The Black Panther film is finally arriving in theaters after being stuck in development hell for 24 years. The highly-anticipated blockbuster comes from director Ryan Coogler and writer Joe Robert Cole, and stars Chadwick Boseman as the eponymous superhero. So far, it's not only considered one of the best Marvel movies ever but also one of the best comic book movies as well.
Black Panther is being applauded for its story, its characters, and above all, its proper representation of African culture (which is something Coogler specifically wanted to achieve). But for all its progress, and for being the first superhero film with a black lead set within the Marvel Cinematic Universe, it's not the first black superhero film ever to release. It's not even the second or third, either... it's the 10th, actually. But all those movies - good or bad - took the first steps so Black Panther could shine.
Most superhero movies have their titular characters performing some heroics, and painting the heroes in such a way that audiences can aspire to be them. Then, there's Hancock. Directed by Peter Berg (Friday Night Lights) and starring Will Smith as the eponymous character, Hancock turned the superhero genre on its head and showed a man - one endowed with superhuman abilities that mimic DC's Superman - hellbent on NOT being a superhero.
Hancock was originally written by Vincent Ngo in 1996, and it sat in development hell for more than a decade until Breaking Bad creator Vince Gilligan came on board and rewrote Ngo's script alongside John August. After meeting with several directors, Columbia Pictures finally got the movie onto screens in 2008. While Hancock wasn't a critical success, it still earned big bucks worldwide, and it proved that black superhero movies could still be worthwhile bets for major studios.
Blade I - III (1998-2004)
Perhaps the most widely recognized film series to feature a black superhero in the title role (before Black Panther, of course) is Blade. Wesley Snipes famously portrayed the Marvel vampire hunter in New Line Cinema's Blade trilogy in the late 1990s and early 2000s, first in Stephen Norrington's 1998 film, and then in Guillermo del Toro's Blade II in 2002 and David S. Goyer's Blade: Trinity in 2004. Commercially, each movie was undoubtedly successful, but critically, they weren't considered traditionally "good" movies. Still, their prominence has grown over the years.
What's interesting is that Snipes spent years trying to adopt a Black Panther film himself, first with Columbia Pictures and then later with Marvel Studios. But, for various reasons, the project never seemed to jive well with everyone involved; either they had issues with the script or trouble finding an appropriate director. So, while Snipes never got the chance to play T'Challa on the silver screen, his appearances as Blade arguably helped pave the way for Marvel's Black Panther movie to release.
General moviegoers may believe that after Superman IV, the next Superman film to hit screens was Superman Returns in 2006, but it wasn't. Warner Bros. partnered with basketball star Shaquille O'Neal and actress Annabeth Gish to deliver Steel to audiences in 1997, based on the comic book character of the same name. For the uninitiated, Steel, aka John Henry Irons, is one of DC's several replacements for Superman after The Death of Superman story arc in the early 1990s.
Related: Black Panther Character Guide
While the comics weren't particularly well-regarded by fans, WB saw it as their perfect opportunity to capitalize on the media frenzy and Shaq's popularity by casting him as the eponymous character in Steel. As one can imagine, Steel was an abominable failure, both critically and commercially. (Steel grossed only $1.7 million against an estimated production budget of $16 million). Given Steel's atrociousness, perhaps it's not a good idea for Shaq to be campaigning for an Avengers role at this time. Let's not revisit the past.
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