Next week, Black Panther is set to become the first major blockbuster of 2018. Advance ticket sales and weekend box-office projections are high, even by Marvel standards, and people are even eagerly anticipating the film's soundtrack, which is being co-produced by Kendrick Lamar; when was the last time you remember anyone being hyped for a movie soundtrack?
The 18th film in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Black Panther is the first to focus exclusively on a black character, have a mostly black cast, and be directed by a black director, Ryan Coogler. The film is certain to elevate Chadwick Boseman, who first played T'Challa two years ago in Captain America: Civil War, and make him not only a symbol of diversity in pop culture but also one of black excellence. Many fans of comic book films and especially black moviegoers have been waiting a long time for this, as the last comic book film to star a black character was released a little over 13 years ago.
That film was Blade: Trinity, released in December 2004, the third film in the Blade series that starred Wesley Snipes as the most iconic vampire hunter not named Buffy. Blade is a film that 20 years ago this summer changed the direction of comic book movies as they made a permanent move away from the thick rubber suits of the '90s.
Blade is Snipes' most recognizable role, as he was able to incorporate his martial arts background and his uncanny ability to deliver one-liners to a character that most people had never seen outside of comic books and guest appearances on Spider-Man: The Animated Series. But Blade was actually not the first Marvel film Snipes was attached to; in fact, the first hero Snipes was set to play was Black Panther.
In a 1992 Variety article, it was reported that Columbia Pictures was producing a Black Panther film with Snipes set to star as the King of Wakanda. In a recent article in The Hollywood Reporter, Snipes said that Marvel approached him and his agent at the time to star in the movie.
It made perfect sense: Snipes was one of the most recognizable black actors in Hollywood at the time, thanks to his roles in comedies like Major League and White Men Can't Jump, as well as dramas like Jungle Fever and New Jack City. His action credentials were certified just a month before the Variety story was published as he starred in Passenger 57. For Snipes, as he told THR, it would give him the chance to play a character "the world was unfamiliar with and the communities that I grew up in would love."
He said something very similar in the summer of 1993, while in the middle of promoting Rising Sun and shooting Demolition Man. Talking to the Tampa Bay Times, the then 29-year-old movie star said that playing Black Panther would be "a dream come true to originate something that nobody's ever seen before."
Snipes would continue saying that he was interested in making Black Panther for the next 13 years. So why didn't he? Well, part of it had to do with differences in how the character was going to be presented and the lack of resources available at the time to fully achieve the vision Snipes had for the movie. Another major reason is just Hollywood being Hollywood.
In 1993, Marvel Films, a branch of The Marvel Entertainment Group, was created. Marvel Films was meant to sell studios the licenses to use their characters in films. The studios would hold onto the box office, and in exchange Marvel would have control of the merchandising. As we all know, merchandise is a major part of blockbuster cinema, and because Marvel was holding onto that toy money so tightly, it left many deals undone, with rights collecting dust until they reverted back to Marvel.
During that time, Snipes was trying to get a director and screenwriter attached to the project and having difficulty finding people who shared his vision of what a Black Panther movie should look like. In the THR interview, Snipes "loosely paraphrased" a conversation he had with director John Singleton. Singleton — fresh off directing Boyz N the Hood — wanted to put T'Challa in the middle of the Civil Rights movement, while Snipes wanted to have the movie take place in a more futuristic time, a setting similar to the one we will see in Coogler's version.
Black Panther wasn't the only film that was stalling, so Marvel, impatient at Hollywood's lack of traction, launched Marvel Studios in 1996. Instead of just giving licenses to their characters, Marvel would handle all aspects of preproduction and then hand it over to a major studio, who would then film and distribute the movies. The first of these ended up being Blade, which was mentioned in the 1992 Variety article alongside Black Panther and was supposed to star LL Cool J. Blade becomes a surprise hit, making $70 million domestically off a $35 million budget and becomes at the time the biggest commercial hit of Snipes' career.
In 1997, while Snipes already in production on Blade, Variety provided an update on the Black Panther movie, stating that Marvel Studios was working with Snipes' own production company, Amen-Ra, with him still set to star. In 1998, Avi Arad, CEO of Marvel Films, and Isaac Perlmutter, who was CEO of Marvel Entertainment until 2015, emerged victorious from a nasty two-year legal battle over who would have control of Marvel, which was undergoing major financial problems.
Two year later, Arad reaches a deal with production and distribution company Artisan Pictures, which, according to Variety, was to develop "at least 15 Marvel superhero franchises into live-action features, TV series, direct-to-video films and internet projects." One of those was Black Panther, with Snipes still attached.
Two years into the Marvel/Artisan deal and after starring in Blade II, Snipes spoke to Latino Review while promoting Undisputed, and when asked about what character he would still like to play, he gave a two-word answer: "Black Panther." When asked if he was still working on the project, Snipes said, "I'm slated to. We're trying to get it prepared for production next year, so we'll see." Snipes wound up working on the third installment in the Blade franchise instead.
Blade: Trinity was the worst-received Blade movie by both critics and by audiences, as it made less than Blade II and the first film in the series. News from the set gave the impression that production was very contentious, most of it having to do with Snipes’ behavior. The film's lack of success would come at a difficult time in both Snipes' professional and personal life. In a 2004 Los Angeles Times article, it was reported that Snipes had not had a commercial non-Blade hit since White Men Can't Jump. On top of the lack of professional accomplishments, his financial troubles were also reported on. According to the L.A. Times piece, his mansion in Isleworth, Florida, was auctioned off; Snipes tried to contest the sale but was overruled by a judge. It was, sadly, a sign of things to come for Snipes.
Before that, there was still a Black Panther movie floating around Hollywood. With the Marvel/Artisan deal not coming to fruition as Artisan was sold to Lionsgate in 2004, Marvel decided to hell with other studios making their movies, they'll just do it themselves. In September 2015, it was announced that Marvel Studios was planning to produce 10 films, with Paramount Pictures marketing and distributing each film. One of the films listed was Black Panther.
In an interview with Men's Fitness in August 2006, Snipes would again talk about Black Panther for the last time until the THR discussion. After saying he was done playing Blade, Snipes said that he and Marvel had "already done a lot of work" on Black Panther and that they hoped to sign a director soon. A few months later, according to The New York Daily News, Snipes was charged with "eight counts of tax fraud and charged with failing to file returns from 1999 through 2004." While acquitted of the more serious crimes, Snipes would be found guilty of three counts of failing to file a tax return. In June 2010, Snipes began his three-year prison term, being released in April 2013.
A year after Snipes release from prison, now president of Marvel Studios Kevin Fiege officially announced in a presentation showcasing Phase 3 of the Marvel Cinematic Universe that a Black Panther film would finally release in November 2017. At the same presentation, Boseman was brought on stage to announce his casting as the character and that he would be first appearing in Civil War.
Since his release from prison, Snipes has only been a part of one high-profile movie, The Expendables 3. He reunited with his former collaborator Spike Lee in 2014's Chi-Raq, and after turning down the role of Lucius in Empire he signed on to play a supporting role in NBC's The Player, which lasted for one season. Last year, he starred in two low-budget action movies and co-wrote a book.
Snipes did meet with Marvel in 2015 to discuss a possible Blade sequel, but three years later nothing has been announced. Snipes couldn't be reached for comment, but thanks to his recent conversation with THR, he made clear that even though he is not associated with Black Panther, he does support the film "1,000 percent," telling the trade that he's "absolutely convinced that it will be a catalyst for change and open other doors and other opportunities."
When Black Panther releases and becomes the hit it seems so destined to be, it will be a true bright spot in the world of pop culture; however, when I see Chadwick Boseman running on the side of buildings over some Kendrick Lamar and Vince Staples verses, I will be thinking of Snipes. Because while Blade will be nowhere near the stylish Marvel Studios intro that comes up before each movie, I will remember that this is happening in part due to an actor who 25 years ago said that it would be "a dream come true to originate something that nobody's ever seen before." Five years later, he did just that, so while he may never get to wear the crown of Wakanda, Snipes should take solace in knowing that he did help build an empire, one of the biggest in pop culture today.