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Paid the Cost to be the Boss:
Chadwick Boseman and
Mythologizing the Black Superhero


Mikal J. Gaines

In an October 2017 interview for Metro, lead Chadwick Boseman and co-star Josh Gad discussed the cultural significance of their new biopic, Marshall (Reginald Hudlin, 2017). Boseman was decidedly reticent about labeling the film as “important,” suggesting that the term made the film seem like obligatory viewing rather than a more fun, entertaining story about the “coolness” of Thurgood Marshall's early career. Boseman clarified:

Yes, he’s important. But I also think he’s a cool dude. He was cool for what he did. He was cool because he fought
for justice. He was cool because he was courageous, arrogant, and selfless. When you start talking about how
important movies are, it’s like, “You have to see the movie!” But you don’t want to see it. And I knew this was a
movie people would want to see.[1]

We can sense in Boseman’s statement a resistance not only to the often heavy-handed, didactic tone of the black biopic, but what might also be fears about audiences growing weary of stories that they have to see in order to prove their commitment to social justice vis-à-vis supporting black representation. Gad’s comments were even more telling: “I think it is important without being self-righteous. And that’s what I really respect about it. This really is a movie for everybody. At the same time it is covering this incredible period of history and this incredible journey before he is the man in the robes. It’s the origin movie of a superhero basically.”[2]

Critics similarly picked up on Marshall’s conflation of the superhero origin story and the biopic. Devin Hogan of Entertainment Weekly claimed in the title of his review that, “Marshall is a Superhero Origin Story for the Legendary Civil Rights Lawyer,”[3] while John Anderson of America magazine affirmed, “Thurgood Marshall Gets the Superhero Treatment in the New Biopic.”[4] Jessica Zack of the San Francisco Chronicle asserted “Boseman knows a thing or two about playing heroes, and that they come in many guises – from the incognito versions in our comic book pages, to history’s real life champions of justice and civil rights.”[5] John Sullivan, writing for the SMU Daily Campus, noted that “Much like many of the superhero origin stories hitting the screen recently, Marshall depicts a young Thurgood Marshall, the first black supreme court justice, building up the mystique and prestige that defined his life,” [6] whereas a reviewer for MTR Network argued “[Boseman] has taken mild mannered Supreme Court Justice, Thurgood Marshall and turned him into something more . . . a superhero.”[7] Several of the reviews also discussed Boseman’s previous roles as Jackie Robinson in 42 (Brian Helgeland, 2013) and as James Brown in Get On Up (Tate Taylor, 2014). Playing such prominent black historical figures seems to have given Boseman a brand of representational credibility that only the biographical film can offer. Moreover, his age, physicality, chameleon-like ability to slide into different personas, his apparent commitment to representations of black heroism, and his proven track record as a box office draw made him if not the only logical choice to play the lead in Marvel’s Black Panther (Ryan Coogler, 2018), certainly the most obvious one. As the Godfather of Soul himself would say, he has “paid the cost to be the boss.” And now that the film has broken the billion-dollar mark at the box office, it would be hard to argue that his casting was not a fortuitous choice.[8]

While Boseman offers convincing performances in Black Panther as well as the aforementioned biopics, I am less interested in the nuances of his acting than in what his playing all of these parts signifies about larger shifts in systems of meaning and knowledge production in American culture. I want to better understand how it is that we seem to have arrived at a point in the history of the biopic, of the superhero film, of black cinema, and of film history more generally in which Black Panther feels, strangely, like the most important biopic of all time despite its being about a wholly fictional persona. Moreover, why and how does Black Panther seem to carry more historical weight, both in its desire to present a nuanced, multifaceted view of blackness and as a history-making black cinematic event, than films about real black historical figures? To clarify, I am not arguing that the Boseman-led biopics or other recent black biopics have somehow been shortchanged by shallow audiences who prefer more escapist narratives. This argument is not intended as a moralist judgment about how the kind of popular myth, which the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) has done such an effective job canonizing, garners a much bigger audience than films about real black folks. After all, even if it were terrible (and it isn’t) Black Panther would likely always have brought in more money than any of the more traditional Boseman-led historical films. What does seem worthy of further attention, though, is how Boseman’s transition from starring in those biopics to then embodying King T’Challa, “The Black Panther,” reveals continuities between the kinds of ideological work that both genres do, and how the superhero film potentially does so in ways that audiences find more satisfying.

Ostensibly based on real people and true historical events, biopics nevertheless often seek to mythologize their subjects, to create a fixed image that registers along with other easily associable signs in the popular imagination. Alternatively, many Marvel films and particularly their superhero origin stories work to create a sense of history that foregrounds, solidifies, and ultimately lends seriousness to their mythological heroes. I contend that this blurring of biography and superhero mythos signals a deeper postmodern desire to challenge and replace established versions of history that fail to serve our present understandings. We seem to want and perhaps even need the superhero film to do things for us culturally, politically, and representationally that the biopic no longer can. Boseman’s career trajectory also suggests that if the biopic has often served as mechanism of legitimacy, a reward and proof of the actor’s special capabilities, it has now become a stepping-stone to the more prestigious and culturally significant work of rendering truth from myth.

This merging of the biopic and the superhero story begins to make much more sense if we consider that Marvel has arguably been in the biopic business for some time. Ironman (Jon Favreau, 2008), The Incredible Hulk (Louis Leterrier, 2008), Thor (Kenneth Branagh, 2011), Captain America: The First Avenger (Joe Johnston, 2011), The Guardians of the Galaxy (James Gunn, 2014), Antman (Peyton Reed, 2015), Doctor Strange (Scott Derrickson, 2016), and now Black Panther all seek to provide an account of how their respective heroes come into their power, or, in some cases, how they transition from boisterous and even reckless displays of that power to a more mature reckoning with the responsibility that attends it. As with the biopic, the heroes are put through their paces, they stumble, form allegiances, sever past bonds, and struggle with deep internal and external conflicts, all so that they can finally accept their new roles and prove why their special powers are precisely what are needed to save the day. The underlying assumption – just as with Jackie Robinson, James Brown, Thurgood Marshall, or the focus of any other prototypical biopic – is that heroes are people born with gifts and a unique sense of character who find themselves elevated by destiny or circumstance, and who choose, to quote The Avengers (Joss Whedon, 2012) tagline, “to fight the battles that we never could.” But what really allows these characters to become those to whom audiences feel connected (and I would argue more so than to those in any biopic), and what also enables the MCU to cohere, is that each of the heroes’ stories are bound by a layered and decidedly complex brand of historicity. Even in the aforementioned origin stories, the heroes’ emergence derives in large part from their ability to successfully grapple with the past: Ironman/Tony Stark hopes to counter the damage wrought by his father’s violent legacy as an arms dealer. Thor likewise seeks to reconcile his father’s old rivalries and prove himself worthy of the powers he holds within. The whole Guardians team is a group self-professed “losers” wrestling to overcome past personal traumas. But this historicity extends to more than just the heroes’ individual pasts.

In more recent Marvel films, the heroes discover that their whole worlds have been based on falsehoods, and the revelation of the truth does nothing less than rewrite history itself, at least as it exists with the MCU. In Captain America: The Winter Soldier (Anthony Russo & Joe Russo, 2014), Steve Rodgers (Chris Evans) learns that S.H.I.E.L.D., the government agency whose missions he has been carrying out, has, in fact, been infiltrated by the evil secret society Hydra and is corrupt to its very core. Thor: Ragnarok (Taika Waititi, 2017) reveals that the foundation of the entire mythical kingdom of Asgard’s rests not on the benevolent rule of King Odin (Anthony Hopkins), but rather on a colonialist reign of terror carried out by both Odin and Thor’s outcast sister Hela, the Goddess of Death (Kate Blanchett). Most importantly for my purposes here, T’Challa in Black Panther finds out that his father T’Chaka murdered his own brother N’Jobo (Sterling K. Brown) for betraying Wakanda and that he subsequently abandoned N’Jobo’s son Erik (later Killmonger, played by Michael B. Jordan) in America. This original sin, coupled with the decision to keep Wakanda and the ultimate natural resource, vibranium, a secret from the rest of the world becomes the animating conflict of the film.

As the MCU has grown, then, each subsequent film adds more and more layers of backstory, constantly deepening the characters’ journeys, instigating new conflicts, and creating a sense of interdependence with the past that ironically is not and perhaps cannot be duplicated by the standalone format of the biopic. Serialization affords Marvel films what the traditional biopic wants but can never deliver: a continually re-imaginable, fluid past and futurity without limit. Jackie Robinson and James Brown can of course only integrate Major League Baseball and change the rhythm of American popular music once, with what will always be the same results. And while Thurgood Marshall may have helped alter the course of American jurisprudence many times, the impact of that for audiences who still find themselves disenfranchised at the hands of an insidious criminal justice system feels both emphatically past and fundamentally limited. As Amen Oyiboke plainly states in a piece about the still circumscribed nature of black screen representation, “Yes, biopics can sometimes be helpful in showcasing issues Black people have faced historically, but that can’t be the only kind of Black stories we get. Our lives aren’t one dimensional, and to understand the community means that Hollywood needs to explore our everyday lives in addition to those of historical figures.”[9] In this sense, superhero films can both interrogate the past and give audiences futures that even they have not yet imagined.

To better understand this interconnected relationship between the black biopic and the superhero film, we need only look at two moments, one from a Boseman-led biopic and another that features fans reacting to a surprise meeting with Boseman following a screening of Black Panther. An early scene in 42 shows Jackie Robinson (Boseman) arriving at the home of Mr. Brock (James Pickens Jr.), a local black businessman who will host Jackie during training camp in Sandford, Florida. Brock, in classic integrationist posture proclaims that, “The day belongs to decent-minded people.” Brock then goes on to say that his wife earlier asked, “What do you serve when a hero’s coming to dinner?” Jackie then modestly qualifies that he’s “just a ball player.” Immediately rejecting Jackie’s attempt to downplay the significance of his representative role, Brock claims, “Naw, naw, naw. You tell that to all the little colored boys playing baseball in Florida today. To them, you a hero.” The phrase triggers a triumphant swell of score music and a predictable medium shot of Robinson’s growing awareness of the great weight he carries. Although scenes like this that reinforce Robinson’s heroic status permeate the film, this is easily the most explicit in its attempt to situate him within a recognizable framework of historic black heroism. Yet these signposting moments feel peculiar and overdetermined given the audience’s almost guaranteed prior familiarity with Robinson’s story and the frequency with which he already functions as common shorthand for racial barrier breaking. Even when dealing with a well-known figure like Robinson, the black biopic still exhibits insecurity, requiring such deliberate claims about the gravity and magnitude of its subject.

An episode of The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon shortly after the release of Black Panther takes a different approach, positioning Boseman’s role and the film itself as a landmark moment in black history.[10] Black spectators stand in front of a large poster of Boseman in full costume and are asked to speak about the film’s impact as he waits along with Fallon behind a curtain to surprise them. Their comments range from praise to gratitude to inspiration with the most telling doing nothing less than establishing Boseman as a true hero. In fact, the very first spectator interviewed, a man adorned in a blue suit, remarks, “I can’t express how much it means to me and the community and my family. Thank you from the very bottom of my heart for all that you’ve done, for really being the hero that we need in a film like this.”[11] When Boseman reveals himself from behind the curtain, the man literally screams and then begins bowing to Boseman while performing the Wakandan cross-armed salute and humbly repeating, “My king, my king, my king.” Others talked about how much it meant to have him “step into the role as our king” and “to see a movie that’s not like a black movie, but . . . just a great American superhero movie with you know, people that look like me.”[12] A mother with her young son in tow even said that her son’s childhood had “been defined by Barack Obama and now Black Panther.”[13] Although Boseman jokes that her statement seems like “too much praise,” her implied equivocation between the President of the United States and a make-believe Marvel character coupled with the absence of any reference to Boseman’s other work in historical films speaks to a profound shift in how black audiences have come to conceptualize representation.

These real spectators’ responses to an entirely fictional film, especially when read in contrast to the fictionalized but at least plausible moment from 42, make apparent the stark contrast between a “historical” film that needs to announce its protagonist’s importance in an explicit, even ham-fisted way, versus one where fans have implicitly interpreted the character’s presence as having worth in their real lives. However respectful audiences might feel toward Boseman’s work in biopics, that respect did not and could not warrant him the position as “our king” that we hear in fan responses to Black Panther. Moreover, the spectators’ responses rely upon a powerful albeit not unproblematic conflation of Boseman with his Marvel persona based on the tacit recognition that a superhero film like Black Panther carries far higher representational stakes than any of his more “historical” roles. Rather than read these spectators as failing to understand the difference between myth and reality, their sentiments evince that the superhero film has clearly superseded the biopic both in regard to how black history gets done through and by popular culture and in terms of what constitutes a historic moment in black screen representation.

I have been largely skeptical here about the biopic’s power to leave audiences feeling moved or for it to do the kind of revisionist, corrective work that it once did. It seems difficult to imagine a collective rally around a biopic for any black historical figure equivalent to what we have seen for Black Panther—or for that matter, what we witnessed for Spike Lee’s Malcolm X (1992) over a quarter century ago. Yet, we should not be too dismissive of how the biopic still performs a legitimizing function within the greater scheme of black screen representation. Perhaps no single moment in Black Panther testifies more to its place as a kind of biopic, and to the legitimacy that the biopic has granted to black talent, than the scene in which Erik Killmonger, played by Michael B. Jordan, challenges Boseman’s T’Challa for the throne. Jordan himself became a household name after his breakout role in the Oscar Grant biopic, Fruitvale Station (2013), which was, of course, also Ryan Coogler’s full-length directorial debut. I would argue Coogler and Jordan’s next collaboration, Creed (2016) is itself really nothing less than a fictionalized biopic, and Jordan would likely not have been given such a prominent role in Black Panther if not for his standout performance there.

Boseman and Jordan’s biopic credentials firmly established, the scene also features Forest Whitaker, who has no shortage of biopic bona fides. He played legendary jazz saxophonist Charlie Parker in Clint Eastwood’s Bird (1988) and a character loosely based on civil rights activist Bob Hicks in Deacons for Defense (Bill Duke, 2003). He won the Best Actor award for his portrayal of Idi Amin in The Last King of Scotland (Kevin McDonald, 2006) and played famous scholar and minister Dr. James Farmer, Sr. in The Great Debaters (Denzel Washington, 2007). He played real life Louisiana basketball coach Al Collins in Hurricane Season (Tim Story, 2009) and starred in The Butler (Lee Daniels, 2013), which is loosely based on the life of Eugene Allen. In this scene from Black Panther, Whitaker is flanked by Angela Bassett, who has played Dr. Betty Shabazz in both Malcolm X (1992) and Panther (Mario Van Peebles, 1995), Katherine Jackson in The Jacksons (1992), Tina Turner in her Oscar-nominated performance for What’s Love Got to Do with It (Brian Gibson, 1993), Rosa Parks in the TV-movie The Rosa Parks Story (Julie Dash, 2002), Voletta Wallace in Notorious (George Tillman Jr., 2009), Coretta Scott King in Betty and Coretta (Yves Simoneau, 2013), and Marie Laveau in American Horror Story (FX, 2013-2014) (which I think, in a weird way, counts too). Also present are Danai Gurira fresh off her turn as Afeni Shakur in the Tupac biopic All Eyez on Me (Benny Brown, 2017), and Lupita Nyong’o, who of course won the Best Supporting Actress Oscar for her role as Patsy in the Solomon Northup biopic 12 Years a Slave (Steve McQueen, 2013). She also starred in Disney’s “based on a true story” uplift film Queen of Katwe (Mira Nair, 2016). Thus, this otherwise standard Marvel showdown in which a superhero is deliberately set up to fail only so that he can later rise to his full potential takes on more weight, in part, because it populates the frame with black actors whose pedigrees have been bolstered by their appearances in biopics and other black historical films. These are actors who we trust not just to play real black historical figures but who we trust with black symbolic representation itself.

The only way the aforementioned scene of superhero self-making could have been further stacked with black actors who have similarly found acclaim and clout playing real life characters is if Don Cheadle, Jamie Foxx, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Will Smith, and Halle Berry showed up.[14] But then Cheadle, aka James Rhodes, aka “War Machine,” was probably still recovering from his terrible fall in Captain America: Civil War (Anthony Russo & Joe Russo, 2016). As for Foxx, we can assume that since the MCU has been willing to accommodate Michael B. Jordan, Chris Evans, and Ryan Reynolds even after previously unsuccessful superhero roles, fans would probably also accept Foxx and put aside his turn as Max Dillon, aka Electro, in The Amazing Spider-Man (Marc Webb, 2012) – especially now that Spiderman has been rebooted and incorporated into the MCU as well.[15] Although one wonders how Foxx's Django Unchained (Quentin Tarantino, 2012) role – a lone black anti-hero more interested in revenge than justice – might factor into the equation. But, then again, fans do not seem to have any trouble distinguishing Samuel L. Jackson’s highly offensive Django character, Steven, from his more assertive and wise Nick Fury persona. Ejiofor has already entered and somewhat unceremoniously exited the MCU after playing “Mordo” in Doctor Strange.

Halle Berry was arguably the first to transition between the biopic and the superhero film in her role as Storm in the X-Men movies (Bryan Singer, 2000; Singer 2003; Brett Ratner, 2006; Singer 2014) and less successfully in Catwoman (Pitof, 2004). Like Boseman, Berry’s work as Storm might very well end up being the most significant of her career in terms of what it means for black representation on screen, and certainly more so than her performance in a biopic like Introducing Dorthy Dandridge (Martha Coolidge, 1999). Will Smith’s star presence seems like it would have been too great a disruption to the carefully cultivated team dynamic that holds the MCU together, but the bigger issue is of course that Smith now plays the anti-hero “Deadshot” in the competing DC Comics universe. This part comes after multiple roles in biopics and as anti-hero turned superhero Hancock (Peter Berg) in 2008, which is, ironically, the same year that the MCU’s inaugural film, Ironman, was released.

I have been playing this postmodern game of degrees of separation between the black biopic and the superhero film because I think it has something to tell us about how American audiences in general and black audiences specifically are making sense of their experience through the movies. American popular culture has in recent years become even more deeply invested in different articulations of heroism, individual and collective, black, white, and otherwise. These narratives by their very nature offer more straightforward, simplistic solutions to what are largely intractable, systemic problems with deep historical roots. The appeal of biopics, “real life” examples of heroic individuals triumphing over enormous odds and against virulent resistance, and superhero films, stories about gifted individuals who use their power for a greater good, makes a certain obvious sense as a response. I would argue that what makes all of this especially interesting, however, is how blackness has come to be a pivotal part of this larger conversation about what makes someone a hero in the twenty-first century. Also worthy of closer consideration is how the mythmaking ethos of the biopic and the increasingly strong impulse of superhero films to historicize have blurred the lines between fantasy and reality. No, Wakanda isn’t real. Neither is Black Panther. But we need to take seriously the power this mythology holds for audiences, and begin asking more critical questions about why conventional ways of doing black history on screen, as with the biopic, no longer seem like the most meaningful or even true ways of framing a black past so as to imagine a freer, more just, and more dynamic black future. 


End Notes


[1] Gregory Wakeman, “Why the ‘Superhero Origin’ Story of Thurgood Marshall is ‘Important,’ but Still Entertaining,” Metro, October 12, 2017,


[2] Wakeman, “Why the ‘Superhero Origin’ Story of Thurgood Marshall is ‘Important,’ but Still Entertaining,”


[3] Devin Hogan, “Marshall is a Superhero Origin Story of he Legendary Civil Rights Lawyer,” Entertainment Weekly, October 13, 2017,


[4] John Anderson, “Thurgood Marshall Gets the Superhero Treatment in the New Biopic.”

America, October 12, 2017.


[5] Jessica Zack, “Marvel Superhero Boseman Plays Real-Life Superhero Thurgood Marshall,” San Francisco Chronicle, October 7, 2017,


[6] John Sullivan, “Marshall is a New Kind of Superhero Story,” SMU Daily Campus, October 11, 2017,


[7] Shanna, “Marshall Feels Like a Historical Superhero Origin Story,” MTR Network, June 22, 2017,


[8] Rebecca Rubin, “Black Panther Crosses $1 Billion at Global Box Office,” Variety, March 10, 2018,


[9] Amen Oyiboke, “Chadwick Boseman Always Starring in Biopics Emphasizes Hollywood’s Lack of Black Stories,” Bustle, October 27, 2017, ;

See also, Kara Brown, “Why Does Hollywood Keep Casting Chadwick Boseman in Biopics?” Jezebel, December 15, 2017,

[10] “Chadwick Boseman Surprises Black Panther Fans While They Thank Him,” YouTube video, 5:47, posted by The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon, February 28, 2018,


[11] “Chadwick Boseman Surprises Black Panther Fans While They Thank Him,”


[12] “Chadwick Boseman Surprises Black Panther Fans While They Thank Him,”


[13] “Chadwick Boseman Surprises Black Panther Fans While They Thank Him,”


[14] These actors can boast an impressive slate of roles in biopics and other historical films even if their consistent casting in such roles still evidences a limited range of parts for black actors who want to work regularly. Don Cheadle: Rebound: The Legend of Earl “The Goat” Manigault (Eriq La Salle, 1996), Rosewood (John Singleton, 1997), The Rat Pack (Rob Cohen, 1998), Hotel Rwanda (Terry George, 2004), Talk to Me (Kasi Lemmons, 2007), Miles Ahead (Don Cheadle, 2015); Jamie Foxx: Ali (Michael Mann, 2001), Ray (Taylor Hackford, 2004), Jarhead (Sam Mendes, 2005), The Soloist (Joe Wright, 2009); Chiwitel Ejiofor: Amistad (Steven Spielberg, 1997), Talk to Me (Kasi Lemmons, 2007), American Gangster (Ridley Scott, 2007), Endgame (Pete Travis, 2009), Savannah (Annette Haywood-Carter, 2013), Phil Spector (David Mamet, 2013), 12 Years a Slave (Steve McQueen, 2013), Come Sunday (Joshua Marston, 2018), The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind (Ejiofor, 2019); Halle Berry: Queen (1993), Race the Sun (Charles T. Kanganis, 1996), Why Do Fools Fall in Love (Gregory Nara, 1998), Introducing Dorothy Dandridge (Martha Coolidge, 1999), Frankie and Alice (Geoffrey Sax, 2010); Will Smith: Ali (Mann, 2001), The Pursuit of Happyness (Gabriele Muccino, 2006), Concussion (Pete Landesmen, 2015).


[15] Evans played Johnny Storm, “The Human Torch” in both The Fantastic Four (Tim Story, 2004) and The Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer (Story, 2007), whereas Jordan played the same character in the much-maligned attempt to reboot the series, Fantastic Four (Josh Trank, 2015). Ryan Reynolds had three less than laudable appearances in superhero movies, Blade Trinity (David S. Goyer, 2004), X-Men Origins: Wolverine (Gavin Hood, 2009), and Green Lantern (Martin Campbell, 2011) before finally gaining critical and box office success with Marvel’s more recent Deadpool films (Tim Miller, 2016; David Leitch, 2018).




Anderson, John. “Thurgood Marshall Gets the Superhero Treatment in the New Biopic.” America. October 12, 2017.


Brown, Kara. “Why Does Hollywood Keep Casting Chadwick Boseman in Biopics?” Jezebel.

December 15, 2017.


“Chadwick Boseman Surprises Black Panther Fans While They Thank Him.” YouTube video,

posted by The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon, February 28, 2018.


Hogan, Devin. “Marshall is a Superhero Origin Story of he Legendary Civil Rights Lawyer.”

Entertainment Weekly. October 13, 2017.


Oyiboke, Amen. “Chadwick Boseman Always Starring in Biopics Emphasizes Hollywood’s

Lack of Black Stories.” Bustle. October 27, 2017.


Rubin, Rebecca. “Black Panther Crosses $1 Billion at Global Box Office.” Variety. March 10,



Shanna. “Marshall Feels Like a Historical Superhero Origin Story.” MTR Network. June 22,



Sullivan, John. “Marshall is a New Kind of Superhero Story.” SMU Daily Campus. October 11,



Wakeman, Gregory. “Why the ‘Superhero Origin’ Story of Thurgood Marshall is ‘Important,’

but Still Entertaining.” Metro. October 12, 2017.            chadwick-boseman


Zack, Jessica. “Marvel Superhero Boseman Plays Real-Life Superhero Thurgood Marshall.” San

Francisco Chronicle. October 7, 2017.

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