Long before Chadwick Boseman leaped into the ebony outfit of Black Panther, fifteen years prior to Will Smith's Hancock, four years before Shaquille O'Neal transformed into Steel, and a half-decade before Wesley Snipes' Blade destroyed the vampire nation, a little '90s fantasy flick called The Meteor Man delivered the world's first black superhero feature.
Today marks the 25th anniversary of the release of Robert Townsend's (Hollywood Shuffle, The Five Heartbeats) crazy sci-fi comedy that the award-winning, multi-talented creator wrote, directed, and starred in. This 1993 cult film centers around mild-mannered teacher Jefferson Reed, who becomes a costumed vigilante imbued with paranormal powers on the crime-strangled streets of Washington D.C. after being struck by a flaring green-tinted meteor.
An all-star cast consisting of Townsend, James Earl Jones, Bill Cosby, Eddie Griffin, Marla Gibbs, Frank Gorshin, Don Cheadle, and Sinbad kept the messages positive and the fashions colorful in a hilarious tribute to comic-book crusaders trying to keep their neighborhoods safe. It was the first Hollywood superhero feature spotlighting an African-American character and majority of its cast and paved the way for later incarnations of black superheroes in films and TV series like Black Panther, The Avengers, Black Lightning, and Luke Cage.
Filmed on a $30 million budget, the semi-silly movie was not a box office breakout and only collected $8 million by the end of its theatrical run, but its daring legacy and old-fashioned goodwill stand as profound positive achievements.
Regardless of its failure as a moneymaking enterprise, the movie has a charming tone and earnest enthusiasm that keeps the action light and the special effects surprising as the heroic Reed utilizes his exhaustive list of new-found abilities. He suddenly becomes endowed with the power of flight, x-ray/laser vision, superhuman strength, super speed, magical healing, hurricane breath, telekinesis — and even telepathy with canines.
Townsend recently received of the Motion Picture Association of America's prestigious ICON Award, and the tireless Chicago-born filmmaker is about to launch a new documentary, Making The Five Heartbeats, in theaters for one day only on August 27 as a Fathom Event.
SYFY WIRE spoke with Townsend on the occasion of The Meteor Man's milestone birthday to understand how this pioneering superhero film was born, learn his inspirations behind creating the first black superhero movie, how he wrangled his talented cast, and find out exactly where the iconic crimefighter's suit is hanging today.
What was the genesis of The Meteor Man and how difficult was it to get the project off the ground?
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 Caesar 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.
Alan Ladd Jr. greenlit the picture, a lot of people passed on it, and when I got the green light I wanted to design sequences where you're gonna feel sad for this guy, he's gonna get his butt kicked, but at the end of the day he's a real hero and he's gonna plant a seed of courage in little kids all across the world. This is being fearless as an artist to try something that nobody else was willing to do and just going for it. And I'm so proud of that movie to this day.
Looking back on the film 25 years later, how does it hold up for you?
I think it does hold up because some of the themes in there are still prevalent in society today. Things like communities banding together against gangs, against violence, working with the police, these are certain things that haven't gone away. When I look at Black Lightning and Luke Cage, they're like my cinematic sons. They've taken on cleaning up the Hood, like what Meteor Man was doing trying to unite the gangs and get the community together. I think people still laugh, it's still funny, but then in terms of the ultimate message that we can empower our own communities if we work together, I think that theme is still there and still needed.
How did you assemble such an amazing cast?
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. I thought this could be a billion-dollar franchise (laughs), and even though we didn't hit the mark, I was planting a seed that one day would be possible. Now that I see the Black Panther movie, I see that day came.
When you have all these stars from movies and television and music, I thought, "Oh, wow, we're gonna win." Look, all I do is what I do. I play a recurring character on Black Lightning and am going to direct an episode, and when I was talking to the show's creator, Salim Akil, he said, "Robert, it all starts with you, because you do what you see and want to create and build anything you see." There's a part of me that's very foolish and there's a part of me that's really fearless. And I think the fearless part will paint on any canvas that speaks to my heart. So after I did The Five Heartbeats, people loved that and wondered why I would do a kids' movie. Well, because I'm a kid and I like superheroes! (laughs)
How have you retained your optimism and youthfulness in a difficult industry like Hollywood?
Because I still have fun. I've never revisited any of my work and I've got this documentary I'm about to finish on The Five Heartbeats and I'm really happy. You never know what a filmmaker's journey is, and this is the first time I've ever shared my journey. I'm naked up on screen talking about how I failed and when I hit the wall, and what didn't work, and we still won. There are certain people Hollywood beats up on, and I just take everything as an experience. I have three honorary doctorates, am also a professor at the number one film school, USC, I get to write, direct, produce, act. I ain't got a bad life! I can't be mad at anybody. I just love life. For me, if I can make you laugh or cry or think, then I'm living in my highest purpose as an artist.
Do you still have The Meteor Man costume and if so, when is the last time you slipped it on?
RT: You know what, the costume hangs in a closet in my house in a garment bag. I think I can squeeze into it a little bit. I've been working out, but I need to lose a few more pounds, then I'll be back down to fighting weight. The boots still fit, though! I may try to put it on for the anniversary on Monday.
As one of the leading players of the indie film movement starting in the late '80s, what advice do you give aspiring filmmakers today?
The thing I would say to anyone that wants to be a filmmaker or artist on any side, is how bad do you want your dream. We all have 24 hours in a day and some people use their 24 hours wisely and some don't. The game has really changed. Back in the olden days you'd have to go to the library to learn about screenwriting or directing. Now your phone is your office. Everything is at your fingertips. Technology has made it so affordable that you can shoot on your iPhone and edit on your computer. For this generation, there's nothing to stop them but fear. You've got to be fearless and take chances and keep working on your craft.