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….

7 DC Properties that Should Be on TV (Part 1 of 2)

We can never have too many TV series based on comics, right? (Well, assuming they aren’t cheesy.) With recent hits like “Arrow”, “The Flash”, and “Daredevil” (yes, I lump Netflix in with “TV”), networks are getting increasingly adventuresome and willing to try new things. “Supergirl” will makes its official debut in October, and we already know about a few more shows in various stages of development and production — e.g., “DC’s Legends of Tomorrow”, “(The?) Titans”, “Krypton”, and Netflix’s growing stable of Marvel-based series.

Over the past three months, I’ve seen at least three comics- & movie-oriented sites publish articles proposing ideas for what other Marvel and DC properties should be adapted for the small screen. There were several concepts floated, and I agreed on a couple, but the rest I either thought were much better suited for the large screen (e.g., “Jack Kirby’s New Gods”) or just wasn’t sure it could hold its own as a series (e.g., the goofy “Major Bummer”). So, I got thinking about what comic characters/titles I thought might make fun TV series. I’ll give you my Top 7 from DC now, and in a few weeks I’ll do the same for Marvel….

Steel (John Henry Irons)

Steel (John Henry Irons)

Steel: Lan Pitts at Comicbook.com suggested Steel, and I like the idea. (Yes, there was already a big-screen Steel movie starring Shaquille O’Neal, but we don’t talk about that in polite company.) As loyal Superman readers know, John Henry Irons is a gifted mechanical engineer and inventor who became one of the replacement “supermen” in the “Reign of the Supermen” story-arc, following Superman’s death at the hands of Doomsday. He later became friends with the resurrected Superman, and the armored “Steel” became a respected member of the superhero community. I think the best time to place the series would either be in the early days, when Superman was still considered dead, or much later, when Irons was semi-retired as a hero and trying to focus on making his Steelworks facility a successful developer of non-lethal weapons and other equipment for groups like Metropolis’ Special Crimes Unit. During the latter period, his teenage niece, Natasha, also lived with him. This could make for a nice combo of hero-ing, business, and family struggles.

h_dialDial H for Hero: I can’t remember what I read or heard in passing recently that reminded me of this title, but the more I thought about it, the more I liked the idea of adapting the “everyman hero” series for TV. If you are unfamiliar, the basic premise is that there is a mysterious device that looks like an old phone dial with ancient runes on it, which enables an ordinary person to temporarily become a superpowered being — complete with name & costume — by dialing H-E-R-O. (These superheroes are usually brand-new, but on one occasion the dial caused its owner to become a duplicate of an existing superhero, Plastic Man.) Dialing O-R-E-H returns the person back to normal. In some versions, other words could be spelled out on the H(ero)-Dial with varying repercussions. Also, sometimes the possessor of the dial was able to either subconsciously or actively influence the results. I envision “Dial H for Hero” for TV as a sort of anthology series with several people using the dial each season. Either each episode is self-contained or, better yet, have 3- to 4-episode story-arcs. Maybe a mix. Not only would there be the opportunity to tell different kinds of stories with different kinds of protagonists with different sets of powers (costume optional), but it also allows for jumping around to different locales in the DC Universe. Sounds like a lot of fun to me!

Blue Beetle (Ted Kord)

Blue Beetle (Ted Kord)

Blue Beetle: I admit I’ve never been a huge Blue Beetle fan, but the idea does have potential for a live-action adaptation. Reece Jones at MoviePilot.com suggested adapting the Jaime Reyes version. That might work. I remember reading the first several issues of his comic series years ago, and the teen character was likable and had an interesting origin story. It incorporated the alien scarab, which also gave the original Blue Beetle, Dan Garrett, his powers. If done right, it could have a fun, Spider-Man-like vibe. My preference, though, would be to do the Ted Kord (New Earth) version of Blue Beetle. Assuming it is true to the source material, that could make for some humorous hijinks action as the commercial tech company CEO develops gadgets and plays superhero. The Bug ship would be a kick to see, along with some of his other weapons. Maybe pair him up with Booster Gold on occasion to escalate the hilarity? (Of course, it might also make sense to have Booster appear in “Legends of Tomorrow”, given his time-traveling and connection with Rip Hunter.)

That’s enough for this week. I’ll discuss the other four next time. I think you’ll like ’em. ‘Til then…