change in representation, Black Lighting is the first TV show to focus on a black family of superheroes. It stars a black man with albinism, and bucks the stereotype of the homophobic black family by featuring a lesbian daughter whose parents are totally cool with her sexuality. As it ages, though, the show's trailblazing optics have become less noteworthy than its trailblazing story; Black Lightning is most intriguing as a family drama about how to assert power while living in a state of perpetual crisis.
Keep reading to learn how Black Lightning reflects the experiences of real black families in America...
'I Like That He's Brown Like Me': Netflix's Raising Dion Lets Kids of Color See Themselves as Superheroes
Raising Dion, about a young black boy born with superhuman abilities, was Netflix's 10th most popular series of 2019. The family drama is part of a cultural shift in children's entertainment, and for the first time, children of color are able to see on-screen superheroes who look like them. Raising Dion takes this representation a step further, creating a character who has to face a challenge his white predecessors never did — and one that might hit close to home for some of the show's young viewers and their parents.
Keep reading to find out how Raising Dion empowers kids of color to overcome real-life obstacles...
It's hard to believe that Eartha Kitt only appeared as Catwoman in five episodes of ABC's classic Batman series, but that speaks volumes of her memorable take on the character. Kitt owned the screen during her limited run with a unique, cat-like cadence that imbued the show with a new level of playful mischief, masterful plotting, and forward-thinking inventions we hadn't quite seen before. More than just a sexy thief in a glittery jumpsuit, Kitt's Catwoman was a force of nature — and she was black.
Keep reading about Eartha Kitt's powerful legacy, on-screen and off...
Black superheroes are finally thriving on TV, and it seems as though we're only at the beginning of a movement with boundless potential. To hear experts and creators tell it, though, optimism comes with caution. Creators and people in the so-called blerd community live in a state of cognitive dissonance: joy over finally seeing these stories on TV, fear that it could be fleeting, and skepticism about the depth of the portrayals.
Keep reading for more on what's next for black superheroes in Hollywood...
Hollywood's tendency to revisit the same heroes over and over (looking at you, Batman and Spider-Man) leaves a great many more characters unexplored and overlooked — and a lot of them are black or people of African descent. Yet the comics are teeming with superheroes of color who'd be excellent choices for on-screen adaptations. Whether they're mega powerful mutants, morally conflicted laymen, or witches who can summon the elements with their minds, there's a whole galaxy of would-be superhero stars out there waiting to be given the Black Panther treatment.
Keep reading to see nine black superheroes who deserve their own shows...
Edited by Sadie Gennis, Noelene Clark, and Malcolm Venable
Contributions by Malcolm Venable, Keisha Hatchett, Mekeisha Madden Toby, Kelly Connolly, Sadie Gennis, Lindsay MacDonald, Ndumiso Mafu, Krutika Mallikarjuna, Tim Surette, Kaitlin Thomas, and Megan Vick
Video produced by Tony Maccio, Semhar Debessai, Sadie Gennis, and Keisha Hatchett
Photo editing by Jessie Cowan
Creative by Brett Pearce
(Disclosure: TV Guide is owned by CBS Interactive, a division of ViacomCBS.)