The road for black superheroes has not an easy one. Like any struggle, there were some blocks and failures along the way but these first ventures have become cult classics in their own right. Now it’s time to give them some shine. My first selection for this series of articles was my absolute favorite movie as a child: Robert Townsend’s The Meteor Man…
The Actual First Black Superhero Movie
While The Meteor Man has been touted in many articles as the first-ever black superhero movie, it’s actually not. That title goes to Abar The First Black Superman. The film was created by a black pimp from Louisiana and James Smalley and Frank Packard, a white screenwriter.
Smalley produced the film himself but he ran out of money before the film was complete. Eventually, Smalley had to sell the film to the owner of a film processing lab to cover his debts. The movie was completed in 1975, but not released until 1977, under the name Abar The First Black Superman. Its original release was very limited, primarily in Southern drive-ins. The film was shot in the Baldwin Hills and Watts neighborhoods of Los Angeles with no official permits. A portion of the movie was filmed in an actual whorehouse.This movie, though flawed as it may be, is the first ever live action depiction of a black superhero on screen.
Enter Robert Townsend
Born in Chicago in 1957, Robert Townsend is an American actor, director, comedian, and writer. Townsend started in stand up comedy and his first screen credit is a brief role in the 1975 classic Cooley High. Townsend also auditioned to be part of Saturday Night Live’s 1980–1981 cast, but Eddie Murphy was chosen instead.
Townsend is best known for directing his breakthrough film Hollywood Shuffle in 1987. Written with his partner at the time, Keenan Ivory Wayans, the movie is a humorous take on the struggles of a young black actor trying to make it in Hollywood.
The success of Hollywood Shuffle led to a series of HBO variety show specials called Robert Townsend and His Partners in Crime. The Partners In Crimes specials are seen by many as a direct precursor to In Living Color as it featured many members of the Wayans Family (Keenan, Damon, Kim, Shawn and Marlon), David Alan Grier and Tommy Davidson. Townsend also directed the concert film Eddie Murphy Raw (1987) and the The Five Heartbeats (1991), the rise and fall of a 60’s R&B group.
The Origin of Meteor Man
In an interview with the entertainment blog Shadow and Act, Robert Townsend states the creation of The Meteor Man came from a conversation he had with his little nephew when he went back home to Chicago for a visit around Halloween 1990:
“I had finished “The Five Heartbeats” and I was trying to think about what I wanted to do next. I was talking to my nephew and asked him what costume he was going to wear. I asked him if he was gonna be Superman or Spider-Man. He’s like six or seven years old and he says, ‘Well I can’t be them because they’re white.’ I was like, ‘whoa!’. I had never watched television with a prejudiced eye but he had a certain lens where he saw limitations. That kind of started the journey of me thinking that kids of color need their own superhero. That is, a hero who is for everybody but they can more relate to that hero, in case they couldn’t see the things that I saw in Superman and Spider-Man” (Matthews, Shadow and Act, 2018).
Townsend says it took two years and about thirty revisions to get a script that was serviceable and in keeping with his vision.
“Well, the thing for me is that I always loved superheroes as a kid. It was the original Superman in black-and-white, then cartoons like Spider-Man, then the Batman TV series with The Riddler, Frank Gorshin, and Cesar Romero. When I started to create Meteor Man, I was looking to say, “Hey, I want to be the first African-American superhero on screen,” and I really took it serious, even though it’s fun, to say what are his superpowers and who are the villains. I wanted to have fun with it and walk that line of being silly, but also have some real messages in the film”( Matthews, Shadow and Act, 2018).
The Meteor Man’s budget was $30 million dollars costing more than Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles 3 and Robocop 3 (both were made the same year).
The movie also featured a large cast of African American actors, comedians and musical acts. These included: Marla Gibbs, Eddie Griffin, Robert Guillaume, James Earl Jones, Bill Cosby, Another Bad Creation, Luther Vandross, Sinbad, Naughty by Nature, Cypress Hill, and Big Daddy Kane.
“What I was getting everybody to sign up for was creating the first African-American superhero and wanted to draw from all different sides of the experience and audiences. So to go from Luther Vandross to James Earl Jones to Nancy Wilson, and Another Bad Creation to Naughty By Nature to Cypress Hill, I was trying to hit every demographic I could”( Matthews,Shadow and Act, 2018).
The movie follows Jefferson Reed (played by Robert Townsend) a mild-mannered school teacher in Washington, D.C. His neighborhood (Castle Hills) is terrorized by a local vicious gang called The Golden Lords, led by crime lord Simon Caine. The Lords sport gold clothing, gold jewelry and platinum blonde ‘golden’ hair.
One night, Jeff steps in to rescue a woman from the gang only to end up running from them himself. Hiding in a garbage dumpster, he manages to escape. As he climbs out, he is struck down by a glowing, green meteorite in an alley.
Jeff soon discovers the meteorite had left him with superhuman abilities not unlike Superman (flight, x-ray/laser vision, superhuman strength, speed, and hearing, invulnerability, healing powers). He also acquires more unusual powers like:
- the ability to absorb a book’s content by touch.
- telepathy with dogs (which he uses to communicate with his own dog, Ellington),
- telekinesis ( this ability is used to take off clothes more than once in the movie).
His parents Ted (Robert Guillaume) and Maxine (Marla Gibbs) and his best friend Michael ( Eddie Griffin) convince him to use his powers to help the community as The Meteor Man ( a name coined by his mother).
His mother also designs his costume: A grey body suit with padding, green trunks, green boots, a long green cape and a chest insignia that looks like an outline of the planet Saturn.
NOTE: the color scheme and chest symbol are very similar to the debut look of Captain Marvel in Marvel Comics.
Meteor Man’s weakness is that his powers are temporary and require recharging from more meteor rock. The only remaining piece is kept by a mute vagrant( played by Bill Cosby). The climax has both Jeff and a newly powered Simon Caine have a super powered battle for the neighborhood with Meteor Man as the victor.
- The movie was written by, directed by, co-produced by and starring Robert Townsend.
- Though he has no screen time, Chris Tucker is the voice of the MC in the mall scene when Michael pretends to be Meteor Man.
- The Meteor Man costume created by Ruth Carter, who would later win the Academy Award for Best Costume Design for another black superhero movie, Black Panther.
- Robert Townsend named his characters real identity, Jefferson Reed, after his favorite teacher who was one of his childhood heroes.
- Tiny ‘ Zeus’ Lister, Faizon Love, Lawanda Page, John Witherspoon and Chris Tucker would all appear together 2 years later in the Ice Cube comedy classic Friday.
- The Angry Old Boss who is the head of the Golden Lords is played by Frank Gorshin, who played The Riddler in the 1960s Batman series with Adam West.
Plot Holes and Changes
The movie is rumored to have gone through many re-writes and changes while in production, resulting in many plot holes in the movie. Many scenes appeared in the script and could have been filmed but did not appear in the final film. Most of these missing scenes are included in the official novelization for the movie. These include:
- Simon asking Meteor Man to join him while they are both trying to get to the meteor, with Meteor Man saying ‘never!’.
- A scene where Jeff, as he is losing his powers, tries to save a cat from a tree but can’t fly. When he finally gets off the ground, he catches the cat but falls. This is witnessed by two kids about to tell this information to the Golden Lords but they are stopped by Jeff.
- A scene where Jeff gets over a fear of heights
- An entire sub plot involving Jeff’s relationship with an ex-girlfriend named Stacy ( who appears briefly in the final movie).
- The character Michael is seen through out the movie trying to create a rap song that will be Meteor Man’s theme song.
- The original ending had a more confident Jeff standing up for himself and his community and using his role as a teacher to better everyone’s life. Michael tells him that an even bigger piece of the meteor that hit him was found in Arizona. The two then agree to buy plane tickets so that Jeff can get his powers back and once again become Meteor Man. This is followed by Michael trying to talk him into letting him get some power from the meteor so he can be his sidekick. It then ends with Michael throwing out names to him, such as Comet Boy, Chocolate Thunder, and the Flying Wonder.
Meteor Man is Part of The Marvel Universe
Marvel Comics produced a six-issue Meteor Man comic book spin-off limited series written by Bert B Hubbard and Dwight D Coye and illustrated by Robert Walker and Jon Holdredge.
Taking place just after the events of the movie, Jeff eventually uses the last of his powers to clean up the neighborhood and put the Golden Lords out of business.
However, Simon Cain, leader of the Golden Lords, has also been exposed to the same meteor. Both men try to avoid getting drained of their powers and need constant exposure to a meteor fragment or they will lose their powers.
In separate efforts to gain powers on a permanent basis, Simon Cain has volunteered himself for study to a secret government facility founded by a new criminal named Armand Skyy and Jefferson Reed goes to Arizona where a larger hunk of the same meteor that hit him in D.C. has landed near the Grand Canyon.
The highlights of the comics are moments where Meteor Man meets Marvel characters like Spider-Man and Night Thrasher.
Meteor Man was not the first black superhero movie, but it is the first black superhero film to get a widespread theatrical release or be backed by a major studio (MGM). My first recollection of actually seeing the movie itself was when my grandmother would get the Showtime free preview weekend because Showtime was the only cable channel that showed it at the time.
Whenever I knew that weekend was coming up , I would anxiously look through the TV Guide to see if it was coming on and ,usually, it was. I loved it because I was already used to the Christopher Reeve Superman movies or the Michael Keaton Batman movies at that point. It was something different. Something with flavor and it really spoke to me as a kid. After that, I didn’t want to be Superman on Halloween. I wanted to be The Meteor Man. I guess, after all these years, I still do.
UNTIL NEXT TIME!!
Matthews, N. February 08 2018. Robert Townsend’s ‘The Meteor Man’ Is A Valuable Outlier in the Superhero Genre. Shadow and Act. Retrieved from https://shadowandact.com/the-meteor-man-superhero-movie.