Monday, February 19, 2018

Black Superhero Movies Before Black Panther (2018)

This weekend Black Panther (2018) broke records with an estimated $235 million at the box office. The film is certainly historic. The Black Panther, who first appeared in Fantastic Four #52 (July 1966), is arguably the black comic book hero with the highest profile about whom a film has ever been made. It is also Marvel's first film to be directed by an African American and to feature a primarily black cast. The film has also gotten overwhelmingly positive reviews. That having been said, it is not the first black superhero movie. It is not even the first big budget movie to star a black superhero. There were several black superhero movies released in the Nineties, and some of those had fairly large budgets. Below are a list of the black superhero movies that preceded Black Panther.

Abar, the First Black Superman (1977):  It is a sign of just how far we have come that the first black superhero movie was a far cry from Black Panther. It was a blaxploitation movie with an exceedingly low budget, a largely inexperienced cast, and a very poor script. Worse yet, it would be released at a time when the blaxploitation cycle was largely over (the cycle lasted from about 1971 to 1975). Indeed, the film's production may have made for a more interesting story than the film's screenplay itself. It was produced by James Smalley, who according to some accounts was a pimp who used much of his own money to finance the movie. It was directed by Frank Packard, an actor who appeared in the film The Spectre of Edgar Allan Poe (1974). The cast was largely made of unknowns. Of the cast and crew, one person with experience in filmmaking was cinematographer Ron Garcia. He had already shot such films as The Harem Bunch (1969), The Toy Box (1971),  Schoolgirls in Chains (1973), and other exploitation movies. He would later work in television on such shows as Crime Story and Twin Peaks (he also shot the 1992 film Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me). The film's editor, Jack Tucker, also had experience. He had already edited such films as Sacrilege (1971) and Saddle Tramp Women (1972) and would go onto edit the television mini-series Shogun and The Winds of War.

Abar, the First Black Superman originated in 1973 under the title Superblack. Made on a shoestring budget, it was shot without permits in Baldwin Hills and Watts in Los Angeles. The film's principal shooting location was a working brothel. Once completed Superblack would be retitled Abar, named for its protagonist, John Abar (played by Tobar Mayo). James Smalley had run out of money and as a result had to sell the film to Pacific Film Labs owner Burt Steiger. American International Pictures had considered distributing the film, but in the end Abar would remain unreleased until 1977 when Mirror Releasing took up its distribution.  As it was, its distribution was extremely limited. with the movie primarily being shown in drive-ins in the South. It would later be released on VHS as In Your Face, but today is best known as Abar, the First Black Superman.

Today Abar, the First Black Superman is pretty well forgotten except for those who appreciate bad movies for their camp value and a film historians.

The Meteor Man (1993):  In the Sixties, Seventies, and Eighties, superhero movies were relatively uncommon, regardless of the ethnicity of the lead character. It was then some time after Abar was released in 1977 that another movie with a black superhero was released. When it was, it was a comedy. The Meteor Man was written and directed by Robert Townsend, who had previously received good notices for his 1987 film Hollywood Shuffle. Unfortunately, The Meteor Man was not nearly as well received. The film centred on a school teacher (played by Robert Townsend) who receives superpowers after being struck by a meteorite. He then uses his powers to rid his neighbourhood of a street gang. The Meteor Man was not well received by critics. Worse yet, it did badly at the box office. Made for $30 million, it only made $8 million.

Blankman (1994):  The following year saw another comedy featuring a black superhero. Blankman starred Damon Wayans as a repairman who is frustrated with the political corruption in his community. He then develops various weapons and gadgets in order to become the superhero Blankman.  Damon Wayons  had been the co-creator and a performer on the highly popular sketch comedy series In Living Colour and had starred in the film The Last Boy Scout (1991). Unfortunately, Blankman would prove to be a failure with both critics and audiences. It got generally negative reviews and only made $7 million at the box office.

Spawn (1997): While Abar, The Meteor Man, and Blankman were original creations, Spawn was the first movie based on a black superhero from comic books. Spawn was created by Todd McFarlane and first appeared in Spawn #1 (May 1992), published by Image Comics. The character proved to be an enormous success and by 1997 had already appeared in two video games and an HBO animated series (Todd McFarlane's Spawn). It was probably a surprise to no one that there would be a movie adaptation of the comic book.

In fact, Columbia Pictures expressed an interest in Spawn not that long after his first appearance in 1992. Todd McFarlane was wanting more creative control than Columbia was willing to give him, however, and so a deal with Columbia was not in the offing. He later sold the film rights to New Line Cinema in exchange for merchandising rights and creative input on the movie. Unfortunately, in some ways Spawn was an ill-fated production. It was originally budgeted at $20 million, but the film's special effects eventually drove the budget up to $40 million. While $40 million was a respectable budget for a movie in the Nineties, even then it was not a whole lot for a superhero movie, especially one that required extensive effects the way Spawn did (by way of comparison, Batman & Robin, also released in 1997, had a budget of $125 million). The end result is that the special effects are often hit and miss, with some coming off very good, but others looking rather shoddy. While critics might have been willing to overlook the hit-and-miss special effects, they apparently thought the film had several other deficits as well. Spawn received overwhelmingly negative reviews. Today it boasts only a meagre rating of 18% among critics at Rotten Tomatoes. Its audience score isn't much better at 36%. Despite its poor reception critically, Spawn did make a respectable $87.8 million at the box office.

Steel (1997): It would only be a matter of weeks after the release of Spawn that another movie starring a black comic book superhero was released. Steel was based on the DC Comics character of the same name, who had first appeared in The Adventures of Superman #500 (June 1993) during the "Death of Superman" storyline. The character drew a good deal of inspiration from the folklore hero John Henry. Steel was John Henry Irons, a weapons engineer who is dismayed when he discovers weapons made by his company fell into the wrong hands and were used to kill innocents. He used his knowledge to become a superhero. Steel was soon spun off into his own title.

Initially the movie adaptation of Steel was to be a spin-off of a movie based on "The Death of Superman" storyline. The proposed film based on "The Death of Superman" storyline ultimately languished in development Hell, and eventually the project was dropped entirely. Despite this, the film adaptation of Steel moved forward, with all ties to the Superman mythos severed. Legendary music producer Quincy Jones and television producer David Salzman were both fans of the character, and served as the film's producers. Kenneth Johnson, who had worked on such TV shows as The Six Million Dollar Man, The Bionic Woman, and The Incredible Hulk, served as its screenwriter and director. Basketball star Shaquille O'Neal was cast as Steel.

Unfortunately Steel would not prove to be a success. Made for only $16 million, its budget was low compared to most movies of the era, let alone a superhero movie. It received overwhelmingly bad reviews, with critics attacking everything from the script to the acting. Worse yet, it did badly at the box office. It only made $1.7 million.

The Blade Movies: Blade (1998) would truly mark a turning point for black superhero movies. While both Spawn and Steel were trashed by critics, Blade received mixed to positive reviews. It also did well at the box office. Made for $45 million, it made $131.2 million. What made all of this even more remarkable is that the film was based on a Marvel Comics character who had only appeared on and off in comic books since the Seventies. It is Blade, rather than The Black Panther, who is Marvel's first black superhero to star in his own film.

Blade first appeared in The Tomb of Dracula #10 (July 1973), created by writer Marv Wolfmand artist Gene Colan. Blade was a vampire hunter whose mother had been bitten by a vampire while he was still in the womb. As a result he had various abilities, such as an ability to see supernatural entities, an immunity to vampirism, enhanced strength, and so on. Blade proved popular, so that he appeared in his own solo stories in Vampire Tales and Marvel Preview. Unfortunately, after the Seventies cycle towards horror comic books ended, Blade would rarely be seen until the early Nineties.

Regardless, a film adaptation of Blade was in development as early as 1992. At the time LL Cool J. expressed an interest in playing the role. Eventually the film rights would be sold to New Line Cinema and David S. Goyer was set to write the script. New Line Cinema wanted to cast Wesley Snipes, Denzel Washington, or Laurence Fishburne in the lead role, but David S. Goyer thought Mr. Snipes was the best actor for the role. Eventually he was signed to play Blade.

The success of Blade naturally led to a sequel. Initially New Line Cinema asked Stephen Norrington, who had directed the 1994 horror film Death Machine, to direct Blade II. After he turned them down, they approached Guillermo del Toro, who accepted. Guillermo del Toro had already the critically acclaimed horror movies Cronos (1995) and The Devil's Backbone (2001). The screenplay was once more written by David S. Goyer. Blade II received mixed to positive reviews from critics, although it was extremely well received by audiences. The film made the most money of any films in the Blade trilogy, a total of $155 million.

The success of Blade II naturally led to a third Blade movie. Unfortunately, Blade: Trinity would prove to be a troubled production. During pre-production the movie went through several different directors. Given the success of Blade II, the movie was offered to Guillermo del Toro, but he was tied up with Hellboy (2004). Oliver Hirschbiegel very nearly signed, but ultimately did Downfall (2004) instead. Ultimately David S. Goyer, who wrote the scripts for the Blade movies, wound up as its director. It proved to be a very bad experience for Mr. Goyer, who found himself at odds with star Wesley Snipes. Reportedly Mr. Snipes reached a point where he would communicate with the director and the rest of the cast through an assistant.

As it turned out, Blade: Trinity received largely negative reviews. It also made only $25 million at the American box office, although it did do $128.9 million worldwide. Since that time the rights to the character of Blade have reverted to Marvel, and it has been reported a few times in the past few years that another Blade movie may be in the offing. It was followed by a short-lived TV series on Spike in 2006.

Catwoman (2004): As bad as the reception for Blade: Trinity was, it was not nearly as bad as a movie featuring a black superhero released earlier in 2004. Catwoman starred Halle Berry as the title character in a film often counted among the worst of all time.

Development on Catwoman began in 1993 as an outgrowth of the movie Batman Returns (1992), in which Michelle Pfeiffer played Catwoman. Originally it was planned that Miss Pfeiffer would reprise her role as Selina Kyle (AKA Catwoman) and it would be directed by Tim Burton (who directed both Batman and Batman Returns). Unfortunately development on the film would unfold over a number of years, during which time Tim Burton and Michelle Pfeiffer would drift off to other projects. By 2001 Ashely Judd was attached to the film, but she eventually dropped out. Nicole Kidman was then considered for the part before Halle Berry was ultimately cast in the role.

During that time the concept for the film had changed to such a point that it could not really be said to be based on the Catwoman from Batman comic books at all. In the comic books Catwoman is Selina Kyle, a skilled thief whose preferred weapon is the cat o' nine tails. Like Batman, she has no superpowers, although she is an Olympic level athlete with a wide array of skills. In the movie Catwoman, Catwoman is graphics designer and artist Patience Philips, who develops cat-like abilities after being revived by an a mystical Egyptian Mau cat. Ultimately the two characters only have in common the name and a penchant for cats.

Of course, the fact that the movie departed from the comic book character probably would not have mattered had it been a good movie. As it turned out, it wasn't. The film received universally negative reviews. Roger Ebert even placed it on his list of most hated movies. The film also did poorly at the box office. It was made for $100 million, but only made $82,102,379 at the box office. It very nearly swept the Golden Raspberry Awards, awards given to the worst movies of the year. The movie's reputation has not improved over the years, and it still makes lists of the worst movies of all time.

Here it must be pointed out that Halle Berry was not the first black woman to play a character called Catwoman. In the third and final season of Batman, Eartha Kitt played the role of Catwoman, one that was more faithful to the comic books.

Hancock (2008): While Spawn, Steel, and Blade were based on comic book characters, Hancock was an original character created for the big screen. Its origins go back to 1996 with a spec script titled Tonight, He Comes by Vincent Ngo, about a fallen superhero. Director Tony Scott was soon attached to the script and it would be picked up by Artisan Entertainment. Tonight, He Comes would spend considerable time in development. Tony Scott would leave the project and Michael Mann would then become attached to it. He left to direct Miami Vice (2008). Eventually the project would be acquired by Akiva Goldsman, after which Vince Gilligan and John August rewrote Vincent Ngo's initial script. Jonathan Mostow was then set to direct the film, with Will Smith starring. Jonathan Mostow would leave to be replaced by Gabriele Muccino, who would also leave. Finally, Peter Berg was signed as the film's director. The film's title was changed from Tonight, He Comes to John Hancock and then simply Hancock.

Hancock starred Will Smith as an amnesiac, alcoholic superhuman who adopts the name "John Hancock" after a nurse asks him to sign his "John Hancock". While he attempts to help people with his superpowers, the fact that he is often drunk causes things to often go awry for him. As s result, he is generally disliked by the public at large.

Hancock received average reviews, with many critics considering the film uneven. Hancock did do well at the box office, making a total of $624.4 million. Since then there has been discussion about a sequel, although so far nothing concrete has emerged.

As strange as it may seem, there have been no black superhero movies released since Hancock, despite the release of Iron Man and the advent of the Marvel Cinematic Universe in 2008. Black superheroes have regularly appeared in films featuring other superheroes, including Storm in the X-Men movies. The Falcon in various Marvel Cinematic Universe movies, Cyborg in Justice League, and others, but for the past ten years none has headlined his or her own film until now. It seems quite possible that the success of Black Panther could change this. Quite simply, Black Panther has proven audiences will turn out for a movie starring a black superhero. While the past ten years have seen a dearth of black superhero movies, it seems likely that there will be more in the coming years beyond a sequel to Black Panther and DC's planned Cyborg movie.

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