The MCU’s Black characters have showcased superpowers, amped-up gear, and incredible sets of skills. Yet many are given one particular role to play: the sidekick. Take a look at films with central Avengers characters such as Captain America, Captain Marvel, Iron Man, and Dr. Strange. Each has depicted a charming Black character as the sidekick to its main white character. At times, this even comes at their own physical expense. The Black sidekick mentality is a tired one; Marvel didn’t create it, of course, but that doesn’t absolve them of using it.
The origins of the Black sidekick trope are rooted in racism. Black characters, instead of going on their own journeys, must enable the white leads’ trajectories. They are accessories to the white leads’ success, and so never get fulfillment unless it’s a result of the leads’ happiness. This type of trope intersects with various different common portrayals of Black people in movies. Think about the sassy Black woman, like Tyler Perry’s Madea, who’s always there to serve as a vivacious reality check for the lead character. Then there’s the token Black friend who exists in the otherwise all-white friend group. There’s also the “magical negro” trope, in which a wise, altruistic Black character acts as a moral guide to white protagonists. (Think Scatman Crothers in The Shining.)
These stereotypical portrayals of Black folks stem from their performances by white actors in Blackface; Black folks were not allowed to portray themselves or to work in modern cinema. So renditions of Black people were distorted into caricatures that served to justify racism and systemic oppression towards Black folks. As film and TV evolved, so did the portrayals of Black people on screen. But the racist nuances remained. Journalist Manohla Dargis coined the term “the DuVernay test” (after filmmaker Ava DuVernay) to reflect Black and Brown characters’ on-screen existence as fully realized people. Evaluating movies through this method holds films and their creators accountable for ensuring the inclusion of Black characters beyond plot devices for white characters.
Looking at various MCU films, we can see how lacking the holistic character development is for Black characters.
Take a look at Colonel James Rhodes a.k.a War Machine. We see Rhodes as best friends with Tony Stark, in the Iron Man movies; he acts as the voice of reason and structure to Tony’s hedonistic and impulsive personality. He’s a soldier who follows orders without questioning them, which leaves him utilized for the whims of the protagonist and ultimately gets him in grave physical danger. A willing servant whose life beyond this we aren’t familiar with, but can be toyed with.
Or take Karl Mordo from the movie Doctor Strange. The filmmakers cast Chiwetel Ejiofor, making the character Black for the film. Mordo served as a mystical guide, teacher, and moral compass to Strange. He was also a follower of the Ancient One and a Master of the Mystic Arts. In the end, his absoluteness about who can use magic and how sets the stage for his transformation to jaded adversary. From magical negro to magical villain.
Then there’s Maria Rambeau, fighter pilot, co-founder of S.W.O.R.D, single mother to Monica Rambeau, and best friend to Carol Danvers a.k.a Captain Marvel. Maria’s screen time zeroes in on her serving as the grounding force to Brie Larson’s character. Her purpose is to remind Carol Danvers who she is and support her in her mission. Becoming an amalgamation of the token Black friend and strong Black woman trope. Also, before the introduction of adult Monica Rambeau, we would have only seen Maria as the roots to Carol’s earthly past.
Finally, we have Sam Wilson a.k.a. Falcon. Another soldier (a trend here) whose purpose beyond witty one-liners and Lethal Weapon antics is as support system to Captain America. Sam’s efforts to support Captain America’s redemption of the Winter Soldier jeopardizes his own well-being. It ultimately leads to his incarceration.
But now is the time for Black characters to stand outside of the shadow of their movie leads. Time for them to move into their own purpose as fully actualized characters. We saw this with Black Panther and now, with the MCU jumping from the silver screen to TV screens, we get to witness shows like WandaVision and The Falcon and the Winter Soldier bring characters to life in a way that wasn’t possible on film. Beyond WandaVision, we feel the influence of Monica Rambeau—a full, detailed character who is not a sidekick to a white lead.
With The Falcon and the Winter Soldier premiering this month, we’ll witness a Black character lead another Marvel property. Hopefully, audiences will get to experience a character who is more than just comic relief. Wilson navigates a world where he is no longer the sidekick. Instead, he’s the heir apparent to the title of Captain America. In an interview with Variety, it was noted that Mackie would always make jokes about being number 6 on the call sheet. Now he’s number 1. A spot that looks good on him.
It’s exciting to see the expansion of the Marvel Cinematic Universe include Black characters flourishing. Phase 4 has brought in many surprises, but the good fortune doesn’t have to stop there. With Armor Wars, Secret Invasion, Ironheart, Blade, and Black Panther 2 around the corner, the MCU has more titles with Black people leading the helm than ever before. This means more time on-creen highlighting Black characters navigating difficult choices, engaging in complex relationships, perhaps disguising ulterior motives, and ultimately homing in on their own power. I’m excited to see Marvel take us on a journey where Black sidekicks stay in the past and Black heroes lead the way into the future.