From Blade to Blankman: Top 5 Black Comic Book Films of the 90s (RMR Turns 5, Part 4 of 6)

Julien Neaves, Editor

Hey folks. On Monday May 17 Red Mango Reviews celebrated its fifth anniversary. In celebration of this milestone we’ve implemented several new things, including a new look (hope you like it), bringing on former guest writer Wayne Rock as our new featured writer, and six days of Top 5 Articles. For today’s fourth article I will looking at black comic book films of the 90s.

I was actually planning to do this list for Black History Month in February. We don’t celebrate it in Trinidad and Tobago, but inspiration is inspiration. The 90s was not the best time for comic book films. Superman sat the decade out and the Batman franchise had turned to neon crap. Marvel’s mainstream successes with X-Men and Spider-Man didn’t come until the 2000s. But on the positive side, it was a busy decade for comic book/comic book-inspired films with black protagonists. Heck, the 2000s and 2010s pale in comparison, with the seminal Black Panther being a notable exception. Now the 90s black comic book films were not the greatest generally, but they were at least entertaining. Well, most of them. With a super-powered SPOILER ALERT here is my ranking of the the Top 5 Black Comic Book Films of the 90s:

#5 Steel (1997)

This movie was less of a slam dunk or more of an air ball

You know there are movies that are so bad they cross over into so-bad-it’s-good-territory and are enjoyable as unintentional comedies? Steel is not one of those movies. It is just plain bad. And boring. Oh so boring. First off, the character bears little resemblance to the DC comic book counterpart. John Henry Irons’ whole deal was that he built a mechanised suit of armor that replicated Superman’s powers and bore Superman’s logo as he initially wanted to replace Superman after the Man of Steel was killed by Doomsday (don’t worry, Supes got better).

But there’s no Superman here so instead we have basketball star Shaquille O’Neal as Irons and wearing a crappy looking metal suit like a junkyard knight. O’Neal is as good at acting as he was at taking free throws (that is, awful) and it is painful to watch. The action is dull, the plot is stupid, and the basketball meta-jokes just add insult to injury. This Steel is a piece of junk and should be left on the scrap pile.

#4 Blankman (1994)

When you order your Batman and Robin costumes on a budget site

I hadn’t seen this movie in years and I rewatched it today. And yeah, it is not a great film. It’s not even a good film. It is a silly, campy affair. But it knows it’s silly and campy and doubles down on it, giving it a kind of charm. Blankman sees Damon Wayans (fresh off crafting kooky characters on In Living Color) as nerdy inventor Darryl Walker who becomes the Batman-inspired superhero after his grandmother is brutally murdered. His In Living Color alum David Alan Grier plays his cheeky brother Kevin and reluctant sidekick “Other Guy”. Robin Givens is also here as journalist/love interest Kimberly Jonz and Seinfeld’s Jason Alexander plays the immoral tabloid producer Mr Stone.

This movie is stupid and low-brow but I found myself laughing multiple times. There is a running gag where Blankman has an orgasm every time Kimberly kisses him, and despite myself it made me chuckle every time. Surprisingly Grier brings most of the laughs as the unlucky-in-love straight man. The film also wears its 1960s Batman TV series inspiration on its sleeve complete with Blankman symbol transition and onomatopoeic images for the action scenes. It’s just a dumb old good time that works well as a guilty pleasure watch.

#3 Spawn (1997)

Damn dude. You look like hell. Get it? Spawn? Hell. You get it

When I saw this film I didn’t know anything about the Spawn character and I found it generally entertaining. Michael Jai White was decent as Al Simmons/Spawn and Nicol Williamson was pretty great as Hellspawn and mentor figure Cogliostro. On the villain side John Leguizamo is a riot as Clown/Violator and Martin Sheen was fun as scenery-chewing bad guy Jason Wynn. The Spawn design looked pretty cool and there was some okay action. But the weak CGI was not good then and definitely has not held up. There’s a particular scene to the end where Spawn returns to hell that looked like a PlayStation 1 cut scene. And then he tells Violator to tell his boss (the Devil) he’s coming for him next. Oh the cringe, the cringe of it all!

But the biggest issue with Spawn is that they toned the movie down from an R rating to PG-13, presumably to try and get more butts in seats. And the character just doesn’t work with a PG-13 rating. And when you watch the exceptional HBO Spawn adult animated series it’s difficult to go back and watch this watered-down version. Heck, there was a Spawn fan film that had a better version. Let’s hope the upcoming Jamie Foxx Spawn film does the character justice on the big screen.

#2 The Meteor Man (1993)

There goes the neighbourhood…

While Blankman was inspired by Batman, The Meteor Man is a black version of Superman, though Metropolis is traded for a ghetto in Washington D.C. The film is Robert Townsend’s baby as he wrote, directed, co-produced and starred as mild-mannered teacher Jefferson Reed/Meteor Man. And he gets his powers from, you guessed it, a meteor in quite a graphic scene. Like Supes, Meteor Man can fly, has super strength, is bulletproof, has x-ray vision, and laser eyes. But unlike Superman he also has some other powers, namely telekinesis, accelerated plant germination, the ability to talk to dogs, and the ability to absorb all knowledge of a book by simply touching it. He can also end a conflict between the police and the gangs with just a few inspiring words. I have to give Townsend points for not doing an exact Superman clone, even if some of Meteor Man’s powers don’t make any sense.

The villains in this movie, gangster group The Golden Lords, are hilarious. Everybody has blonde hair and there are different levels depending on the age: adult Golden Lords, teenage Junior Lords, and prepubescent Baby Lords (they are adorable as they sound). And the film seems to have about every black actor working at that time as well as several musical artistes. There’s (deep breath) Marla Gibbs, Robert Guillaume, James Earl Jones, Bill Cosby, Sinbad, Don Cheadle, Tommy “Tiny” Lister, Lela Rochon, Faizon Love, Luther Vandross, Cypress Hill, Another Bad Creation, and that’s not even everybody.

The action is played for laughs (there’s a scene where Meteor Man and Golden Lord leader Simon Caine touch a modeling book and begin “working” the runway) and there’s an overarching message about the community coming together to stand against crime. It is extremely campy but it’s also sweet and packed with laughs. And who doesn’t want to see Luther Vandross as a mute hit man?

#1 Blade (1998)

Nice to see a hero taking such joy in his work

Now I know pretty much everybody prefers Blade II to the original film but I actually enjoy the first one more. Sure the whole Vampire God plotline makes no sense, because if they turned all the humans into vampires then what would they feed on? Animals? Doesn’t sound very appetising. But I remember reading that they began this film with crafting Wesley Snipes’ Blade character first and then built the film around him. And it shows, because Blade is simply a super cool badass. And watching him taking out suckheads in a variety of bloody and graphic ways (wonky CGI notwithstanding) never gets old. Blade II may be stronger on plot, tone, and cinematography, but it can’t compare to the glorious Blade-on-vampire mayhem of the first film.

And besides Snipes, N’Bushe Wright, Stephen Dorff, Kris Kristofferson, and Donal Logue all put in stellar performances. At the time of its release I’m sure only diehard comic fans even realised the film was based on a Marvel comic character. And the movie was strong enough to stand on its own even without marketing its Marvel origins. Because it made bank at the box office it began Marvel’s film success and set the stage for future comic book film adaptations. MCU anyone? In terms of 90s black comic book films Blade slays all the competition.

So that’s my list. How would you rank these five films? You can check out more comic book articles below:

Revisiting Horror-Inspired Superhero Darkman at 30 in 4 Slices
Top 5 Worst Superhero Movies of the Last Decade

B0FC059B-BBEE-47CF-90E4-D588C1BACD93 Julien “Editor Jules” Neaves is a TARDIS-flying, Force-using Trekkie whose bedroom stories were by Freddy Krueger, learned to be a superhero from Marvel, but dreams of being Batman. I love promoting Caribbean film (Cariwood), creating board games and I am an aspiring author. I say things like “12 flavours of awesome sauce”. Read more.