White heroes, black sidekicks

White heroes, black sidekicks

Sidekicks used to be minors, now they're minorities.


I think it’s safe to say that today’s audiences have more superhero comic-based material than ever. Hollywood blockbusters, animated movies, fan-made films, television series, cartoons and incredible video games. Yet through all of this, regardless of the medium, one thing remains constant: the hero is always white.

In the Nineties, we had the likes of Blade and Steel, and we’re soon to see the exploits of Black Panther and Cyborg on the silver screen. But in the last 15 years, Hancock is the only black superhero to star in a superhero movie, and he was hardly a role model.

Even the relatively few black characters who have appeared in movies have been criminally underused. Storm never did anything of note, I don’t even remember seeing Hotshot, and Falcon and War Machine’s scenes could barely fill an ad break. In Age of Ultron, the franchise even decided to mock the heroes for doing less significant work, while Thor and Iron Man gloat about their world-saving adventures.

DC doesn’t have a stellar record either. If it weren’t for Lucius Fox and Gillian Loeb, the Nolanverse would have been as pale as the Joker’s complexion. Superman Returns was completely white, unless you count Kal Penn’s one and only line as one of Lex’s men, while Man of Steel only features an ironically black Perry White.

On TV the problem only gets more subtle.

Despite nine different television shows based on superheroes, and a whole host of movies in the MCU, we’re still yet to see a black superhero as the star. Instead, black characters in superhero movies are peripheral roles. They’re part of the lore, and may even have significant parts to play from time to time, but at the end of the day, they’re only there to help our hero – inevitably a good-looking white male.

Even when Black Panther finally arrives, I’m betting he’ll share most of his screen time with Stark and Cap. And we’ll have to wait a good few years before Cyborg takes centre stage in his feature-length film. Hopefully, we’ll get a look at Luke Cage on Netflix long before that.

Until then, memes like this, while made in fun, are frustratingly accurate. Black characters seem stuck in this sidekick role. And worse, their skillset makes them pointless. They become a shadow of the hero, a less capable version of the white guy they’re backing up. Everything War Machine can do, Iron Man does better. Everything Diggle can do, Arrow does better. The things Joe and Falcon can do don’t even stack up to their white counterparts. Years ago, the comic gave many of the superheroes, particularly in DC, little mini-me wards to appeal to their younger audience, to be captives in need of rescue, and to give the heroes somebody to talk to.

Over time, the sidekicks became less popular, largely because they did the exact same job as the main hero, except worse. Now, instead of minors, the sidekicks are minorities. Thor has Heimdall, Supergirl has James Olsen, Superman has Perry White (who is even farther from being useful to the plot than the others on this list), and Antman has his racially eclectic criminal crew. And what possible justification could there be for this? There are so many great black superheroes that could be making their way to either screen right now, that are being ignored or being forced to play second fiddle to white characters.

  • Vixen – Teased in the animated web series, and introduced in Arrow’s Season 4, there doesn’t seem to be any sign of Mari McCabe getting her own show. With so many heroes already crowding Team Arrow’s ranks, it’s unlikely Vixen will get the spotlight.
  • Static – Having enjoyed an animated series back in 2000 until 2004, Static definately has the star quality. There were rumours not so long ago that Jaden Smith had been approached for the role, but nothing new has been said for quite a while.
  • Blade – It’s been awhile since the Wesley Snipes incarnation. Maybe it’s time for a fresh take on the human-vampire hybrid.
  • Steel – After the commercial flop of 1997 starring Shaquille O’Neal, it’s not surprising that this particular character hasn’t graced the Box Office. But maybe it’s time John Henry Irons gets the movie he deserves.
  • Icon – A lesser known hero from the Milestone Imprint, Icon is a hero I only learned about in the Young Justice animated series. So maybe it’s time DC raised his profile a little.
  • Jaime Reyes – There were whispers of an upcoming Blue Beetle/Booster Gold series not too long ago, but like Static this seems to have fallen by the wayside. That series was apparently intended to star the Ted Kord incarnation of the Beetle, but Jamie Reyes seems like a far better choice.
  • Tye Longshadow – Again, you can thank YJ for this, but Longshadow is a character I want to see more of. Now, maybe he doesn’t have the star quality for a film, or the storyline to make a show just for him, but partner him with another character and I think you could do good things with the Apache Chief’s descendent.
  • Miles Morales – The so-called ‘black Spiderman’ will never appear on the silver screen according to leaked provisions in the movie rights. But does that preclude an appearance on television? Perhaps in animated form. (Ultimate Spiderman was not my cup of tea. Miles Morales could be.)

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However it is done, on whatever level, it’s time black superheroes were given the chance to stand up on their own two feet and prove to the world that you don’t have to be white to be right. Then maybe we can see the actual proteges take the place of our incidental sidekicks.

Michael Delaney
Michael has a Master's in Mass Communication and a Degree in Creative Writing. The subject of his final dissertation was race-lifting in comic-based media. He spends his spare time writing comics.

2 COMMENTS

  1. Jaime Reyes isn’t black……..
    Also why would it be better to have Jaime reyes? Shouldn’t we allow for one of the best comic book duos to have a chance at the big screen rather than just pair two characters that have a minor relationship in comparison just for the sake of diversity. Jaime Reyes deserves his own movie but not one where he takes the role as best friend from Ted Kord.

    • I suppose I should have said non-white characters to be more accurate. And I didn’t mean to replace Ted with Jamie in a partnership with Booster Gold. I just meant to use Jamie instead of them. But as Rebirth is using Kord and Jaime as partners in the comics, it might not have to be either or. But Ted Kord is largely unknown outside of the comics and is very much a product of the Silver Age, and Booster is a hard character to present well. Smallville failed. Brave and the Bold did a little better. But Reyes, through YJ and BatB, has a bit more mainstream appeal than a partnership of two more white guys who were friends in the comics. That relationship will be hard to replicate. Still, it’s one of many suggestions, not a decree.

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