National Superhero Day 2024: 11 Times Black Celebrities Elevated the Sci-Fi Universe

Whether portraying the protagonist, the heroine, or the arch nemesis, when we're cast, we make a difference.

Nothing draws a crowd to brick-and-mortar cinemas like action flicks where the good guy is on a mission to save the world from a group of bad guys. And when Black people are cast, you can count on us to show up and sell out theaters.

While we flex our powers that can make us faster than a speeding bullet or that which can stop time, Black people portraying the lead protagonist or the ground-destroying villain will always be a reason for us to root for everybody Black at the theater.

Over time, we've seen superheroes on the tube and the big screen illuminate our imagination into an outer world where the possibilities are truly limitless.

In 1977, Tobar Mayo was the first Black person to be cast as a superhero in a film, as the hero in "Abar, The First Black Superhero."

That milestone paved the way for every Black person who has portrayed a superhero in TV and film since.

Here are 11 superheroes portrayed by our kings and queens that have broadened our connection to the science fiction genre.

  • Black Panther

    In 2018, Chadwick Bosman introduced the world to a new action hero from the Marvel Cinematic Universe in Ryan Coogler's, "Black Panther." Driven by morality and his African heritage, the Black Panther demonstrated what's possible when we're in the driver's seat. Following Boseman's untimely death in 2020, the sequel, "Black Panther: Wakanda Forever," premiered in 2022.

    After the original film's release, Boseman explained the impact of representation in the sci-fi space on younger generations.

    "It was important to us, I didn't know how other people would feel about it," Boseman said while on "Good Morning America." "I knew just from the comic book what a 'Black Panther' movie could be, the type of impact it could have, I knew it would be a revolutionary idea. I didn't necessarily know that people would buy out [the seats in] theaters."

    Both films have grossed over $2 billion at the box office, as cited by The Numbers.

  • Meteor Man

    Before the Black Panther, there was Meteor Man, a superhero who gained his powers after getting struck by a green meteorite.

    Robert Townsend wrote, directed, produced, and starred in 1993's "The Meteor Man" as school teacher Jefferson Reed, who doubles as Meteor Man. This superhero embraces his new-found powers by serving as a neighborhood hero. He even united the Blood and Crips gang who came to his rescue during the movie.

    On the 25th anniversary of the film, Townsend reflected on what inspired him to create it.

    "I did "Meteor Man" and I was like, "I want to be a superhero. Let me just do it," Townsend told Shondaland in 2018. The thing for me was that I was always battling to create new images [for black people]. That was the goal. Now to see the birth of these new superheroes, [it’s like] coming full circle."

  • Storm

    In 2000, this Halle Berry entered the MCU in the blockbuster, "X-Men" as Storm, a superhero with the power to manipulate the weather and fly.

    She also reprised her role in the franchise in 2006's "X-Men: The Last Stand" and 2014's "X-Men: Days of Future Past."

  • Blade

    The 90s were an iconic period for vampires onscreen. In 1998, Wesley Snipes stepped into the boots of the sword-swinging superhero Blade while on a mission to save the world from blood-thirsty vampires.

    The franchise is also home to a trilogy, including "Blade II" and "Blade: Trinity."

    Over the years, Snipes has credited Blade for expanding his worldview.

    "In the beginning, my motivation for doing the first Blade project was to have fun and to do something I knew my homeboys and homegirls would absolutely love," he told CBR in 2022. "The ones from the martial arts world. The ones from the Shaft world, and the ones who love Kung-fu and all that [Laughs]. We knew that would be attractive to that niche audience, but I had no idea it would have broader appeal."

    He continued, "However, it was a good lesson," Snipes continued. "It taught us what was possible. A lot of things we didn’t imagine because we didn’t have the technical tools at the time, but we have them now. It’s a great time for us and I’m giddy over the possibility of the potential of doing some of the things we had imagined with the tools we now have available with this particular project."

  • Black Lightning

    By day, Jefferson Pierce is a high school principal trying to ensure students get a quality education. By night, he swaps his suit and tie for the fit of a hero named Black Lightning. Played by Cress Williams, this CW series had audiences glued to TV screens.

    Even after its finale episode in 2021, this superhero from the DC Comics drama remains a staple in many households.

  • Catwoman

    From one superhero to another, there's no stopping Berry.

    While wearing a mask adorned with pointed ears and claws, Berry presented herself as "Cat Woman." The 2004 action flick tells the story of Patience Phillips, who transforms into a feline-turned-vigilante with powerful skills after a freak accident.

    When the film premiered at the box office, it tanked. Now, the Oscar-winner wants to give it another try.

    In 2022, she appeared on Jake's Takes and said she would like to redo it.

    "I would love to direct 'Catwoman,"' she said. "If I could get a hold of that now, knowing what I know having had this experience and reimagine that world the way I reimagined this story. "Bruised" was written for a white, Irish-Catholic 25-year-old girl and I got to reimagine it," she said while referring the the 2020 Netflix film, "Bruised."

    "I wish I could go back and reimagine "Catwoman" and have a redo on that," Berry continued. "I would have Catwoman saving the world — like most male superheroes do — and not just saving women from their faces cracking off. I would make the stakes a lot higher and I think make it more inclusive of both men and women."

  • Nick Fury

    Since 2008, Samuel L. Jackson has portrayed Marvel superhero Nick Fury in 11 Marvel productions, including "Thor," along with the "Iron Man," "Captain America," and "Avengers" franchise.

    Most recently, Jackson's role has been in the TV series "What If...?" and "Secret Invasion."

    In 2023, Jackson discussed Fury's identity, who founded the Avengers super group. As a Black man portraying a notable leader, he said it was important for his character to have a background that resonates with his life.

    “I used to take the train every summer from Chattanooga, Tennessee to Washington, D.C.,” Jackson recounted to Variety. “I couldn’t go in a dining car because it’s segregated. When they put me on the train, they gave me a shoebox with food in it, then I ate that food. We used things that were real for me as a person to give Nick Fury the kind of history that he has, to inform the story in a real way about, you know, how he wasn’t always this [powerful], or he does look at America in another kind of way.”

  • Okoye

    The iconic film "Black Panther" unveiled a new league of superheroes, including Okoye from the Dora Milaje tribe, portrayed by Danai Gurira.

    Okoye is not an average hero, though. She's revered as "one of Wakanda's greatest warriors." With her radiating presence and confidence that can cut through the toughest metal, Okoye is certainly a force to be reckoned with.

    It appears this fierce leader might be gearing up for new heights.

    In 2023, Gurira hinted there might be an Okoye spin-off in the future.

    "I have been told that I can gently allude to this possibility," she said on "The Late Show with Stephen Colbert."

    "So, I am gently alluding, just gently," she added, to which Colbert responded, "You gently alluding is the Marvel version of a full monty. I can't believe I got anything out of you."

  • Luke Cage

    Heralded by Mike Colter, Luke Cage is a superhero who likes to rock a hoodie. This brotha from Harlem is nothing to play with and will do whatever it takes to clear his name and save his community.

    When the Marvel series premiered on Netflix in 2016, Rotten Tomatoes scored it a nearly 90% rating.

    But the show was canceled after only three seasons. When asked if he'd like to reprise the role elsewhere, he said he was not betting on it.

    "I just try to stay in reasonable shape just because, but I don't think about Luke Cage opportunities," Colter told ComicBook in 2023.

    "It's one of those things where it's in the rearview mirror at this point. If somehow I get a call, my dance card is kind of full. But if I get a call, something happens, great. I had a good time," he told the outlet. "I'm happy, more than happy, to let someone else take on that mantle or that role. That character's living on for a long time. Fans are going to have that character in one way, shape, or form for the rest of their lives, and I'm happy to have been a part of that for those guys."

  • Shuri

    "Black Panther" also made Letitia Wright a household name. While portraying Shuri in the franchise, Wright proves that being a hero is not limited by age or gender.

    As T'Challa's younger sister in the franchise, Shuri gracefully owns her power and confidence.

    In the film's second installment, "Black Panther: Wakanda Forever," Wright admitted she had to level up while balancing her emotions following T'Challa's death.

    "So, in the second film, those are completely different emotions from what she carried in the first film," she explained to ComicBook in 2023. "But it's a different energy than what I usually carry. I am light-hearted and fun. I am. Let me give myself some credit. But maintaining that energy all the time is quite difficult. But I also enjoy getting into the drama of it. Just the deep, somber internal character work you need to do."

  • Dr. Manhattan

    He's a deep melanated-brotha whose superpowers turn him into a blue wonder.

    Dr. Manhattan, played by Yahya Abdul-Mateen II in HBO's TV drama series "Watchmen," is a crusader for Black empowerment while attempting to save the world. His powers give him the ability to manipulate time and space.

    In 2020, the actor won an Emmy for Outstanding Supporting Actor for his role in the show.

    “Watchmen' was a story about trauma. It was a story about the lasting scars of white domestic terrorism," he said during his acceptance speech. "It was a story about police corruption and brutality, but in the midst of all that, it was also a story about a god who came down to Earth to reciprocate, to a Black woman, all the love she deserved. He did all that in the body of a Black man, and I’m so proud that I was able to walk into those shoes. So, I dedicate this award to all of the Black women in my life.”

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