Marvel’s Black Superheroes Speak to Our Double-Edged Political Moment
Not merely existing to assuage white guilt, Heimdall, Storm, Black Panther, and Luke Cage have given us more to think about.
Black people are superheroes everyday in ways that make Heimdall (left), Luke Cage (center), and Storm (right) a necessary escape. Images via Marvel Studios/Netflix
This article originally appeared on VICE Canada.
It’s been twenty years since Blade, the 1998 Wesley Snipes film. We would not see a different black Marvel character with superhero abilities appear on film until War Machine, also known as James “Rhodey” Rhodes (Don Cheadle), appeared in Iron Man 2. In the cinematic Marvel universe black characters were initially sparse but now, with the likes of Storm, Luke Cage, Black Panther, and Valkyrie, the politics of race and representation have seen them portray some of the franchise’s most groundbreaking and intimately personal heroes.
When Thor hit the screens in 2011, much of the praise was on the charming and endearing presence of one of the Chrises—a superhero with long blonde hair, icy blue eyes, imposing height, and as a titular character, the one charged with protecting, defending, and rescuing the kingdom of Asgard. But it is Heimdall (played by Idris Elba) who showed himself to be the most steadfast and heroic. In Norse mythology, Heimdall was also a God. He was raised by nine mothers who are said to have been from the seas. He had the gift of knowledge and foresight; he was the one believed to “illuminate the world.”
Heimdall foresaw the mischief of Loki, saw the impending Ragnarok, and was loyal to his country and not to the whims of whomever sat on the throne. In the words of Okoye, Heimdall did not simply serve his country, he saved it when even its Kings were unable.
Elba as a Norse god who can see into the future has an ability that ironically has been honed by real-life civil rights heroes, particularly the visionary James Baldwin. In 1962, Baldwin wrote, “Letters from a Region in My Mind,” where he talked about the experiences of his adolescent past, and how they were shaped [along with those of other American-born blacks] by the complicated dynamics of blackness, Christianity, and white power. Baldwin knew God to be white then, and foresaw him to be white now, illuminating the facade of white Christian principles. “The principles were Blindness, Loneliness, and Terror, the first principle necessarily and actively cultivated in order to deny the two others,” he wrote. “I would love to believe that the principles were Faith, Hope, and Charity, but this is clearly not so for most Christians, or for what we call the Christian world.”
More than half a century later in the aftermath of two American Christian strongholds converging to elect Donald Trump, who received over 50 percent of the white Catholic vote and 81 percent of the white Evangelical vote, Baldwin’s foresight is damn near prophetic. Writing in 1962 from experiences he endured in 1938, Baldwin was able to foresee the links between white supremacy and the Christian church. He expressed the conundrum created for black souls searching for a higher lover and yet by all instances feeling that this love is white, guided by white principles, and meant to uphold only white lives. How else can you explain the rabid support of Trump by white Evangelicals and the surge of mourning for the recently passed Billy Graham who preached the word as a modern-day salesman selling faith, penance, and the promised land as incentives for good behavior, so long as your behavior did not inconvenience an American dream built off of Indigenous and black genocide. If Heimdall is the guarder of the Bifrost, so too was Baldwin guarding the American tenets of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, which seem to carry less and less weight as the years go by.
I doubt Marvel thought this deeply when they cast a black man to play a God who could see in magnified clarity what others could not, and who always stood on guard even when it was Thor whom Asgardians saw as their true protector. But the social implications are irrefutable and seeing Heimdall frozen by Loki and then fighting to slowly free himself while still able to see the destruction taking place, is an uncomfortable and yet suffocating reality that many black people know well. To be powerless and unable to move or speak, yet still fully aware of the current and impending doom is something so conventional that we have adapted without even realizing it. Trump became president and as white liberals wrote tearful letters of woe, asked for no blame to be placed, and did the general most. Black people simply exhaled and then went to bed.
We have resigned ourselves to the failures of white liberals, incompetent governance, and gun reform opposers who have proven time and time again Baldwin’s belief that, “a civilization is not destroyed by wicked people; it is not necessary that people be wicked but that they be spineless.”
In different political times in America’s fraught history with race, the roles of black people in graphic novels have largely been to assuage white guilt by reinforcing the notion that black people are not deserving of respect or life. In 1940, artist Will Eisner created Ebony White, a black sidekick to detective Denny White from the newspaper comic series The Spirit. The name is obviously meant to be punny, with a joke I have never understood, but the character himself was clearly created as a minstrel caricature with his servility and loyalty reminiscent of Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom and Margaret Mitchell’s Mammy. A year later, Marvel released Young Allies #1, a “multi-racial group of patriotic kids” and amongst their ranks were Bucky Barnes, Knuckles, Tubby, Jeff, and Whitewash Jones. Jones was a black character and in early drawings, he was drawn as another caricature—thick pink lips, exaggerated nose, and eyes, and the one who delivers comedic relief with his doltish antics and love for watermelon.
Ebony White and Whitewash Jones made their debuts in what is considered to be the golden age of comic books, where creators like Stan Lee, Jack Kirby, and Eisner were basically using cartoon characters to create what was then a radical conversation on blackness in a Jim Crow America. A conversation centered on the aftermath of the World War II and black people returning “home” after being candidates for death, in defense of a country that still reduced their humanity to signs dictating where you could and could not go. Ebony White and Whitewash Jones are characters that unfortunately could fit into any cultural zeitgeist because black people as mere comedic sidekicks to white supremacy is a never-ending trope. I mean Sam Wilson a.k.a. Falcon is great and all but he is also the one known to deliver witty one-liners to offset Cap's consistently serious vibe. He is reliable and qualified with the right amount of heroism, while still making it known that bravery is sometimes overrated. He is also, fittingly enough, hilarious. He has the typical sidekick traits.
The abundance of white superheroes from the beginning of the comic book era to now, manufactured and upheld the perception that heroism and whiteness went hand in hand no matter the cultural, political and social conflict. The November 5, 1969 trial of Bobby Seale on charges of traveling from San Francisco to Chicago intending to plan a march and a sleep-in (guilty verdict meant five years in prison) resulted in Seale indicting what he called a “racist and fascist administration government with its superman notions and comic book politics.”
“We’re hip to the fact that Superman never saved no black people. You got that?” Seale said to the judge. Superheroes had become another extension of white supremacy, that even Black Panther's appearance in 1966 did not dull the legacy of imperial white savior attached to comic book heroes. His suit courtesy of vibranium cannot be damaged by bullets and that was a profound ability for a black comic book superhero to have during 60s America. At the same time, the actual Black Panthers had taken to patrolling black neighborhoods while armed, specifically in Oakland, California, as a means to deter police violence against black people.
As it stands, black people are still disproportionately affected by gun violence as a result of state brutality and yet this is also the time of Luke Cage, a black superhero whose skin cannot be pierced by lead. To be a black man who can repel bullets is a painful paradox. The first time I watched a bullet propel from Luke Cage’s chest, I almost threw up. A visceral reaction to a scene that was not badly acted, but just too damn close to home and the painful what-ifs that come about when you hear a story like that of Stephon Clarke who was shot and killed last week in Sacramento, California. Fifty years after both Democrats and Republicans enacted the Mulford Act in California as a response to Black Panther members carrying firearms, that remains the only compromise both parties have agreed on when it comes to gun control. Policemen fired 20 shots into Clarke, a 22-year-old black father of two, while he was standing in his grandmother's front yard. Apparently, his cell phone was mistaken for a gun. Twitter user @terruuu wrote, “Black skin is not made of steel. You don't need 20 bullets. That's not "fear," that's rage. School shooters, church shooters, concert shooters, cinema shooters, and FedEx bombers are scary. Not a young father in his grandmother's backyard with a cell phone.” The racial implications of a black man being immune to bullets have been widely lauded but they are also one of the most painful distortions of reality on-screen and I have yet to decide if its heroic, painful, or a combination of both to see such a depiction.
With Avengers: Infinity War premiering in April, it would be remiss to not point out the fact that we have yet to see a Marvel film where Storm is portrayed in a manner that "bravely" side steps colorism and gives credence to her African roots. Based off a West African goddess who is the protector of woman and one with water, the moon, ancient wisdom, and healing, Storm is a culturally significant symbol for young black girls who grew up wearing blue and white to carry favor with the goddess Yemanja. Storm, as seen through the eyes of Marvel and Hollywood, has been distilled into a black character possessing of abilities but lacking the context that would have heightened her cultural relevance and representation for people who see her not as a fantastical mutant but an ancestral and very real legacy.
In 1962, Baldwin wrote, “The tendency has really been, insofar as this was possible, to dismiss white people as the slightly mad victims of their own brainwashing. One watched the lives they led. One could not be fooled about that; one watched the things they did and the excuses that they gave themselves, and if a white man was really in trouble, deep trouble, it was to the Negro’s door that he came.” In the wake of Roy Moore’s defeat in Alabama, black woman were applauded for not electing a pedophile while white men and women flocked with ease toward such disaster. As black men and women came out for Hillary Clinton whose ‘heroic’ traits were shoved down our throats by white liberals, white men and women came out in droves for Donald Trump. And as Stormy Daniels made her 60 Minutes debut white men and women will undoubtedly remain loyal to their elected leader while black people once again foresee imminent disaster.
Black people are superheroes every day in ways that make Heimdall, Storm, Black Panther, Luke Cage, Falcon, Rhodey, Blade, and Valkyrie a necessary escape. Because where they can fight imperialism, injustice, anti-blackness, and live to see another day, our real-life heroes have no such luck. And so, when we watch them flex their powers and emerge victorious, sometimes it feels like the rest of us black humans can do it too.
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