Growing up, almost everyone is shaped in some way by the icons that exist within the pop culture of their time. Whether it be a princess or a superhero — we play with their toys, we buy their backpacks and lunchboxes, we dress up as them for Halloween and even for the briefest moments, we try to see ourselves as them. Regardless of the fiction or the make-believe, the characters that we grow up with mold us into who we are and what we value as important. For many kids, it’s where they first start learning about things like love, responsibility, helping one another and standing up for what is right.
Over time, however, the context around these ideas evolve. Real-world events, changing social norms, the journey towards a just and equitable society — all have brought more and more complexities to the messages that these stories of old would convey. And with the changes in the messages, comes changes in the fictional characters as well. As someone who was born in the early 2000s, it is staggering to see in retrospect just how much these cultural icons have changed within the span of just the past few years. What were once stories of damsels in distress have blossomed into action-packed female-led adventures. What were once collections of white heroes have transformed into entire universes of diverse characters. The difference between a Cinderella and a Batman, to a Moana and a Black Panther.
While this may not mean much to the casual consumer, for an inspired young generation striving for change, this recent surge in representation means more than just new posters on the wall. Whether it be brand new original characters, or “remixed” interpretations of the classics, the push for diversity in movies is real — and it has only just begun.
Like with most things, the movement towards representation is not without its critics. The most recent example of this is the discourse over a recent report from Deadline, which details a brand new Superman movie in the works that is being written by an author by the name of Ta-Nehisi Coates. With Coates’ previous work being focused on sociopolitical issues regarding African Americans and white supremacy, as well as rumors of Michael B. Jackson (“Creed,” “Black Panther”) being sought out for the role, the implication is that this new feature film will introduce the first-ever Black Superman to the big screen.
Despite the bold change, there has also been a fair amount of backlash to the announcement. Mirroring a similar response that Disney received when they announced a Little Mermaid movie starring Black actress Halle Bailey, many fans of the character have come out in opposition to the idea of a race-swapped version of the character. Most of the support behind this conflict comes from the idea that Superman’s white, Middle-American farmboy identity is crucial to the ethos of the character —something that would likely change if they chose to adapt it to a more modern setting.
That being said, it is vital to take the purpose of these characters into account. While some people have grown attached to the look and identity of specific icons, it is important to realize that in essence, these characters are vessels for compelling stories. The same way people have grown to love and look up to the classic version of Superman, a brand new generation of children will be able to witness the story of a modernized Black Superman (and all the themes and messages that may come with it.
That is also not to say that there cannot be multiple interpretations of a character at a given time. In recent years, we have seen the emergence of not one, but two separate Spider-Man franchises: one featuring the classic Peter Parker version, and the other featuring the Black and Puerto Rican Miles Morales. Both characters coexist and both stories compliment the other in new and refreshing ways.
Along with this news, also came the announcement of a new Supergirl, who will be portrayed by Colombian actress Sasha Calle, as well as an announcement for the first Latino-led Superhero movie “Blue Beetle,” which is currently in the works at Warner Bros. As someone who is Hispanic and has been an avid fan of the superhero genre my whole life, it is truly inspiring to see parts of my own background being represented on the big screen for the first time.
The same goes for all backgrounds. After decades of being sidelined, more and more stories from women, minorities and those in the LGBTQ+ community are finally being told. With massive studios like Disney committing to projects like “Iwájú,” an African sci-fi series made in partnership with a Nigerian-Ugandan animation studio Kugali, or their upcoming superhero epic “The Eternals,” which features a diverse ensemble cast featuring from Marvel Studios’ first Pakistani hero (played by Kumail Nanjiani), LGBT heroes (played by Brian Tyree Henry and Haaz Sleiman), and deaf hero (played by Lauren Ridloff) — there is a definite paradigm shift in the movie industry.
Thinking back to the amount of excitement coming from “Black Panther” (2018), there is something truly special about seeing communities being able to come together and, in a way, celebrate different cultures and backgrounds. Entire theatres were rented out, schools made screenings, and when all was said and done, the film turned out to be a 1.3 billion dollar smash hit that went on to be nominated for Best Picture at the Academy Awards. Prior to the film, the character of the Black Panther was relatively unknown; but today the character acts as an icon for young Black children across the nation, thanks to a fresh Afrofuturistic style and a brilliant portrayal by the late-great Chadwick Boseman.
One can only imagine the positivity and cultural resonance that can come out of more diverse, representative storytelling. Whether it be strong, powerful women in the form of recent films like “Moana,” “Frozen” and “Captain Marvel,” or unique cultural portrayals like “Coco,” “Black Panther” and this upcoming Black Superman reboot — these stories are sure to leave an impact for generations to come.
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