Movies Nerd Nostalgia Television

The Superhero Legacy of In Living Color

in living colorOver the weekend, Jamie Foxx spilled some pretty spoilery secrets about The Amazing Spider-Man 2 and a potential Sinister Six spin-off movie. Foxx plays the supervillain Electro in the upcoming superhero sequel, and it got me thinking about the comic book movie legacy of In Living Color, one of my favorite shows growing up.

The year was 1990. I was a shy, nerdy 10-year-old living in Newport News, Virginia. Like my origin post said, I was practically raised by television because my mother was constantly working. When I wasn’t watching horror shows like Tales from the Crypt, you could find me watching anything that would make me laugh. My favorites were sitcoms like The Fresh Prince of Bel Air and Family Matters. Since there were no Asians to look for on television, I turned to these shows to find any kind of cultural connection — and to laugh uncontrollably. And no other show made me laugh harder than In Living Color.

“I’m ecstatic!”

From the moment Keenan Ivory Wayans impersonated Mike Tyson on a “Love Connection” parody, I was hooked. For the next four years, I couldn’t wait to watch it every Sunday night. I appreciated everything about the show, but what was most important to me was that I could connect to it on a personal level. I loved that the show featured a talented cast of actors of color. Years earlier, The Cosby Show had changed the way that black families were viewed on television, and In Living Color was doing the same thing for sketch comedies as well. While Eddie Murphy might have been on Saturday Night Live during the early ‘80s, SNL was (and still is) mostly white. Keenan and his brother Damon took their show to a whole new level, proving that a cast of black comics could put together a ridiculously successful and funny sketch show.

Speaking of comics, I also loved the show because it often intersected with my love of comic book superheroes and other nerdy genres. (I know it isn’t Star Trek Week anymore, but this “Wrath of Farrakhan” sketch is pretty hilarious). My favorite superheroes at the time were X-Men‘s Beast and Storm, mainly because Beast was an intellectual and Storm was a badass female mutant of color. I always rooted for the underdogs and outsiders — like the X-Men — because I thought of myself as one too. Being half white and half Korean, I never felt fully accepted by either side, so I constantly lived my life in fear of rejection. I just wanted to be accepted, and not be judged for my appearance, or by the Cross Colours jeans that I wore. See, during the early ‘90s I was an awkward middle schooler who wore coke-rimmed glasses and thought a “cool” fashion statement was to rock a Chicago Bulls embossed turtleneck. Obviously, I was wrong.

handimanAll that being said, when Damon Wayans first appeared as Handi-Man, the disabled superhero whose motto is “Never underestimate the powers of the handicapped,” I was ecstatic (just like I was with the Mike Tyson sketch). Some people were offended by the offhanded humor of the sketch — as a lot of people were with all of the sketches on the show — but I saw the character as a symbol of empowerment. People with disabilities are often pictured as helpless, and they’re never seen as heroes. But here you had a person who was black and disabled fighting crime and kicking ass, and he’s making you laugh at the same time! I loved Handi-Man, and apparently so did Gary Norris Gray, who wrote about the character’s importance in Gibbs Magazine.

I remained a dedicated fan until the show’s last episode in 1994. It was devastating to no longer see characters like Wanda, Vera de Milo, Anton Jackson and The Brothers Brothers every Sunday night. I was going to miss them because they all played a big part in shaping my crazy sense of humor during adolescence. But luckily for me, just as the show was coming to an end, some of my favorite cast members would be debuting themselves as superheroes on the big screen.

blankman
“You’ve got to be with a *woman* first! You’ve got to knock some boots, man! You’re a virgin.”

That same year Damon Wayans and David Alan Grier teamed up for the superhero parody Blankman. Instead of Wayans playing a disabled superhero, this time he was an extremely nerdy one. (So of course I loved him!) Wayans’ portrayal of Darryl/Blankman was innocent and heartwarming, and Grier as Darryl’s skeptical older brother/sidekick, was hilarious. Plus, Robin Givens (who the show had parodied in that first sketch I mentioned — seriously, I loved that Tyson sketch) played the love interest. Blankman is still one of the only examples of a superhero film where people of color are the main characters and not just supporting players.

“Let me riddle ya somethin!”

Also in 1994, arguably the show’s biggest star, Jim Carrey, appeared in The Mask, which was based on the Dark Horse Comics series. He played the hapless-loser-turned-cartoonish-stud Stanley Ipkiss with great charm, which is why it was so easy for Carrey to charm his way into the role of The Riddler in Joel Schumacher’s Batman Forever the following year. Although I wasn’t a fan of the film, I think Carrey played the supervillain in an over-the-top (and annoying) way that was perfect for the director’s take on the character. Most recently, Jim Carrey accomplished the rare comic book trifecta by starring in Kick-Ass 2, which is based on the Mark Millar and John Romita Jr. comics of the same name. Although I haven’t seen the film, I know he plays an ex-mafia vigilante named Colonel Stars and Stripes. (Carrey would go on to denounce his violent role in the film after the Sandy Hook shootings, and he has refused to promote the film as a result).

marlonThere was quite a bit of a comic book movie lull from the In Living Color guys after Carrey’s turn as Edward Nygma in 1995. It wasn’t until 2009 that one of the younger Wayans — Marlon — appeared in G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra. Playing Ripcord, a colonel whose specialty is airborne infantry and demolitions — and who was traditionally a white character in the Joe comics and cartoon, Wayans brought a sense of humor to the role that offset the wooden performance of Channing Tatum as the “all-American” Duke. Instead, Wayans’ Ripcord proved that you could bring the funny and still be the realest of American heroes. However, his best efforts didn’t get him invited back for the sequel. Oh well.

The most interesting thing, though, is that G.I. Joe actually wasn’t Marlon’s first stab at a comic book movie role. Back in 1991, when Tim Burton was set to direct Batman Returns, he had originally picked Marlon to play Robin. Unfortunately, the role was cut from the film before shooting, and when Burton opted out of the franchise prior to Batman Forever, Joel Schumacher and the studio had a different (read: whiter) vision for the sidekick. It’s probably best that Marlon didn’t play Robin anyway since, you know, bat nipples and stuff. Still, it would have been huge to see Robin played by a black man on the big screen.

electro
Instead of “rockin’ your world” as Wanda, Foxx will be “shockin’ your world” as Electro.

So that brings me to my final In Living Color alumnus with superhero movie cred: the one and only Wanda… I mean, Jamie Foxx! As I mentioned earlier, Foxx is set to star as the supervillain Electro in 2014’s The Amazing Spider-Man 2. Now this role is a far cry from playing the likes of Ray Charles or the President, since playing a Marvel Comics supervillain who can absorb electricity and shoot lightning arcs from his fingertips will be the first time Foxx has ever played the bad guy. In an interview with Blackfilm.com he said that the traditional green and yellow costume won’t be used, and that everything about this character will be reinvented for the 21st century. Which is pretty evident by the photos that have already been released from the set. Just seeing this picture of Foxx in villainous makeup has me excited for the film.

As you can see, the alumni of In Living Color has been revolutionizing television and movie screens since the 1990s. And it doesn’t look like they’ll stop anytime soon. I’m just happy that many of them are still around, and they’re keeping the memory of Wanda, Handi-Man, “Hey Mon,” and more alive! Even if the show isn’t.

4 comments

  1. Also! Steve Park, years later, voiced a character on The Venture Bros., Marc Wilmore ended up writing for The Simpsons, and finally, let’s not forget that Jennifer Lopez was a Fly Girl, choreographed by Rosie Perez. That show really gave people of color the spotlight in a way that mainstream white culture wasn’t willing to. And for a couple of sweet moments, In Living Color was better than SNL because it looked like real people, talked like real people and didn’t have that comedians-forced-into-sketches feel. In Living Color felt like you and your buddies picked up a video camera and filmed sketches in your garage.

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    1. You’re absolutely right, Zach. I focused just on comic book-related stuff in this particular post, but the show definitely spanned beyond that subject matter to put a spotlight on people of color in mainstream pop culture. It has, and always will be, my favorite television show EVER (next to The Chappelle Show)!

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