While Ryan Coogler's Black Panther is a long-overdue project for Marvel Studios, it is not the first time a black superhero has led their own film – it's just the first time a diverse lead has been the focus of Disney's multibillion-dollar marketing machine. Herewith, a brief look at the cinematic heroes who came before Prince T'Challa.
The Meteor Man (1993)
The Robert Townsend who delivered the fiery 1987 double shot of
Hollywood Shuffle and Eddie Murphy Raw seems to be absent in this wan superhero comedy. Perhaps by writing, directing, producing and starring in The Meteor Man, Townsend overextended himself, or maybe the film – part slapstick comedy, part socioeconomic satire, part comic-book homage before visual effects could realize Townsend's ambitions – was ill-fated from the start. Townsend's creation was completely original, although Marvel produced a spinoff comic book to promote the movie.
Another original superhero movie, divorced from the comics, albeit even sillier than Townsend's effort, Blankman is essentially an In Living Color sketch writ large. Directed by Mike Binder and starring ILC cast members Damon Wayans and David Alan Grier, Blankman just barely tried to subvert the conventions of the genre, but mostly it's a lot of pratfalls and barely-there double entendres.
Shaquille O'Neal is a basketball legend. I'm sure he's a nice guy, too. He is not, however, an actor of any merit, and this extra-cheesy and extra-loose DC Comics adaptation is proof (as if audiences needed any after 1996's Kazaam). Playing a weapons designer who witnesses the folly of his own creations, O'Neal doesn't so much perform as he does sleepwalk happily.
Released during the same summer as Steel, director Mark A.Z. Dippe's film is the polar opposite of Shaq's cutesy endeavour. Inspired by Todd McFarlane's ridiculously gritty comic, the never-quite-weird-enough Spawn focuses on an assassin (Michael Jai White) who is sent to Hell, only to turn his back on evil. While Jai White is an actor of colour, audiences only glimpse his true visage briefly in the film, with his face mostly concealed behind Spawn's mask, or shown badly burnt.
Blade trilogy (1998, 2002, 2004)
The origins of the current Marvel Cinematic Universe can be found in Wesley Snipes's Blade trilogy. For the first time, a studio found success with Marvel material, using the half-vampire title character as a way to build a franchise of its own, albeit a gory R-rated series that seems a world away from today's bloodless Avengers antics. Blade II, directed by Guillermo del Toro, is even a legitimate genre touchstone, as surreal as it is severe. Shame about Blade: Trinity, though, which forced Snipes to face off against Dracula (cool idea) but also team up with wisecracking side characters played by Ryan Reynolds and Jessica Biel (bad idea).
Technically, Catwoman is a comic-book villain, not a superhero, and technically, she is associated more with the human persona Selina Kyle, rather than this film's Patience Phillips. And one more technicality: Yowza, is this Halle Berry movie awful.
Like the first two entries on this list, including Peter Berg's Hancock is a bit of a cheat, since the title character (played by Will Smith) is an original superhero with no comic-book origins. Also a cheat: the film itself, a bizarre mesh of action, comedy, domestic drama and Greek mythology that doesn't succeed on any level. The production values are high, but the payoffs are nonexistent.