We’re in the midst of a superhero renaissance in movies and television. And while Marvel and DC comics bring their well-known icons to the screen, lesser comics companies struggle to be noticed and freed from the chaff, putting their characters into production, hoping to become the next independent superhero success.
And as has become pretty obvious with the traditional superhero rosters, mostly born in the fifties and sixties, there just isn’t a lot of color there. Some producers have responded by bringing existing black heroes to the screen (Black Panther), including some created during the infamous blaxploitation era (Luke Cage, Black Lightning), while others have taken white characters in lesser franchises and recast them as non-whites (The Umbrella Academy’s Ben and Allison Hargreeves).
Which makes this, I think, a perfect time to resurrect an independent superhero who graced the small screen for a brief time, but has so much renewed promise as a franchise today. That superhero is the M.A.N.T.I.S..
The M.A.N.T.I.S. (not to be confused with the antennae’d female character from Marvel’s Guardians of the Galaxy) has a lot going for him, character-wise, that could translate to a hugely powerful and popular series. The main character is Dr. Miles Hawkins, a rich, successful scientist of the type we don’t get to see nearly enough of in media… because he’s black. (M.A.N.T.I.S. was originally billed as TV’s first prime-time African-American superhero.) After being shot during a riot and paralysed from the waist-down, Hawkins secretly develops a powered exoskeleton that allows him to walk again, and he uses it and his other self-made inventions to fight crime and injustice in his city. M.A.N.T.I.S. is the acronym for the exoskeleton he wears (“Mechanically Augmented Neuro Transmitter Interception System”), and so he becomes known as the M.A.N.T.I.S..
Dr. Hawkins is a great character and role model, originally played with quiet passion and intelligence by actor Carl Lumbly. As a smart, savvy and successful black man, he has a lot going for him right there. On top of that is the impact of overcoming a disabling injury—an issue that, in the original series, also carried racial overtones that make his self-recovery even more powerful on a psychological level.
Other trappings of the character evoked elements of Batman, including the wealth and knowledge to create his own tech (moreso than today’s Batman of the movies, who largely borrows his tech from his corporation’s engineers), a sleek flying car, an aide who helps him around by day and assists his activities as the M.A.N.T.I.S. from his hidden lab, and his designation as a vigilante operating outside the law. There’s obviously a bit of Tony Stark/Iron Man in there as well, certainly less flambouyant but just as brilliant an inventor.
The original series went through a lot of ups and downs—mostly downs: Originally driven by the discovery of racial injustice in the city and the desire to help his friends in their time of need, the series was soon watered down by studio intervention and forced into more juvenile, “comic-book-y” stories; as well, most of the originally black characters were replaced with new characters played by white actors, taking away just about all of the racially-charged elements of the series.
But thanks to the exposure and success of modern productions like Luke Cage, Black Panther and Black Lightning, all showing a noticeably more enlightened ability to deal with racial issues without becoming shlocky, stereotypical or forced, a new M.A.N.T.I.S. series could follow in their footsteps and give us a great television or movie hero. Hopefully some clever updating of the exoskeleton and technology will go along with some inspired writing and direction, and make it look really sharp.
I, personally, don’t believe that the character has to be limited to such an overridingly-Black setting and premise as Harlem or Wakanda or Freeland (“Freeland“?!? Really, DC?); to me, that intentionally limits the character and suggests they can only exist/operate/be effective around other black people. I think placing it in a more modern and diverse setting would be one of the things that would help set the series apart, to avoid its feeling exclusive or exclusionary.
M.A.N.T.I.S. also has a lot of a science fiction feel to it, which personally attracts me… and let’s face it, science fiction can always use more Black role models that don’t get killed halfway through the picture (looking right at you, Paul Winfield). So it’s a modern setting, but with plenty of opportunities for high-tech hijinks, led by a disabled person of color… crass, I know, but it’s still a diversity win-win.
So, let’s unlimber those creative juices, sign up some of our fresh talent and get started on what could be the greatest independent superhero production since… uh…
Y’know what? Screw comparisons… let’s just make this one a runaway hit!