This week, every movie studio is likely scrambling to figure out how to replicate Black Panther’s success. As Marvel’s main rival in the realms of comics and movies, all eyes are on Warner Bros, home of the live-action DC superhero movies, in particular. Here’s a pro tip: The answer is not Cyborg. Nor is it John Stewart, the Green Lantern best known from the Justice League animated series. What the WB needs is an Icon.
Dreamed up by the legendary Dwayne McDuffie in 1993, Icon was a Milestone Media character that provided a clever riff on the Superman concept, and his origin story gives the character the same kind of metaphorical power that Black Panther has. Born to an advanced society in a far-off galaxy, he wound up on Earth after rocketing away from an exploding interstellar starcraft. His escape pod wound up in the Deep South in 19th-century United States, where his DNA imprinted on the first lifeform to approach.
The enslaved black woman who found the altered infant inside became the adoptive mother of Augustus Freeman, the identity of the human once known as Arnus. Augustus’ extraterrestrial origins gave him super-strength and energy manipulation abilities that he kept secret over his longer-than-normal lifespan.
Augustus grew to be more than a century old, living a life where he fought in the Civil War and rubbed shoulders with luminaries of the Harlem Renaissance in the 1920s. But a tragic loss led him to become a recluse until some underprivileged teens tried to rob his mansion. A display of his powers awes a girl named Raquel, who dreams up the superhero identity of Icon for Augustus. (She would become the superhero Rocket.) He dons a cape and mask once she impresses upon him how much he could inspire the economically disadvantaged black people of Dakota.
Like the fictional country of Wakanda, the character’s mythos gives access to the sweep of black history and the same reservoir of myth that Black Panther taps into so well. Icon began life on Earth as an immigrant unable to assimilate into the upper castes of American life. Even though he’s not a native of this planet, he still survived and suffered through the brutality and injustices of systemic racism, because he was locked into the form of an African American man. His arc of abandonment and reconciliation with black humanity holds significant metaphorical power, just like Erik Killmonger’s relationship with Wakanda, only he’s a prodigal son who returns as a hero.
An Icon movie wouldn’t have to hew exactly to the character’s published comics history. That escape pod could land in the African continent or the Caribbean, setting up the start of Augustus’ life somewhere else in the black diaspora. It’d be important to keep Raquel as central to the narrative, though. The stories in Icon were as much about her learning to believe in herself as they were about Augustus reconnecting with his own hybrid humanity. Augustus Freeman is a black man who lived throughout the entire 20th century, meaning filmmakers could put him in World War I, the Civil Rights Movement, or at any other moment where history took big pivots towards greater human rights for all. The big scifi plot elements would be easy enough to do but it’s the payoff that would matter most: A black superhero who has a fraught relationship with his own disenfranchised community saving the world that discriminated against him.
There would be hurdles to jump. While the Milestone Universe of characters was incorporated into the DC Universe in 2008, Milestone Media is its own discrete company with entanglements that would need to reckoned with before Icon could ever come to the silver screen. Besides, the state of affairs in Warner Bros.’ superhero movie division seem to be in constant flux, too. But the potential for success would be huge, and the character could become a foundation for bringing the whole multicultural Milestone Media universe to the silver screen.
Icon is the DC Comics-adjacent character who most approximates the allegorical strengths driving Black Panther’s cinematic success: He’s someone who is everything black people have been throughout history, a hero that’s been lost, found, and elevated into a symbol for all the world to look up to. As Raquel says when she first enters Augustus’ house, “Whoever lived here had more than money. They had knowledge. They had history. And I wanted it. More than I had ever wanted anything in my life.” Chances are that audiences would feel the same way.