Black Panther Will NOT Be the First Black Superhero Movie

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, clich├ęd 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…)

Honorable Mentions:

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….

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Brief Notes on Nolan/Bale Batman Films

Alright, I’m gonna say it up front: I didn’t think Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy was as great as many critics and fans have made it out to be. Part of my issue was because of Gotham itself. Nolan wanted to do a “more realistic” take on the Batman mythos, which apparently included making Gotham look & feel like just about any other big city in the U.S. I am all for a strong foundation in realism, but for me Gotham also needs to have a dose of the dark, gothic quirkiness seen in the comics, the animated series, and even (just barely) in the “Gotham” TV series.

the_dark_knight_trilogy___movie_poster_by_zungam80-d76af9nI’m going to risk retribution from many fans by saying that I also am not a *huge* fan of Heath Ledger’s Joker. (With Jared Leto getting so much attention and applause for his version of the Joker before Suicide Squad even begins filming, I feel a little safer admitting this, now.) I didn’t say I wasn’t a fan of Ledger’s portrayal at all. The emphasis on the anarchist side of the character was interesting on its own merits, and Ledger’s performance was quite good, including the occasional ad lib. He really did make the character his own. But,… it just wasn’t the version of the Joker that I wanted to see/hear and have been waiting for for decades.

The same could be said for Christian Bale’s take on Bruce Wayne / Batman. Bale did a decent job within Nolan’s Bat-universe, I suppose. But, he wasn’t big enough, or confident enough, or formidable enough, or…. Both his hand-to-hand combat and his detective skills were far from impressive, too. (Sorry, dudes.)

As I have done for other movies, I jotted down a few brief notes — mostly re the latter two entries — that I just have to get off my chest. So, here goes…

  • Ra’s Al Ghul doesn’t look or act quite right. Plus, he was not Bruce’s only mentor/trainer.
  • Joker not prankster-ish enough.
  • Villains die too quickly (i.e., they should barely escape or be locked in Arkham or Blackgate).
  • Alfred’s accent and mannerisms are not right.
  • Bruce would not wallow in pity (and allow himself to get out of physical shape/practice) for 8 years, and he would never leave Gotham for good.
  • Is this new “Robin” (John Blake) supposed to be an amalgam of other Robins? Is he really going to inherit the ‘mantle of the bat’ so soon?
  • Bane should have been even bigger and had a different accent. (And what’s with the cheesy voice f/x?)
  • Gotham looks too much like any other city. It has no Gotham-esque character. It s/b somewhere between “normal” and the Gotham from the Tim Burton movies.
  • Christian Bale is a pretty fair BW/Batman, I guess, but the Batman voice has become laughable. He should use electronic alteration to mask it, instead.
  • Freeman is good as Lucius Fox, if a bit old. And since when is the character a technological genius?
  • Anne Hathaway was surprisingly good as Selina Kyle / Catwoman, and I like that they incorporated stuff from the comics. Should’ve had a cat fetish, though.
  • Gary Oldman is very good as Comm. Gordon.
  • The Bat Cave looks pretty good but needs to be “explored”. The vehicles, weapons, and gadgets are great but a bit too military-looking. (Yes, I realize that that is what they were originally designed for.)
  • In the three movies, we’ve seen little to make us think our hero is even an above-average fighter, and certainly not a world-class detective. (Heck, Alfred digs up more info than Bruce.) He is supposed to be the “world’s greatest detective” and master of multiple (dozens of?) martial arts, for cryin’ out loud! If Nolan wanted to make him “more realistic” by making him barely more than “ordinary”, he succeeded.
  • Leg-brace or no, if anyone had “no cartilage in your knee” along with Bruce’s other problems (with no explanation for them, mind you), he wouldn’t be in any shape to be running around and fighting, ESPECIALLY after having his back (presumably) broken. I don’t care if he was wearing a nifty, new leg brace.

Now, there are a lot of silly things, plot holes, and other stuff I didn’t get into. But, if you really want a brutal (but amusing) round-up of “Everything Wrong With The Dark Knight Rises In 3 Minutes Or Less”, check this out:

Review of Gotham (TV series)

Gotham is here!

Like a lot of you, I was really looking forward to this show. But, as usual, I had my misgivings about certain aspects of the characters that were being modified from what has been “established” in the comics. (Yes, I realize that there have been at least 3 versions of the “main” version/timeline of the DC Universe, not to mention various other, simultaneously existing Earths and their cosmos — making it a DC Multi-verse, I suppose. But, as usual, I give primacy to the post-Crisis/pre-52, “New Earth” history.) So, please allow me to get a few things off my chest…

1) Jim Gordon was not a “returning war hero” when he became a detective at GCPD. Rather, Gordon’s return to Gotham was when he transferred from a 15+ year stint at Chicago PD. (This also means he should be a few years older — say, early- to mid-40s — and already married to Barbara Kean for some time.) This occurred roughly the time Batman first appeared.

2) Harvey Bullock should be several years younger, not older, than Gordon, and he was never Gordon’s partner.

3) Sarah Essen was not Gordon’s superior. She was a detective and Gordon was a lieutenant, when he transferred to Gotham from Chicago and they became partners (and, later, had an affair).

4) Rene Montoya and Crispus Allen should be closer to Bruce Wayne’s age. Same goes for Selina Kyle. (Possibly younger.)

5) Bruce Wayne was 8 when his parents were killed, not 12 or 13.

6) Alfred should be roughly in his early 30s at the time of the Waynes’ deaths, not 50ish. (He would be the right age for Alfred when Batman debuted, though.)

7) Neither Gordon nor Bullock were involved in the case of the Wayne murders.

Ahem… I could probably go on, but I won’t.

Gotham promo posterDespite those irksome details, I am trying to watch the show as an “alternative timeline” or re-imagining of early “origins” and events in the Batman mythos. And, to be fair, that is exactly what the producers of the show told us that it would be. So, with that in mind, I have to say that I really liked the pilot, and subsequent episodes have been equally enjoyable. (Note: I didn’t want to just review the pilot episode, so I waited until I had watched three before commenting.) That isn’t to say that I don’t still have quibbles, too. But, maybe I should address each in an orderly fashion….

Characters and Cast:

Ben McKenzie does an admirable job as Det. James Gordon — the straight-arrow, new detective in town, trying to figure out how he can make a difference in the violent and corrupt city of Gotham. It will be interesting to see how he deals with various difficult situations, while struggling to maintain his integrity and stay alive. Still, there are a few iconic visuals that are missing: cigarettes, glasses, bushy mustache, trenchcoat. I won’t be surprised if the PC police in Hollywood prevent Gordon from smoking (as they have with the title character of the new “Constantine” show), but I really hope the other three accessories eventually get incorporated into the character.

I am sort of getting used to Donal Logue as Harvey Bullock, though he still isn’t quite right for it, imo. I like Logue in other stuff, but, for some reason, I’m unsure of him in this role. (Physically, for example, Bullock should be heavier and more slovenly.) Since there isn’t that much we know about Bullock’s earlier years (other than that he was a corrupt cop), I’m willing to go along to see what they do with him. Plus, the interaction between good cop Gordon and ethically-challenged Bullock could be quite entertaining, especially with these two, fine actors.

Detectives Montoya (Victoria Cartagena) and Allen (Andrew Stewart-Jones) bug me. Part of it is the way they went after Gordon, assuming he was as corrupt as the rest, even though he was new in town. Part of it is the casting, which doesn’t quite work for me. Sure, they are a Latina woman and a Black guy, both attractive, and both actors can play tough cops. But, that isn’t enough. (That reminds me, I need to do my own fan-casting for them in the next few weeks.) On the other hand, I like that they are among the few good cops at GCPD who haven’t “sold out” for a few extra bucks. I’ll try to reserve judgment, for now.

Honestly, I’m not sure what to make of Erin Richards’ Barbara Kean. The character isn’t exactly prominent in the comics. (At least, she wasn’t while I was reading them regularly.) DC wiki says she was a former waitress and has no mention of her coming from a well-heeled family. Also, I am pretty sure she never had a relationship of any kind with Rene Montoya. Their drug-taking past would have been an interesting enough complication, but making Kean bisexual, too, seems like just a PC way of highlighting Montoya’s own sexual preferences. Regarding the news Montoya gave her about Gordon, it seemed odd to me that Kean would have any doubts about Gordon’s innocence, knowing the man as she does. Wouldn’t it make more sense for her to have insisted that Montoya doublecheck the reliability of her source? Again, I’m somewhat ambivalent about the character. I guess we’ll see if she is good for Gordon, or not.

I find it a little odd that the producers chose a Latina, Zabryna Guevara, to play the rather non-Latino (Germanic?) character of Sarah Essen. Still, not a big deal. (Besides, at least the last name can be explained via adoption or marriage.) I haven’t decided if I like the character or not. She seems to be a stereotypical boss, who gets yelled at by her superiors and then takes it out on her underlings. She also seems to be part of the problem, in that she looks the other way when those in her command get rough with suspects, and, like the mayor, she appears to be more concerned with public appearances than with justice. I haven’t figured out just how corrupt she actually is — limited screen time, after all — but I hope she ends up an ally for Gordon.

Edward Nygma, as portrayed by Cory Michael Smith, is a somewhat goofy forensic analyst with an obsession for riddles. Personally, I would have made the nascent Riddler a more serious character, and I thought I remembered him being an accountant or something. Anyway, he could be a fun character to play with, I suppose. As with all of the villains and future villains, I hope he doesn’t evolve too quickly to his more familiar persona.

David Mazouz (formerly of “Touch” w/ Kiefer Sutherland) does a great job as young Bruce Wayne. His anguished scream in the alley after his parents were gunned down sent a chill down my spine. I don’t remember a comic telling of the incident that included Bruce’s letting loose like that. (Maybe there was. Regardless, actually hearing it….) So far, Alfred and Bruce seem to live with an odd tension, with Alfred doing his best to be a good guardian and parental figure, yet still taking orders from “the young master” at times. I suppose Alfred is hoping Gordon will be a good influence, too. It will be interesting — however much the writers delve into it — to see Bruce continue to process and deal with his parents’ death, its violent nature, his fear, rage, desire for vengeance and/or justice, growing attachment to the city of Gotham and empathy for its citizens, etc. Also, I am curious how much influence Alfred, Det. Gordon, and the soon-to-appear Dr. Leslie Thompkins will have on Bruce and in what ways.

Sean Pertwee’s Alfred Pennyworth is, I have to say, not to my liking. I’ve enjoyed Pertwee in other things, and I’d like to see him in a comic-related role somewhere. But, his look is all wrong (see my fan-cast post), as is his voice — too gravelly, and a bit hard to understand. Plus, there’s the age thing I mentioned. Disappointing. But, as I mentioned, I am curious to see how his relationship with young Bruce develops.

Selina Kyle is cute, sassy, mentally and physically quick, stealthy, with some gymnastic talent (among others). Aside from the age issue I mentioned before, I think I’m going to enjoy this character. I like how they made her a witness to the Wayne murders and interested (concerned?) in Bruce. I am assuming this is because she is (for all intents and purposes) an orphan herself. The one thing that bothers me about Selina is that her hair seems too bushy, or something. Regardless, Camren Bicondova seems to be a decent actress, and she may turn out to really shine in this her first major role. (She even looks like a young Michelle Pfeiffer!)

Oswald Cobblepot, played by Robin Lord Taylor, is one of the most intriguing characters of the entire cast. Granted, I tend to prefer a shorter, squatter Penguin. Taylor’s voice — which is very familiar, but I just can’t place it — doesn’t fit how I think the character should sound. (My preference would be something like a cross between Paul Williams and Kelsey Grammer.) But, his narrow, slightly longish nose looks great for the part! Also, Cobblepot’s “origin” working for (and being beaten by) Mooney, faked death, and return to Gotham is compelling — especially Gordon’s involvement. Taylor does a wonderful job playing the somewhat sympathetic character as a polite and seemingly harmless momma’s boy, who nevertheless has a sadistic streak. Watching him build his criminal empire (and get his vengeance) could be dark fun!

‘Fish’ Mooney is, as you probably know, a character created new for the “Gotham” TV show. Her links to both Falcone (the dominant crime boss) and Cobblepot (her lackey, who will soon become a rival), as well as her connections to certain (semi-)corrupt cops, put her in an interesting position, story-wise. She is clearly an ambitious, low- to mid-level crime boss, not afraid to grab what she feels she deserves, yet patient enough to strategically bide her time. She is both a canny businesswoman and a “thug” who can be quite brutal and merciless. Jada Pinkett Smith is clearly having far too much fun portraying Mooney, and I can’t wait to see what she does next!

Don Carmine Falcone is portrayed perfectly by the wonderful character actor John Doman. Doman always does a great job with “heavy” characters — from mafiosos to politicians to federal agents to police brass. On the one hand, I hope they don’t use him too much; keep him in the background as an ominous threat to whomever gets in his way. On the other hand, that probably wouldn’t work, since they already established that Falcone is trying to hold onto his shaky criminal empire (including Fish Mooney’s territory/business) in the aftermath of the Waynes’ deaths. Either way, great casting.

Gotham CityGotham City:

The producers decided to begin with a dirty, 1970s New York City look, then added in some gargoyles and other characteristically-gothic architecture. I think this was the right way to go, since it grounds the city in reality, while still giving it that somewhat “off” element. I look forward to seeing what else they do to make it feel distinctly Gotham-esque. Besides, it’s fun to see what little “Easter eggs” they leave for us in the backgrounds, possibly tying into future characters, story-arcs, or the larger DC universe. (Note: As I am writing this, the “Arkham” episode has aired but I haven’t seen it, yet. So, I can’t comment on that particular Gotham/Batman icon, but I have high hopes that the mental asylum becomes a character (of sorts) itself, and one that is relatively faithful to the source material.)

Story:

The basic story idea — the evolution of select cops and criminals (as well as young Bruce Wayne) in pre-Batman Gotham — is an interesting one, though it isn’t the direction I would have gone, if I was developing a non-Batman series tied to the Batman mythos. (Or, if I did, I would try to keep it closer to the post-Crisis/pre-52 source material.) I will be anxiously waiting, along with everyone else, to see how the various characters develop, personally and professionally.

And, of course, we are all curious to see what other familiar faces will be introduced and in what form in the show. Personally, I hope the writers & producers don’t overdo it, swamping us with a ton of characters right away, one after the other. I would much rather have the “biggies” spread out. I know that’s hard to do, when they don’t know how many seasons/episodes they’ll have. But, with the enthusiasm being displayed so far from viewers and network* alike, as long as the quality is maintained, they should have at least 2 or 3 seasons to work with. Besides, there are plenty of stories to tell with brand-new (or, would they be old?) villains, from mob bosses (e.g., Fish Mooney) and their thugs/soldiers to more garden-variety murderers, firebugs, thieves, drug dealers, etc.

If you’ve been watching “Gotham”, chime in and let me know your impressions….

* Apparently the network was also suitably impressed with ratings. As I was writing most of this post on Tuesday, the announcement was made that a full 22-episode season has been approved. Good sign.