While black male-led superhero films were rife during the nineties, many were financial failures and have been largely forgotten. As the superhero genre currently features almost exclusively white male leads, returning attention to a time that not only preceded but made the current era possible, while also appreciating the prominence of black representation displayed on-screen, becomes valuable.
The progenitor of that period is Robert Townsend's The Meteor Man (1993). The film follows Townsend's Jefferson Reed, a meek inner city substitute teacher who gains confidence and an array of superpowers after a meteor melds with his body. Encouraged by his neighbors, Reed uses his powers to defeat a gang threatening his community.
Emphasized by Tyree and Jacobs, "family and community played a critical role in the development and support of Meteor Man" (13). Reed's acrophobia keeps him from levitating high above the ground, a symbolic characteristic that connects him to the streets, not lording above them. In that way, Townsend has consciously created a response to the most iconic superhero film to that point, Superman (1978). In addtion to a title sequence homage, Reed's mother juxtaposes him against Superman and other white heroes, saying "You're gonna be....Better than Batman, better than Superman, and....Spider-Man. Cant' touch ya!" Townsend highlights that Meteor Man has to be the sole representation of the black superhero. Rather than only possessing Superman's flight, heat vision, and strength, he has all those powers and more! He has to be the equivalent of all the white superheroes combined.
The film is about Meteor Man as representation, with him not only physically defeating the Golden Lord gang, but serving as a role model for the community's youth. The Golden Lords are visualized in tiers - child Baby Lords, adolescent Junior Lords, and adult Golden Lords - showing how persistant visualizations of black gang activity present a life of crime as the only option for many inner city youth. Meteor Man, both diegetically and as a text, supplies a counter-representation, providing the idol that black audiences were lacking up to that point. The black-led superhero films that followed perpetuated that representation, only to be marginalized in the 2000s. Hopefully, Black Panther (2018) indicates a return to the representation of that earlier time.
Tyree, Tia C.M. and Liezelle J. Jacobs. "Can You Save Me?: Black Male Superheroes in Film." Spectrum: A Journal on Black Men, vol. 3, no. 1, 2014, pp. 1-24.