Super Specific | Superhero culture, fandom still show racist roots

Super Specific is a bi-weekly blog about superheroes in pop culture.

By Diana Velasquez, Contributing Editor

“Black Panther” was the highest-grossing movie of 2018 at the U.S. domestic box office. It was a cultural phenomenon, and in an industry where Black-dominated casts are still a rare feat, his joyous celebration of African heritage and sci-fi wonder was a treat to witness.

But despite the film’s popularity, and the reverent-like significance it was given after the tragic death of its star Chadwick Boseman, there were still plenty of people throwing racist vitriol around about it and its stars.

Boseman posted an Instagram live in April 2020 promoting a charity, but despite his desire to speak only on donations, many people watching only focused on his appearance — especially his significant loss of weight.

Chadwick was called “Crack Panther” amongst other racially charged insults, to the point that the actor turned off access to the video and continued to delete comments in the following months.

When Anthony Mackie spoke about his hesitancy for fan enthusiasm over the Marvel Cinematic Universe ship “SamBucky” in a Variety interview, he came under intense backlash from fans.

And though his comments may not have been worded in the best way, Sebastian Stan hasn’t exactly been overly supportive of shipping Marvel characters either, and he’s still the token fan-favorite of the franchise.

And actors like Chris Pratt, who seems to drop a cringey conservative Instagram post every few days, receive calls upon calls of support when someone on Twitter says he’s not the best Hollywood Chris.

The scale of fairness here seems rigged, and based on race. In every nook and cranny of fandom, whether it comes from the fans or the actors and producers behind the superhero movies themselves, there seems to be a bias against actors of color.

Ray Fisher’s situation with DC is a prime example. He accused director Joss Whedon of abuse on the “Justice League” set, and soon after, Warner Bros. canceled Fisher’s movie and further appearances in the DC Extended Universe.

None of the other stars of Justice League had their storylines so brutally cut. Despite the DCEU’s fracturing, Wonder Woman and Aquaman have movies on the horizon. Even recently in the wake of Whedon’s interview with Vulture, Gal Gadot was given more press attention for her response than Fisher — who continues to pursue justice for the cast and crew members’ treatment on set with his tagline A>E or “Accountability over Entertainment.”

When photos of Anna Diop in costume as Starfire in DC’s show “Titans” leaked in April 2018, many racist fans flocked to her social media accounts to harass her. She addressed these comments in a now-deleted Instagram post defending the leaked photo and her role.

In more intimate fan spaces, it seems clear that Black superheros are cast to the sidelines.

“Black Lightning,” the CW superhero show based on the DC hero of the same name, is truly one of the CW’s only good shows, and definitely one of the best in its lackluster “Arrowverse.” The show totes a predominately Black cast and queer BIPOC relationship between one of the leads, Grace Choi and Anissa Pierce.

But despite the show’s critical success and praise for its diversity, it has gained little to no traction on fan spaces like Tumblr, Twitter or Archive of Our Own. “Black Lightning” currently has 271 works of fanfiction on AO3, 145 of which belong to the Grace Choi and Anissa Pierce ship “Thundergrace.”

That’s rather abysmal compared to the juggernaut superhero ships on the website like “Stucky,” between Steve Rogers or Captain America and Bucky Barnes, which in 2021 was the fourth most popular ship on the site with 55,252 works of fanfiction.

Some might say there was simply a lack of interest in these Black-led shows and movies, or fans simply had a preference for Captain America or one of the CW’s lackluster white-led shows. But it’s clear to me that the superhero genre, which often dances with the genres of science fiction and fantasy, has a raging problem with race.

You’d think that in the genres where the real world doesn’t exist, or has been warped beyond our imagination, that there’d be more diversity in their casts. But the sci-fi and fantasy bastions that today’s superheroes are founded on have racist roots.

Sometimes they’re subtle, and sometimes it’s hard not to throw the book across the room in frustration.

H.P. Lovecraft, an American author from the early 1900s whose works often hinge on old fish-like cosmic gods and gloomy New England ghost stories, has influenced much of the science fiction and horror genre we know and love today.

He was undeniably and horribly racist, and put such thoughts into his works. The protagonists of his story were always white, who often came at odds with not just otherworldly powers, but people of color depicted as almost as horrible as the monsters themselves.

Funnily enough, “Lovecraft Country,” a show inspired by his works, was released on HBO Max in 2020. It was crafted specifically to highlight the Black stories and experiences of its leads. It was a great show, until it was canceled, too.

Amazon Prime Video is set to release one of the most anticipated streaming shows of the year in November. “The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power” is adapted from Tolkien’s unfinished masterwork of mythology for his fantasy world — “The Silmarillion.”

And recently the cast photos were released — including photos of Sophia Nomvete as the dwarf princess Disa and Ismael Cruz Córdova as the Silvan elf Arondir. Racists were quick to complain on social media. God forbid there’s a Black elf on their screen.

But it’s not all bad news. The fact that these actors are included in these shows and movies today shows improvement. And as for Marvel and DC, their future slate of movies and shows like “Ms. Marvel” and “Black Adam” show promise for BIPOC leads.

Will the racists run away? No, and they never will, but perhaps one day there will be enough BIPOC representation out there that there is too much diverse content for them to complain about.