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Among Black Superhero Films, ‘Black Panther’ Is Not Alone

Twenty years before the much-anticipated Marvel movie, Wesley Snipes’s ‘Blade,’ Damon Wayans’s ‘Blankman,’ and Robert Townsend’s ‘The Meteor Man’ brought heroism to the big screen

Disney/Ringer illustration

According to box office projections and early reviews, Black Panther will be the biggest black superhero movie in the history of the genre. Starring Chadwick Boseman, Michael B. Jordan, and a deep cast of prominent black actors, Black Panther may prove to be a critical and commercial high-water mark for Marvel when it premieres Friday. Already, the film has provoked an optimistic referendum on black representation in popular culture; that much is nearly sure.

But contrary to maddeningly popular misconception, Black Panther isn’t the first of its kind. There’s The Meteor Man, which Robert Townsend wrote, coproduced, directed, and starred in. There’s Blankman, which the Wayans family bankrolled. Shaq starred in Steel, a superhero film adaptation, for God’s sake. Salon, in one example of the widespread amnesia about black superhero films, frames Black Panther as “the first blockbuster-format release featuring a black hero front and center,” ignoring two decades of black film history in order to make a point about Hollywood’s own lack of interest. Twenty years before Marvel’s Black Panther, there was Blade, which the film’s black star, Wesley Snipes, took it upon himself to produce. Given the movie’s repression in a post–Black Panther discourse, you’d maybe suspect that Blade was some schlock catastrophe, à la Batman & Robin, a franchise film better left forgotten in light of subsequent superior installments. But the original Blade was big, it was successful, and, most importantly, it’s still great. Few comic superhero movies of the past couple of decades make an origin story seem rather unlike a chore, and combat seem rather unlike a farce.

Blade isn’t just some marginal, pre-boom scrap from the 20th-century superhero film heap, though it does seem that popular culture has discarded black-produced superhero flicks in favor of the big-budget, contemporary releases. The first Blade film was Marvel’s earliest box office coup, and Snipes’s casting as the titular vampire hunter was the crowning achievement of his career. Snipes is a lifelong martial artist who learned to fight before he learned to act. He made a name for himself as the top billing in the Spike Lee romantic drama Jungle Fever and then the buddy basketball comedy White Men Can’t Jump before fully settling into his destiny as an action lead. In Blade, Snipes stalks through scenes with a twisted gravitas. He is grim, but cheeky, occasionally turning the tenor of a confrontation with an odd quip or a lively double take. (“Motherfucker, are you out of your damn mind?” he shouts in an early scene after two security officers finish riddling his bulletproof chest with bullets.) A vampire who hunts other vampires, Blade is nonetheless intimidating and stern, clad in a heavy black leather duster and tactical Kevlar, wearing sunglasses through all manners of darkness.

The 1998 film doesn’t just dump Snipes into an otherwise white cast. N’Bushe Wright plays the imperiled Dr. Karen Jenson, who crosses fates with Blade once a grievously injured vampire escapes from her hospital. Blade’s mother, Vanessa, played by Sanaa Lathan, makes a spectacular return from the dead. Broadly, the Blade film universe is the most diverse casting of any Marvel movie to date, with several ethnicities representing mankind as well as the vampire factions that have been driven underground.

Snipes studied the blade. He did his own stunts. Had a Hollywood studio not cast Snipes as the lead of a superhero franchise, the 1990s might have been a profound waste of everyone’s time. That said, there were a few, half-baked precursors to Blade. In 1997, there was Spawn, starring Michael Jai White — the first black star of a major superhero comic adaptation — and there was Steel, starring Shaq as John Henry Irons, a minor character from the Superman comics with whom the director Kenneth Johnson took some not-so-great liberties with bad taste. Hancock, released 10 years ago, is the quirkiest film in this lineage; it stars Will Smith and cost $150 million to make, and yet it inspires very little defense or consideration as a display of the potential for black superheroes on the big screen. If there’s a true precursor to Black Panther in scale and severity, it’s Blade — a film franchise that disproved so much industry angst that once again haunts discussions of black films, black casts, and mainstream audiences two decades later.

But Blade doesn’t suggest that Blade — a black man in the comics, too — is uniquely defined by Snipes’s race, save for one crucial moment when the renegade half-blood Deacon Frost, played by Stephen Dorff, accuses Blade of adopting “an Uncle Tom routine” in his defending humans from vampires. In Frost and Blade’s earliest confrontation, Frost urgently describes the world in terms of racialized conflict: the humans are cattle, permitted to live and breed only so they might be devoured by vampires. In the 2002 follow-up, Blade II, directed by Guillermo del Toro, the racial politics of the Blade universe splinter further with the introduction of the reapers (in addition to humans, vampires, and the half-breed daywalker Blade). A relatively convoluted sequel that complicates the series mythology while flattening its characters into straight-to-VHS meatheads, Blade II is where the Blade saga starts to fall apart; the franchise’s descent into irrelevance and, worse yet, obscurity announces itself through Snipes’s reversion to stiffness and flattened antihero clichés.

Before Hollywood adapted Blade, Spawn, and Steel from their respective Marvel and DC Comics franchises, the black superhero tradition in TV and film was decidedly less mainstream, even as Hollywood adapted the white comic heroes Superman and Batman into blockbusters for decades before the modern superhero movie boom began in earnest. The black superhero subcategory is formatively defined by two films, both original concepts, both released within a year of each other: the 1993 comedy The Meteor Man, starring and directed by Robert Townsend, and the 1994 comedy Blankman, a classic Damon Wayans joint. Both films are satire more so than sincere myth. In Meteor Man, Townsend plays the D.C. schoolteacher Jefferson Reed, a Good Samaritan who survives getting run down by hoodlums and struck by a meteor, simultaneously, the latter calamity imbuing Reed with various superhuman powers to fight one of Hollywood’s favorite social ills in the 1990s — gang violence. In Blankman — the way sillier movie — Damon Wayans plays Darryl Walker, a dweeb who assembles a colorful assortment of dishrags and pajamas into a costume and wields household implements as his artillery. Blankman fights the mob, seeking vengeance against the men who murdered his grandmother and flooded his city with violent crime, destitution, and political corruption. The meek and janky Blankman isn’t the sort of superhero most kids would want to embody for Halloween. Compared to the gorgeously gory Blade movies, Meteor Man and Blankman are both cheap and cheesy — self-consciously so; Blankman, in particular, is a running meta-gag about how local and DIY the very notion of a black superhero seemed by 1993.

After Blade premiered to critical acclaim and commercial success in 1998, Hollywood squandered two decades with a glut of superhero movies starring all white leads. Black Panther spells an end to that streak. Still, the sparse and segregated lineage of black superheroes in Hollywood answers the hype and optimism surrounding Black Panther with echoes from the past. Is Black Panther just another Blade, a smashing success to be followed mostly by cruel lack of interest in black talent, black audiences, and black movies? In the worst case, Disney’s overwhelming output of superhero movies means audiences are quite possibly due for more Black Panther sequels, spinoffs, and crossover appearances than they’ve ever expected. There is more where Black Panther came from. There is plenty — still not enough, but plenty — to celebrate.