Black Panther is set to follow in its Marvel brethren’s footsteps by making a ton of money at the box office — analysts are now estimating the Chadwick Boseman-led adventure could rake in upwards of $170 million domestically during its opening weekend. Nonetheless, it’s far from just another entry in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, since it’s the first effort from the studio to boast a cast that — save for Tolkien alums Martin Freeman (The Hobbit) and Andy Serkis (The Lord of the Rings) — is populated exclusively by black actors. That makes the film something of a momentous comic-book blockbuster. However, it’s not the first such big-screen saga to be headlined by a person of color. While not all of those efforts have turned out well — we’re looking at you, Catwoman, Steel, and Blankman — in celebration of Black Panther’s impending debut, here are the five best prior films featuring a black superhero.
It may not be a part of the official MCU, but the Blade trilogy (or, at least, the first two franchise installments, and especially Guillermo del Toro’s stellar Blade II) remains a cut above most films based on comics. That’s in large part thanks to Wesley Snipes’s portrayal of Blade, a half-vampire, half-human “daywalker” waging war against Earth’s bloodsuckers. Snipes’s snarling, stone-cold attitude makes Blade a peerlessly menacing do-gooder caught between his mortal and vampiric impulses. If Marvel was wise, they’d enlist Snipes for the next Avengers epic — or an all-new Blade series — ASAP.
Will Smith joined the DC Comics Extended Universe in 2016 as Suicide Squad’s Deadshot, but his finest ultra-powered role came in Peter Berg’s 2008 film about an alcoholic superhero who’s hated by the public for always causing as much harm as good — and whose image is repaired courtesy of a PR specialist (Jason Bateman) he rescues from danger. It’s a unique take on the ubiquitous genre, and one that pairs the always charismatic Smith with the equally formidable Charlize Theron as Bateman’s not-what-she-appears wife.
Director J.D. Dillard takes his cues from Marvel and DC in crafting this original – and consistently gripping — 2017 superhero indie, concerning a Los Angeles teen (Jacob Latimore) whose street-corner magic tricks are the byproduct of more than just sleight of hand. With standout performances from its lead actor as well as Dulé Hill (as a nefarious drug dealer), as well as a central mystery whose revelations speak to the material’s larger themes – about growing up, and breaking the chains of poverty and marginalization — it’s an under-heralded film that deserves a cult following.
Todd McFarlane’s Spawn was the biggest original superhero to hit the comics scene during the 1990s, and while Mark A.Z. Dippé’s film didn’t pay full justice to the character — or launch an intended franchise — it nonetheless features a solid turn by Michael Jai White as Al Simmons, a soldier who’s murdered and, in order to return to his beloved wife, makes a deal with the devil to become an unholy chain-wielding creature. White has gone on to make an imposing impression in many other projects (Black Dynamite, The Dark Knight), and here, he proves a commanding supernaturally powered screen presence.
The Meteor Man
Robert Townsend’s 1993 superhero comedy takes a lighthearted approach to its chosen genre via the saga of a school teacher (Townsend) who gains a cornucopia of super-abilities after being struck by a green meteorite. What ensues is a battle between the unlikely hero and a gang of drug dealers, and though the film (co-starring Marla Gibbs Eddie Griffin Robert Guillaume James Earl Jones and, yes, Bill Cosby) is more than a bit uneven and preachy, it’s bolstered by the amusing Townsend as a man who understands that with great power comes great (community) responsibility.
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Watch: The Black Panther cast on why their film is Marvel’s most political ever: