Though no one would claim there’s been a surplus of movies featuring black superheroes, there have have been more than the average filmgoer is likely to recall. In fact, there is enough variety in our collective pop culture repository that we can easily split them into a list of the five best you should watch, and the five worst you might want to stay away from, no matter how much you wish to support representation in modern entertainment. Here are the five best and the five worst black superhero movies:
Even at 100 minutes, The Meteor Man is a bit too bloated and overcrowded, with a third act that keeps episodically pushing an endless row of bad guys for our hero, an inner city high school teacher (writer-director Robert Townsend) granted superpowers through a mysterious meteor, to dispose of in unimaginative deux ex machina fashion. However, the sheer exuberance and energy of Townsend’s take on the hopeful nature of Richard Donner’s Superman is undeniable. You have to remember that when The Meteor Man was made, the wholesome vision of Superman was still relatively fresh in the viewer’s minds, only recently having been supplanted by the 1989 Batman’s gothic and gloomy vision. Townsend mostly succeeds in his idea of sending some hope to the troubled inner cities with a film that warmly embraces its inherent cheesiness, complete with a rousing fanfare by composer Cliff Eidelman.
This isn’t the neutered, bad CG demo reel, PG-13 embarrassment that was the 1997 live-action feature film, but rather the direct-to-DVD movie that HBO cut together from six episodes of their appropriately hard-R animated series. Even though the smoothness of the animation is a bit rough by today’s standards, this was the uber-violent and dark as hell loyal adaptation that fans of the comic were looking for. In the western world, animated fare made for adults only are a dime a dozen now, but watching a cartoon where the F-word was thrown around like candy and heads were decapitated with some glorious crimson sprayed all over the place was downright revolutionary. Yet even with that novelty gone today, the Spawn animated movie, and to a lesser extent its two sequels, are still the best way to experience Todd McFarlane’s fucked-up vision of hell on earth, and the brooding hellspawn (Keith David’s awesome voice) who protects it.
Blade suffers a bit from blowing its action load too early into the film. A lot of superhero movies are guilty of this, with a recent example being Captain America: Civil War, where a spectacular midpoint car chase scene trumps every other action sequence that follows it. (In some ways, Black Panther also falls into the same trap.) The first adventure of the badass half-vampire, half-human vamp hunter Blade (Wesley Snipes at the height of his machismo) is special in that sense, since it barely waits for the opening credits to end before plunging the audience into what might be the most exhilarating action sequence of the ’90s. Everything from the smooth build-up to the techno-fueled vampire carnage that sprays the underground nightclub with gallons of blood is pure heaven for an action junkie, even if we are a bit put off by the low quality of the CG by today’s standards. The rest of the film establishes a formidable hero who’s not afraid to hack and slash his way through anything that stands in his way, a welcome respite from the wholesome and merciful superhero image.
The reason the well-received sequel gets a clear uptick from the original can be summed up in five simple words: Directed by Guillermo Del Toro. Unburdened by the need to spend precious runtime on the origin story of his hero and the rules of the underground vampire culture that surrounds him, Del Toro brings his trademark visceral aesthetic to Blade II. The plot is typical superhero sequel switcheroo: Blade has to team up with his mortal enemies, vampires, in order to defeat an even larger evil. That larger evil, the reapers, are a design marvel of grotesquerie, turning every victim into a Jackson Pollock painting of blood with their jaws that open up to what can only be described as an octopus mixed with a chainsaw. Unburdened by a personal connection to the material, Del Toro has a blast, and the giddy, gory fun translates to the big screen.
One look at the future utopic/ancient African costume and production design, performances dripping with charisma and presence, show-stopping action set-pieces that are as exhilarating as they are unique, and director Ryan Coogler’s deft ability in finding the right balance between genre entertainment and adult themes that directly speak to so many issues wrestled with by the African-American population, and it’s clear there is only one king when it comes to black superhero movies.
The concept of a drunk, rude, borderline nihilistic superhero is a brilliant one, and Will Smith effortlessly sells that aspect of the titular character, the wisecracking wino who thinks his Superman-like powers are more of a burden to himself than a service to others. During the first act, Hancock plays out like a mega budget embodiment of a Richard Pryor bit from the ’70s, but it cannot stick to its convictions long enough to make a significant mark in the genre. Before the second act is barely on its way, the film awkwardly switches its tone into a more traditional and dramatic superhero narrative, with an overwrought backstory about angelic beings secretly leading normal human lives on Earth, and one of the most preposterous coincidences, even for a Hollywood genre flick, to boot. It’s as if Spaceballs decided to turn into yet another straight Star Wars ripoff around thirty minutes in. Talk about a wasted potential.
As far as I’m concerned, there are only two Blade movies, and this abysmal follow-up, which feels more like a cheapo straight-to-video sequel starring some low-rent Wesley Snipes lookalike—even though it was actually a big budget theatrical release starring Snipes—can easily be deleted from the official Blade canon. For the third time around, hiring the screenwriter who brought forth the first two films, David S. Goyer, to direct such a big franchise project might have seemed like a natural conclusion. But what the executives failed to understand with Blade was that the scripts weren’t the most original or interesting aspects of the first two films to begin with. Add to this Goyer’s then inexperience as a director, Snipes acting like a petulant toddler because of this and not giving any respect to Goyer, and you have one clusterfuck of a production. In between random iPod commercials and lame jokes (Patton Oswalt’s nerd character is fat and ugly, so he can’t get laid. Get it?), this is an utter waste of time. Watch this hilarious story from Oswalt about the utter dysfunction of the production instead.
Shaquille O’Neal as a D-grade DC superhero Steel whose main power is being able to awkwardly wield a giant hammer. Do I need to say anything else to keep you away from this instantly forgettable borefest? Yes, boys and girls, there was a dark time during the mid-to-late ’90s when O’Neal, a basketball superstar with the on-screen charisma and presence of a wet rag, actually tried to turn himself into a legit action hero. That’s what happens when you have nothing but a bunch of yes-men at your corner. And for god’s sake, DO NOT Google Shaq’s rap “career.” The highlight of Steel occurs when a sidekick played by Richard Roundtree refers to Steel’s hammer’s “shaft”. Get it? Because Roundtree is mainly known for playing… Ah nevermind, this is the kind of desperate reaching a critic has to do when dealing with such an empty vessel for even the most basic form of entertainment.
Coked-up movie executive: “So the hero’s a cat, right? What do cats do? They lick themselves and they like fish, right? What if we had her lick herself, give the weirdo audience an instant boner? And for comic relief, she goes to a sushi restaurant and eats like, a fuck ton of sushi, and does it like super fast! The character and script has nothing to do with the comics? Who gives a shit—we got Halle Berry in a ridiculous BDSM outfit straight out of an imagination-deprived 12-year-old boy’s hormone-riddled mind. She won’t be able to breathe for three months, but the form-fitting eye candy for pervs will be totally worth it! The story? Who cares? It’s about chicks, right? So how about they fight over some face cream or something? You got all that? I’m late for my Electra meeting.”
The Black Ninja is a relatively undiscovered gem for lovers of so-bad-it’s-good fare. This inept story of a lawyer who fights bad guys at night as the ever elusive (the dude’s in plain sight the whole time, thanks to the incompetent lighting) Black Ninja, is the singular vision of one renaissance man visionary, Clayton Prince. Prince, who writes, directs and stars, had such a massive ego about the project that he had the balls to credit himself as “Me”. Yes, the man whose only memorable role beforehand was a lofty supporting part in John Waters’ original Hairspray thought a movie he made almost two decades later didn’t feel the need to remind his name to the audience. The film was shot, probably on consumer digital video of the era, in 4:3 aspect ratio, and then automatically matted to 2:35:1 cinemascope ratio, which means that half the runtime is spent on looking at main characters’ torsos. The hissy audio is downright inaudible at times. The script reads as if an alien whose only interaction with human life was watching a series of ’80s straight-to-video action flicks decided to write a movie. And the action, whoo boy, you just have to see it to believe it. Just check out this trailer. You’ll thank me later.
Oktay Ege Kozak is a screenwriter, script coach and film critic. He works as a reader for some of the leading screenplay coverage companies in Hollywood, and is also a film critic for The Playlist, DVD Talk and Beyazperde. He has a BA in Film Theory and an MFA in Screenwriting. He lives near Portland, Ore., with his wife, daughter, and two King Charles Spaniels.