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Thursday, July 3, 2008

Who's the best black superhero?

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The new film Hancock (reviewed here) takes two steps forward and at least one step back in advancing the cause of black superheroes, who are solely underrepresented in pop culture. On the plus side, Hancock is a lavish summer movie scheduled for the prime July 4 weekend spot, starring arguably the world's most popular African-American screen actor. In the debit column, the title character is a surly, accident-prone boozer who sets such a bad example, he makes Charles "I'm not a role model" Barkley look like, I dunno, President David Palmer from "24."

Black superheroes have a spotty history in comics, cartoons and movies. Before the mid-1960s, you'd be hard-pressed to find any African-American comic book superheroes, and the ones who subsequently emerged were frequently treated as tokens with either utterly bland or highly stereotypical characterization. With so many real-world heroes breaking the color bar in arts, sports, politics and civil rights over the past generations, it's not a surprise that the likes of, say, Black Vulcan from "Super Friends" never made much of an impact. For simplicity's sake I'll focus here (mostly) on the black superheroes who have crossed over to other media, with varying degrees of success.

Blade

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By default, the character to make the most successful leap from comic books to other media is Blade, played by Wesley Snipes. The super-powered vampire hunter first appeared in Tomb of Dracula in 1973, remained on the margins of Marvel Comics but in 1998-2004 received the big-screen treatment in three films (not to mention a short-lived TV series with Kirk "Sticky" Jones). The success of the Blade films blazed the trail for higher-profile Marvel Comics adaptations like X-Men and Spider-man. Despite his pointy silver weapons and vampire-type powers, Blade is arguably more of an R-rated horror/action hero than an iconic superhero in his own right. Still, director Guillermo Del Toro made Blade II into one of the most surprisingly entertaining guilty-pleasure hero films. The clip above features Ron 'Hellboy' Perlman as a racist vampire and includes some of Snipes' liveliest macho posturing.

Storm

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Perhaps the most respectable black big-screen hero would be the weather-controlling Ororo, better known as Storm of the X-Men. Halle Berry, an Oscar-winner for Best Actress, plays her in all three X-Men films, and she becomes the superteam's leader in X-Men: The Last Stand. The clip above showcases her tornado powers from X2: X-Men United (one of the best, smartest hero films ever made), but the trouble is that Berry displays little of the charisma she brings to roles like Jinx in that James Bond film, so Storm seldom stands out amid the zillion other X-Men and X-Women.

Catwoman

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Berry also most of her X-Men good will for her solo stint in Catwoman, which awkwardly reimagines the Batman villainness/dominatrix as a sort-of superhero. There's absolutely no reason that an African-American actress couldn't play the role, but probably nobody could have reconciled Catwoman's kinky sexuality, campy heroics and corny cat jokes.

Steel

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Catwoman felt like an unwelcome reprise of the spate of terrible African-American superhero movies from the 1990s, which include Robert Townsend's Meteor Man and Damon Wayans' Blankman (a variation of Wayans' disabled hero "Handiman" from his recurring "In Living Color" sketches). At least those films were would-be comedies based on original characters, keeping expectations low. None proved as clunky as Shaquille O'Neal's Steel, a character with Iron Man-type armor and loose connections to both the Superman mythos and the John Henry tall tale. One of the problems of the film (apart from simply requiring Shaq to act) is that Steel arguably looks less impressive than Shaq himself in his street clothes, holding a big sledgehammer. He makes his hilarious, costumed entrance at the 7:30 mark in the clip above.

Spawn

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A little better, but still pretty crummy, is Spawn (1997). Michael Jai White plays an assassin for a covert government agency who is killed by his employers, but accepts a literal deal with a devil by returning to Earth as a "Hellspawn," with powers that include magic, whipping chains and a flowing, malleable cape. Spawn deserves a little credit for carrying the broody, Gothic, Tim Burton-era superheroics into weird territory, and for taking the protagonist's race as a given, but the film's execution is still largely unpleasant.

The Black Panther

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Considered the first black comic book superhero, The Black Panther originated in The Fantastic Four in 1966. Known in real life as T'Challa, he's the prince (and later king) of the African nation of Wakanda, which sort of resembles the idyllic African kingdom on the other side of the Paramount logo in Eddie Murphy's Coming to America. T'Challa has feline-style powers, but as an African head of state, you'd think he has better to do than fight costumed ne'er-do-wells. Marvel seems to be testing the waters for a Black Panther live action project and showcased the the character in the DVD animated feature Ultimate Avengers 2: Rise of the Panther. Here he's fighting the Fantastic Four in one of their old cartoon series.

Luke Cage, a.k.a. Hero for Hire, a.k.a. Power Man

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A wrongfully-incarcerated ex-con who specializes in helping out people in Harlem, Luke Cage debuted in 1972 as Marvel Comics' answer to blaxploitation icons like Shaft. The 1970s stories have dated rather embarrassingly — the slideshow above shows how the title evolved, giving him the more conventional name "Power Man" — but Cage was my favorite black superhero from the 1970s. There's rumor that John Singleton intends to direct a Luke Cage film with Tyrese, but so far, the character's only connection to the big screen is that movie star and comic book fanboy Nicolas Cage named himself after the role.

Green Lantern (John Stewart)

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Occasional comic book publishers have allowed black characters to take up the mantle of heroes established by white ones. (In Iron Man, Jim Rhodes has worn the armor for extended periods, frequently coinciding with Tony Stark's alcohol problem; Terence Howard winks at this bit of history in the new film). In Green Lantern mythos, ex-Marine John Stewart has wielded the power ring and provides a particularly strong take on the character in the animated "Justice League" and "Justice League Unlimited" TV shows. Voiced by Phil LaMarr, John Stewart's Green Lantern doesn't take a backseat to the better-established superheroes, and is one of the show's most well-rounded characters: he keeps ties with his old Detroit neighborhood and is one of the points in a romantic triangle with Hawkgirl and Vixen, a promising African-American heroine in her own right, voiced by "Firefly's" Gina Torres. Reportedly, director George Miller cast Common as John Stewart in the aborted Justice League movie. The clip above shows him in action in a guest appearance on "Static Shock" which showcased a young African-American hero who never really caught on.

Verb

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Is it wrong of me that my favorite African-American superhero is "Verb" from the old "Schoolhouse Rocks!" shorts? As the cartoon shows, Verb is clearly a movie star and an inspiration in his own right: "Verb tells it like it is."

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