Jun 25, 2020
Black superhero movies, ranked
It’s the eve of the release of Marvel’s Black Panther, widely expected to break multiple box office records, not the least of which being the biggest superhero film of all time starring a black lead. In the tradition of my “female superhero movies, ranked” article that came out right before Wonder Woman, it’s time to take a look back at all the black superhero movies released so far and rank them from worst to best (note: I’m only considering superhero films where the main character is black, so no X-Men movies or Justice League). And because, just like in my female superheroes article, most of these movies are stunningly awful, I’m going to try my best to say something positive about each one.
The article continues after these advertisements...
Darryl and Kevin Walker are two brothers growing up in Chicago, living with their grandma and acting out the old Batman TV show. 30 years later, the brothers are still living in the same house [?] with their grandma, and Darryl (Damon Wayans) is now a nerdy scientist and inventor, while Kevin (David Alan Grier) is a tabloid news cameraman. When grandma is brutally gunned down by mobsters (did I mention the bizarre tonal shifts in this movie?), Darryl uses his geeky know-how to invent a super-suit out of long johns and build weapons from old junk so he can fight crime as Blankman. And he earns this moniker when asked what he calls himself and struggles to come up with an answer, and Kevin chimes in that he’s “drawing a blank, man.” Ha ha. Eventually, Kevin also jumps into action as Blankman’s sidekick “The Other Guy”, and the two fight the mob complete with on-screen “POW!” and “WHAM!” sound effects, meaning this was apparently meant as a satire of the Batman TV show, and no one told Damon Wayans that the Batman TV show was already satire.
Blankman is painfully stupid and unfunny, even by the low, low standards of movies written by Damon Wayans. It seems this movie originally grew out a possible adaptation of Wayans’ In Living Color character Handi-Man, the world’s first disabled superhero, and I suppose an entire movie based around “cripple” jokes wouldn’t have been all that funny, but it still would have been way better than this half-assed attempt at comedy.
The positives: I know I said I would try my best, but screw it. I can’t come up with any positives on this one. Even I have to draw the line when it comes to a movie where the hero’s weapons include stink-bombs made from his brother’s accumulated farts.
Al Simmons (Michael Jai White) is a black Black Ops mercenary who dies a fiery death and gets sent to Hell, with Hell looking a lot like a cut scene from Doom II for the PC. He agrees to become Spawn (short for hell-spawn) and lead the devil’s army in exchange for being able to see his wife again. Spawn’s handler in this situation is John Leguizamo as “the Clown”, possibly the most repulsive side character ever seen in comic book films, who makes rapid-fire putrid comments while letting out glowing green farts, and at one point even shows off the skid marks in his underwear. Eventually, Spawn turns against his demonic masters and takes on the villainous Jason Wynn (Martin Sheen) and stops his nonsensical plan to wipe out all of humanity.
Spawn is a relic of the early days of Image Comics when extreme anti-heroes were all the rage, and the movie has aged just as badly as the original comic, with brutally awful CGI and equally brutal performances on display. Other awful aspects of note are the bizarre scene transitions (where the frame literally catches on fire and burns into the next scene), the total ass-pull nature of Spawn’s powers (he can remove a deadly device from inside Wynn’s chest just by looking at it? He can defeat the hordes of Hell just by standing in one place and firing yellow lasers out of his eyes?), and the horrifying design of the Devil in this film, who looks like a giant chihuahua, which is not helped by him being voiced by Frank Welker, who’s just doing his Dr. Claw voice from Inspector Gadget again.
The positives: Despite the low budget, Spawn was able to create enough visually arresting moments to make for a good trailer. Hell, even Roger Ebert gave this movie three and a half stars, saying, “As a visual experience, Spawn is unforgettable,” and I have to agree, though for very, very different reasons.
I already covered this one in my article on female superhero movies, so just read what I wrote there. And pray you’re never in the situation like the one I just found myself in, where I had to seriously ask myself, “which movie would I rather ever watch again, Catwoman or Spawn?”
Jefferson Reed (Robert Townsend) is a high school teacher in Washington DC who gets hit by a meteorite and gains a mostly random set of powers that include super-strength, flight, invulnerability, and (in one of the movie’s few funny bits) the power to communicate with dogs. And in one of the movie’s more cringe-worthy bits, he also has the power to make fruits and vegetables grow to enormous size to feed everybody in the ‘hood. Jefferson has also conveniently gained his powers just in time to deal with the rise of an organized crime gang called the Golden Lords, made up entirely of black men who dye their hair blonde.
It appears Townsend couldn’t decide if he wanted to make a gentle spoof of superheroes (particularly Superman), or an inspirational tale about average folks standing up to inner city violence, so he made both, and the two concepts totally undercut each other. This culminates in an embarrassing scene where the Meteor Man inspires the Bloods and the Crips to put down their guns purely on the strength of how awesome he is. Which is totally nullified by the ending, where both gangs show up armed to the teeth to scare off the Golden Lords.
His desire to tell a positive tale is probably why Townsend was able to rope in a virtual who’s-who of Black Hollywood at the time, including Robert Guillaume as his father, Marla Gibbs as his mother, an early appearance by Don Cheadle as a Golden Lord, James Earl Jones wearing lots of goofy wigs, Luther Vandross as—I think—a mute assassin, and a really unfortunate-in-retrospect cameo from… sigh, Bill Cosby as a guy who finds a piece of the meteor and acquires similar superpowers. Unfortunately, all the incredible acting talent on display here is completely wasted on a hopelessly banal script.
The positives: Townsend, who previously wrote and directed The Hollywood Shuffle and The Five Heartbeats, also writes and directs here, making this the only movie on this list with a black director. Actually, that’s less a positive and more just really depressing.
The final film featuring Wesley Snipes as Blade, the Marvel Comics vampire hunter character from the ‘70s, is easily the dumbest installment of the trilogy. Blade becomes a side character in his own movie as we’re introduced to a squad of vampire hunters called the “Nightstalkers”, including Natasha Lyonne as a blind woman with a 7 year old daughter (what every vampire hunting team really needs), Jessica Biel as the daughter of Blade’s dead (and then undead, and then dead again) mentor Whistler, and Ryan Reynolds in full Van Wilder mode as Hannibal King, a wisecracking former vampire who was cured of his bloodthirsty condition but not of his need to fill every lull in a conversation with idiotic patter. They’re on the hunt for none other than Dracula himself (future Heat Wave actor Dominic Purcell) who’s been awakened from his centuries-long slumber and is still totally ripped and now wants to be called “Drake”.
This is the only movie on this list that was so bad that it caused the star to sue the studio, as Wesley Snipes filed a lawsuit against New Line Cinema alleging, among other things, that the movie’s director, cast, and screenplay were forced on him, that he was disgusted by the “juvenile level of humor” in the film, and that Blade: Trinity was only made to set up spin-offs starring the Nightstalkers. It’s a shame that this lawsuit seems to have been dismissed or otherwise settled out of court, thus robbing us of the possibility of expert witnesses testifying in open court as to this film’s unbelievable shittiness.
The positives: I’m fairly confident there are at least a few scenes in this movie where Ryan Reynolds does not appear.
Will Smith’s last attempt at owning the July 4th weekend features him playing an alcoholic superhero who has to constantly be guilt-tripped into fighting crime, and when he finally does get off his lazy ass to take on criminals, he usually does more property damage than the evildoers. One day he rescues a PR exec (Jason Bateman) who decides to rehabilitate Hancock’s image via a temporary stint in prison followed by a slick new leather uniform.
It’s an interesting setup with some mildly funny moments. But while it at first appears that Hancock was formerly a beloved superhero who fell from grace due to a traumatic event, as the movie unfolds, we get a relentless series of incoherent revelations where we ultimately learn Hancock is (spoiler alert!) some sort of amnesiac fallen angel or demigod who’s been walking the earth for thousands of years, and Bateman’s wife Charlize Theron is a fellow fallen angel/demigod that he’s destined to fall in love with. And then this mostly middling superhero comedy turns into a supernatural romance that’s just so very strange.
The positives: There’s no denying that the special effects here are leaps and bounds above almost everything else on this list. But this one bears the scars of far too many rewrites and focus group screenings, and comes off like three or four different screenplays brutally smashed together.
In the comics, John Henry Irons is a weapons inventor inspired by the mid-‘90s death of Superman into taking on the mantle of Steel and attempting to replace Superman in fighting crime in Metropolis. 1997’s movie version of Steel… never even mentions Superman, unless you count Shaq’s S-logo tattoo. I’m guessing the producers were certain Steel would be released hot on the heels of Tim Burton’s Superman Lives, which of course never happened, which might make this the first cinematic spin-off of a movie that doesn’t exist.
Shaquille O’Neal’s Irons is a former weapons designer for the military who returns home to L.A. and also ends up taking care of his fellow veteran Sparky (Anabeth Gish), who was paralyzed in a friendly fire incident involving the obviously evil soldier Nathaniel Burke (Judd Nelson). When Burke starts selling top secret weapons to criminals, Irons and his uncle Joe (Richard Roundtree) build a steel (actually, mostly rubber spray-painted silver) super-suit, and of course Sparky becomes his Oracle-like sidekick to help him fight crime.
The positives: I’m only ranking this so high because of the glorious, unabashed stupidity of it all. Imagine if you will, the possibility of a superhero who’s over seven feet tall attempting to maintain a secret identity. Imagine an entire fourth-wall-breaking running gag about how bad Shaq is at free throws. Now imagine the entire climax of the movie hinges on Shaq making a free throw-like attempt at tossing a grenade through a hole in a fence. Imagine lines like, “Well, I’ll be dipped in shit and rolled in breadcrumbs!” Imagine Uncle Joe examining Henry’s big hammer and saying, “I especially like the shaft!” (It’s a dumb reference to Roundtree’s most famous role and horrifying innuendo about the size of Shaq’s junk all wrapped into one godawful line of dialogue.) Now stop imagining, because this movie somehow actually exists.
The writer-director is Kenneth Johnson, who previously did great work on the Hulk TV show and the original V miniseries, so there’s no way he didn’t know exactly how stupid this movie is. But as they say, an intentionally stupid movie is still a stupid movie.
Guillermo del Toro, currently the front-runner for this year’s Oscar for Best Directing, takes over the Blade franchise and kicks the frenetic action up a notch in this sequel where Blade has to team up with vampires to face an even greater threat, the monstrous Reapers who feast on both humans and vampires. Blade and Whistler and new sidekick Scud (future Walking Dead star Norman Reedus) have to work with the vampires’ elite “Bloodpack”, none of whom get any actual character development save for the one played by Ron Perlman. Cue endless action sequences set to a loud rap-rock-heavy metal score, all taking place in the Czech Republic in an obvious attempt to keep the budget down.
The positives: No shade here; this film is full of great martial arts setpieces, mostly thanks to Del Toro employing Hong Kong fight choreographer Donnie Yen. The plot is really just a loose framework upon which to hang lots of amped-up action sequences, but who really ever wanted more than that from a Blade sequel, anyway?
Blade (Wesley Snipes) is a daywalker, the child of a human and a vampire, who (as we are repeatedly told) has all the strengths of vampires but none of their weaknesses, except for a thirst for human blood which he keeps at bay with a special serum. Along with his crusty cohort Whistler (Kris Kristofferson), they battle the rather vast underground vampire scene, where a new vampire convert named Deacon Frost wants to summon an ancient deity and subjugate humanity once and for all. To be honest, I could easily go either way on which of the first two Blade films are the best, because let’s face it, they’re pretty much the same movie. But in the end, I have to say I prefer the raw, low-budget grittiness of the original. Though the fact that two of the best movies made about black superheroes are both Blade films is a pretty good indicator of how little effort and attention has been paid to black superhero movies thus far.
The positives: It’s easy to forget that Blade was instrumental in Marvel’s current successes, being the very first feature film based on a Marvel property to not be a total embarrassment. Blade clearly helped jump start development on 2000’s X-Men, which clearly helped jump start 2002’s Spider-Man, and the rest is history. Black Panther would never have existed without Blade.