I don’t know about you, but I was quite impressed with the Black Panther in Captain America: Civil War. The trailer for his solo movie looks good, too, so I’m looking forward to it. But, apparently, some are touting this as the first black superhero film, and that’s simply not true. (How quickly they forget!) Someone in a Facebook group I belong to (“Geeks Under Grace Community”) brought this up this past weekend, and a few of us had fun coming up with movies from the past three decades where the lead character was a black superhero. Here’s what we came up with (in chronological order):
ABAR: Black Superman (1977) — OK, no one in our group came up with this one. I’d never heard of it, either, until I did a little extra research for this post. As part of the blaxploitation trend of the times (see Honorable Mentions below), this flick was about “the brothers” fighting against injustice at the hands of racist Whites and crooked politicians. “Upon moving into a bigoted neighborhood, the scientist father of a persecuted black family gives a superpower elixir to a tough bodyguard [played by Tobar Mayo], who thus becomes a superpowered crimefighter.” According to one IMDB reviewer, “The movie is actually racist in that it makes every single white person racist against blacks.” Also, “[Abar’s] powers consist of making a constant ‘swoosh’ noise every time he does something seemingly supernatural, and these things are downright hilarious. [For example, he] sees teenagers getting high and wasting time, so he turns them into college graduates (complete with the outfit!).” Despite all this and some atrocious acting, it’s one of those so-bad-it’s-fun movies (watched in context of the times, of course).
The Meteor Man (1993) — Robert Townsend starred as ‘Jefferson Reed’, a “high school teacher from a troubled inner city Washington D.C. neighborhood [who] becomes a super-powered hero and takes on the gang that has been terrorizing his streets.” Sounds somewhat like “The Greatest American Hero” TV series from the early-’80s. Anyway, this action-comedy wasn’t exactly a big hit critically or otherwise, and it lost money, but I think it does have its fans. (I confess, I never saw it.) Lots of familiar faces in this one, including Eddie Griffin, Marla Gibbs, Robert Guillaume, James Earl Jones, Don Cheadle, Bill Cosby, and Sinbad.
Blankman (1994) — This one sounds even sillier, which is probably why I didn’t watch it, either. As per the synopsis on IMDB, “Darryl is a childlike man with a genius for inventing various gadgets out of junk. When he stumbles on a method to make his clothes bulletproof, he decides to use his skills to be the lowest budgeted superhero of all.” One reviewer said, “How could you not enjoy this movie? It was actually enjoyable to watch Damon Wayans’ character make all these far-out gadgets… some of which look totally outlandish, but actually make sense! Sure, the comedy may be a little too goofy for some, but in the end, it helps.” So, maybe I will check it out… when I’m in a goofy mood.
Spawn (1997) — I liked it! It wasn’t great, mind you. But, as I recall, at least it was fairly faithful to the Image Comics series by Todd McFarlane. (It has been a long time since I’ve seen it, though.) The cast was pretty good — Michael Jai White, John Leguizamo, Martin Sheen, D.B. Sweeney — and the F/X weren’t bad for that era. (Hopefully, they’ll be even better for the upcoming remake.) Its IMDB rating may not be much better than Meteor Man‘s, but it did OK at the box office. It was also the first serious superhero film with a black lead. (Yes, I know Abar was meant to be “serious”, but it was a low-budget, ’70s cheese-fest.)
Steel (1997) — Premiering two weeks after Spawn was this travesty. Starring Shaquille O’Neal, about the only thing this movie retained from the comics was that the main character is a large black man, an engineer, who builds himself a suit of armor to fight bad guys in. Otherwise, it had no connection to Superman and the rest of the DC Universe. As one reviewer put it, “This film is so bad it reaches a certain quality of lousiness only reserved for the very worst of bad ideas. I mean – Shaquille O’Niell (sic) in a steel suit with a super weapon made from the contents of a lost-and-found at the scrap yard? Please!” Not even the talents of Annabeth Gish, Judd Nelson, or Richard Roundtree (the original Shaft!) could save it.
Blade (1998) — NOW we’re talkin’… The tale of the half-vampire/half-mortal slicing and dicing evil vampires in defense of the human race, while fighting his own (un)natural urges, was the real deal. As one fan put it, “[F]inally my prayers have been answered with Blade. This movie pops right out of the pages onto the screen with sheer violence, blood, martial arts, weapons, fire, the good against evil, etc. Yeah sure a lot of action flicks contain all these goodies, and most of them have bombed. But not Blade, the movie was filmed just right, not going overboard, delivering a good length and never a dull moment.” Wesley Snipes’ bad@$$ery was exactly what was called for, and his co-stars were great, too! As usually happens, the sequels (Blade II (2002), Blade: Trinity (2004) weren’t quite as good, though Blade II performed even better than Blade at the box office. I really need to watch this trilogy again….
Catwoman (2004) — “A shy woman, endowed with the speed, reflexes, and senses of a cat, walks a thin line between criminal and hero, even as a detective doggedly pursues her, fascinated by both of her personas.” This film was another incredibly disappointing adaptation of a comic book character… sort of. I mean, yes, there’s the feline-themed criminal/heroine who attracts the particular interest of a detective. Beyond that, she was virtually unrecognizable as the DC Comics character she was supposed to be. Also, as one IMDB reviewer said, “It was poorly acted, predictable, unenthralling, clichéd nonsense. And that was just the first half hour, at which point, for the sake of my brain and stopping it melting with the sheer tedium, I walked out of the cinema…. Utterly abysmal”
Hancock (2008) — This is actually one of my favorite Will Smith films. If you’re unfamiliar, ‘Hancock’ is a powerful superhero “who has become a joke because of his alcoholism and clumsiness. He has also become the most hated man in Los Angeles. Though he has saved many lives, he also destroyed a lot of property, costing the city millions every time he goes into action. When he saves the life of PR expert Ray Embrey from an oncoming train, the executive is thankful and believes he can restore Hancock’s image as a true superhero….” I would modify that to say it was his being a super-jerk (which was connected to the alcoholism) and recklessness (not clumsiness) that made him so hated. This one was a lot of fun! In fact, I just re-watched two trailers for it, and now I’m in the mood to watch it again. (Adding it to my list…)
The Last Dragon (1985) — The ’70s & ’80s had several movies with black (anti-)hero protagonists. I think it was a subset of the “blaxploitation” (sub)genre. There were private detectives (e.g., Shaft), drug-dealers trying to leave “the life” (e.g., Super Fly), vengeance-seeking former Green Berets (e.g., Slaughter), martial artists (e.g., The Last Dragon, Black Samurai), even a vigilante nurse (e.g., Coffy). But, they weren’t exactly superheroes, so they don’t really qualify here.
Black Cougar (2002) — I never saw this one, which apparently went straight to video. It sounds a bit cheesy to me, but if you’re in the mood….
So, as you can see, 2018’s Black Panther will *not* be the first black superhero film, nor the first one by Marvel (since ‘Blade’ is a Marvel property). It won’t even be the first good superhero film with a black lead. I can’t help but notice, though, that the three best films above (i.e., Spawn, Blade, & Hancock) were about violent anti-heroes with bad attitudes. (Well, at least part of the time.) Is that a commentary on the movie-going public, or about the studios? Or, was it simply that those are characters that writers enjoy writing and actors enjoy acting? Or, maybe it’s just coincidence? Maybe a little of all of that? I dunno…
I’m really glad that Black Panther will get the full Marvel treatment, headlining his own dramatic, big-budget, action-adventure (and non-comedic) movie. Even better is that it will take place in Wakanda, the mysterious African nation that Black Panther (aka King, formerly Prince, T’Challa) now rules. It will be a great opportunity to not only see a much different region of the Earth of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, but it will allow audiences to experience the very different cultural environment (including warring tribal factions) from which this particular hero comes.
Hope you enjoyed this little historical review. Did we miss any? Let me know if you come up with another….