25 years before Black Panther, a box-office bomb broke ground for black superheroes

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A superhero movie comes out, but it doesn’t look like other superhero movies. The hero is black. So is the villain. So are almost all of the supporting characters. The movie touches on the main superhero-movie beats that we expect: the origin story, the demonstration of powers, the final battle with the equally powerful villain. But since it’s very much a black movie, it also considers things like the specific power of a unified black community. Its hero even considers the geopolitical ramifications of his powers. It’s everything we expect from a superhero movie, but it’s different, too.

Now: I do not mean to suggest that The Meteor Man, Robert Townsend’s 1993 superhero film, was in any way equivalent to what we’re seeing today with Black Panther. Black Panther, for one thing, is a global phenomenon, whereas The Meteor Man was an immediate monster flop, one that came nowhere near earning back its B-level budget. Black Panther is tied in with the ongoing phenomenon of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, whereas The Meteor Man attempted, without a whole lot of precision, to invent a new superhero from whole cloth. (There was a tie-in Marvel Meteor Man comic that ran for six issues, but I don’t think we can say that Meteor Man has ever been a part of any version of the Marvel Universe.)

Perhaps most importantly, Black Panther is a great movie, whereas The Meteor Man is merely watchable at best, and that probably has more to do with its time-capsule value and my own nostalgia than any real innate qualities. It’s a bit of a tonal mess, a comedy that still aims for grand melodramatic moments and action scenes that its budget and the special effects of its era were incapable of pulling off. Watching it today, the best things about The Meteor Man are its many, many cameos and its inexplicable touches, like the moment when we see Tiny Lister walking down a dark alley with a tiger on a leash.

Still, The Meteor Man was the first black superhero movie. That’s not nothing. It’s made from the perspective of a guy who loves jazz and hip-hop. Black actors who would later become famous, and later get superhero parts of their own, get big roles. Eddie Griffin plays a wacky inventor sidekick nine years before getting his own quasi-superhero vehicle with Undercover Brother. Don Cheadle plays a gang member with a satin jacket and a dangly earring 17 years before taking over as War Machine in Iron Man 2. (In a nod to superhero history, the movie also has an over-the-top Frank Gorshin, who’d played the Riddler on the old Batman TV series, as the leader of an international crime syndicate.) I saw The Meteor Man in the theater, and I remember that theater being full. This was in Baltimore, where pretty much every black movie did well. Still, I remember being surprised to learn that the movie was considered a flop.

Robert Townsend, like Black Panther auteur Ryan Coogler, came from independent film. After years of struggling as an actor and a stand-up comic, he made Hollywood Shuffle, a 1987 meta-movie about the struggles of being a black actor and attempting to make it. Townsend co-wrote the movie, directed it, produced it, and starred in it, and its cast included future In Living Color creator Keenen Ivory Wayans. (That same year, Townsend scored the fluke success of directing the Eddie Murphy stand-up movie Raw.) In 1991, Townsend once again did the Orson Welles-style writer/director/producer/star thing for The Five Heartbeats, a period piece about a fictional singing group. Hollywood Shuffle and The Five Heartbeats weren’t huge movies, but they showed a lot of promise. The Meteor Man was Townsend’s big swing. It didn’t really work out, but it was a noble attempt.

Townsend must have called in every favor imaginable to make the movie. An unreleased Michael Jackson song plays over the opening credits. Sitcom legends Robert Guillaume, from Benson, and Marla Gibbs, from The Jeffersons, play Meteor Man’s parents. Big Daddy Kane, as far as I could tell, only gets one line in the whole movie, but he lurks silently in the background of a lot of scenes. Cypress Hill, Naughty By Nature, and Biz Markie make cameos. Luther Vandross, Wallace Shawn, John Witherspoon, and Faizon Love are in there somewhere, too. And I should warn you that Bill Cosby is also in way too much of the movie, playing a silent and angelic homeless man who also gets meteor powers.

As a pure superhero movie, The Meteor Man doesn’t work. Townsend, playing substitute teacher and jazz musician Jefferson Reed, gets his powers when a glowing green meteor randomly hits him in a Washington, D.C. alleyway, melting gruesomely into his skin. We don’t learn anything about the meteor’s origins, and I guess it was dumb luck that it hit Reed. He’s got a pretty ill-defined set of powers, too. There’s the obligatory flight and superhuman strength, but there’s weird stuff as well. He can touch a book and immediately know everything in it, but only for 30 seconds. He can communicate with dogs. In one deeply strange moment, he clears out a vacant lot, plunges his hands into the dirt, and magically turns it into verdant farmland. Then he breathes misty white something into the air and makes it rain, and giant vegetables grow. That’s a pretty useful power! He only uses it the once. Whenever something doesn’t make sense, Eddie Griffin will show up with helpful expository dialogue: “I figured it out! The meteor changed your molecular cell structure.”

As a comedy, it doesn’t really work, either. There are some moments I like. Reed is scared of heights, so, as Meteor Man, he just flies about three feet from the ground. James Earl Jones, as an aging neighbor who’s always trying to act young, wears a hi-top fade wig and, at one point, raps on a street corner. The funniest person in the whole movie, I’m pretty surprised to say, is Sinbad, who gets a small recurring part as a suburban nerd who’s only now attempting to discover his blackness. But most of the jokes are hacky sitcom things. And Townsend undercuts these with even more hackneyed moments of solemnity. There’s a part, for instance, where Bloods and Crips—already somehow unified, without superhero intervention—are in a big shoot-out against police. Meteor Man flies in, and through the magic of wow-that’s-a-superhero awe, convinces everyone to get along. Later, a news anchor helpfully explains: “The gangs have now vowed to rebuild the community they have destroyed.”

Much better is the evil drug-dealing gang, The Golden Lords, who act as the primary antagonists. At various points of the movie, Townsend seems to be trying to make serious points about the importance of community policing to deal with crime. But there is thankfully nothing realistic about The Golden Lords. They all dye their hair blond and wear ridiculously slick, silky early-’90s clothes. They have a pet tiger, who sadly doesn’t fight Meteor Man, and they have Tiny Lister, who does. They have a whole wing of little kid members, played by the kiddie-rap group Another Bad Creation. They have a leader who, about five seconds after getting meteor powers of his own, makes a whole “I will be God on this planet!” speech in the middle of a city street. They’re a lot of fun.

From a historical perspective, though, the most interesting thing about The Meteor Man is the way the movie depicts community. Meteor Man is very much a neighborhood superhero. He makes some half-hearted attempts at maintaining a secret identity, but he doesn’t wear a mask. His parents tell everyone in the neighborhood who he is. They help make a costume for him and install a superhero hotline in his apartment. At one point, his mother suggests that he “go international and deal with South Africa,” but he never even seems to leave his block. He’s a product of his community, and when he’s finally threatened at the end, the community shows up to protect him. It’s not quite the same thing as being the king of an autonomous, technologically advanced African nation, but it’s something.

The Meteor Man lost tens of millions and earned terrible reviews. It didn’t exactly ruin Townsend’s career; he kept working for years afterward, and even co-created and starred in a sitcom, The Parent ’Hood, that aired for a few seasons on The WB. But The Meteor Man certainly ended his ascent. He never got a budget like that again, and he’s not a part of the studio system anymore. (One of the last things he directed was a 2014 Bill Cosby stand-up special that Netflix wisely decided to never release.)

Still, The Meteor Man was the first movie to understand that there really was an audience for a black superhero movie. It didn’t find that audience, but other movies would. In just the few years after The Meteor Man, we got Blankman, Spawn, Steel, and Blade—all movies of wildly varying tone and quality, but all movies about black superheroes. The Meteor Man started something. As legacies go, that’s not bad.

Other notable 1993 superhero movies: Batman: The Animated Series, the great kids’ cartoon that started out as an outgrowth of the Tim Burton Batman movies, got its own big-screen spin-off movie with Batman: Mask Of The Phantasm. It plays, more or less, as a three-part episode of the show that somehow made its way into theaters. But since the show was a vivid and complete version of the Batman mythos, that worked out just fine. Mask Of The Phantasm isn’t a classic superhero movie, but it remains very watchable. (After that movie, a whole cottage industry of straight-to-video animated superhero movies popped up, and this is probably a good place to announce that this column won’t be covering those.)

The Heroic Trio, director Johnnie To’s absurd and beautiful Hong Kong action epic, tells the story of three superhero women—played by the great Hong Kong actresses Anita Mui, Michelle Yeoh, and Maggie Cheung—who join forces to fight an ancient resurrected eunuch demon-god who, in the loony climax, transforms into a Terminator-esque stop-motion skeleton. As with so many classic Hong Kong movies, The Heroic Trio doesn’t make a whole lot of narrative sense. But you can lose yourself in its dreamlike visual sensibility and in the way its stars soar through the air on wires, their capes billowing around them. I love it to pieces. (Executioners, the movie’s sequel, also came out in 1993, but you can probably skip that one.)

The surprise-hit Ninja Turtles trilogy ended with Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles III, in which, after only the barest of explanations why, the Ninja Turtles and April O’Neil travel through time and space to feudal Japan, where they end up fighting a group of scheming British gunrunners. Watching it now, the weirdest thing about it is that nobody seems to think this predicament is the slightest bit strange; they just react with sarcasm and eye-rolls. The movie made money, but it made way less than previous installments, and it would be another two decades before the Michael Bay-produced reboot hit theaters.

Meanwhile, Dollman Vs. Demonic Toys was a kind of straight-to-video B-movie crossover event, with director Charles Band’s shrinking alien cop fighting his possessed evil playthings. 1993 also saw the release of the superhero-adjacent RoboCop 3, as well as the disastrous big-screen Super Mario Bros. movie.

Next time: Despite the mid-production death of its star, The Crow taps into some kind of generational angst and establishes the look and tone of the dark, gothic superhero movie.