On Friday evening, Marvel announced that its massive cinematic universe is about to get a hell of a lot blacker thanks to the upcoming Black Panther solo film. Not only will 90% of the movie's cast be either African or African-American, but both Lupita Nyong'o and Michael B. Jordan have been tapped to play key roles.
It's difficult to imagine a world in which Black Panther, a multi-million-dollar movie about an Afrofuturistic superhero wouldn't be lit, but there's another side to the casting news worth considering. Marvel's finally bringing a mainstream black superhero to the big screen and giving him his own movie. That's fantastic, but one movie heavily stacked with high-profile black actors doesn't necessarily mean that Marvel's really dealing with its larger issues with diversity in a lasting way.
When Marvel first began building its cinematic universe with 2008's Iron Man, it set out to craft a sprawling, shared universe that that could, in theory, go on forever. Over the course of eight years, 13 movies, and four television shows, the studio managed to create enough space for Asgardian gods, aliens, and weaponized suits of armor. People of color, though, have been conspicuously missing from much of the Marvel Cinematic Universe.
To be fair, Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson), War Machine (Don Cheadle), and Falcon (Anthony Mackie) have all appeared in multiple Marvel movies. Also, the team of active Avengers at the end of Avengers: Age of Ultron is the most diverse superhero roster any of the films has ever had, with two black men, two women, one white man, and an android.
That being said, those moments where Marvel has made apparent progress on the diversity front have so far seemed like exceptions to the rule. Black superheroes exist in the MCU, yes, but they're usually the only black people to appear in the entire film. In many ways, Black Panther will be a corrective to that problematic trend, but one wonders if and how Marvel will keep the momentum moving forward post-Black Panther.
When I spoke to former DC Comics editor Joseph P. Illidge about #BlackPantherSoLIT, he cautioned against celebrating Black Panther as the end-all of black representation in the Marvel Universe. The key, he explained, was to remember that there are still other black characters that have yet to be introduced elsewhere in the films.
"Marvel does not have that many black characters, [but they] are naturally more diverse than DC," Illidge pointed out. "Black Panther may not open the gates to a Falcon solo film, but I'm hopeful to see Monica Rambeau in Captain Marvel."
Monica Rambeau, one of the most powerful black women in the Marvel comics, actually used the "Captain Marvel" codename before Carol Danvers, the woman the upcoming Captain Marvel focuses on. The good-hearted professional rivalry between them from the books has convinced many fans that Monica deserves a cameo in Captain Marvel.
A large portion of the #BlackPantherSoLIT tweets focus on fan casting—people suggesting black actors they'd love to see in the movie. Given that most of the movie is likely to take place in Africa, it stands to reason that Marvel might seriously consider casting noted black actors like Angela Bassett, Nia Long, and Danai Gurira, all of whom are among the names floating around #BlackPantherSoLIT.
Marvel is probably much more open to this kind of casting because Black Panther is set in Africa, but what about the many superhero movies that would be set in America and elsewhere?
When movies aren't set in Africa or other explicitly black settings, casting that many black people with speaking roles at once reads differently to film studios. At that point, the movie isn't just a working to diversify a studio's larger porfolio of work, it's a "black" movie.
The industry has a well-documented history of underestimating and altogether shying away from what might be considered "black movies" for fear that audiences won't like them and studios won't be able to make their money back.
Even projects helmed by powerful white producers and directors hit significant roadblocks when studios realize that the story necessitates a predominantly black cast to tell a story about black people. George Lucas spent more than 20 years trying to get Red Tails, a war film about the Tuskegee Airmen's service during WWII, made. Lucas was turned down repeatedly, he told Jon Stewart during an interview on The Daily Show, because of the movie's lack of major white roles.
"They don't believe there's any foreign market for it and that's 60 percent of their profit," Lucas explained. "I showed it to all of them and they said, 'No. We don't know how to market a movie like this.'"
Ultimately, Lucas spent $93 million of his own money to get it off the ground and distributed in a partnership between Lucasfilm and Twentieth Century Fox, a move that not many directors could pull off so easily. Marvel Studios president Kevin Feige is in a vastly different position, because at the end of the day, these movies aren't personal passion projects for him. They're means to a financial end.
Marvel is a studio that's in the business of making money. Oftentimes, that translates to "playing it safe" and sticking with movies that are overwhelmingly white.
Marvel recently claimed that it chose to cast Tilda Swinton as a Dr. Strange character traditionally depicted as a Tibetan man in an effort not to alienate Chinese audiences. That decision came months after the studio asserted that it was committed to bringing more Chinese characters into its cinematic universe.
We're still two years out from Black Panther's premiere date, but if Marvel's licensed Black Panther merchandise and new tie-in comic book series are any indication (they are), the character is going to be around for a long time. But in a universe that's wide enough to contain talking raccoons that shoot guns, there's more than enough room in the MCU for more than one leading black superhero.