Robert Townsend’s 'The Meteor Man' Is A Valuable Outlier in the Superhero Genre

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February 8th 2018

A classic example of the hero’s journey, The Meteor Man is about a shy, unassuming Washington D.C. school teacher Jefferson Reed, who gets superpowers when he is hit by a meteor after trying to rescue an innocent woman from neighborhood thugs. The Meteor Man’s powers include the ability to fly, superhuman strength, ability to talk to dogs and master everything in any book just by touching it, x-ray and laser vision, superhuman strength, speed, advanced healing powers, telepathy with dogs and telekinesis. It’s a movie that is infinitely well-meaning that the viewer automatically wants to love it. It also makes just enough missteps that many viewers leave it feeling that it all just doesn’t come together quite in the way that some think superhero film should. It would be a mistake, however, to dismiss The Meteor Man simply because it doesn’t fit neatly into the superhero genre.

Premiering in 1993 and the first wide-release feature film about a black superhero, The Meteor Man was always supposed to be a film that was different from traditional superhero fare. First of all, the director Robert Townsend was a comic and satirist. Though it’s a superhero movie, it bears a strong comic imprint. Townsend, who also starred in the film, is also black. The message of the film heavily reflects the outlook of an upwardly mobile, working-class black man. Jonathan Gayles, Professor of African-American Studies at University of Georgia and the director and producer of the documentary, White Scripts Black Superheroes: Black Masculinities in Comic Books observes, “It's obvious to me that The Meteor Man was an attempt to respond to the persistent representation of black men as inherently threatening. It wasn't a perfect film, but within the broader patterns of representation of black men in cinema, it was a useful film.” On that level, Townsend, who at the time he made The Meteor Man was still being lauded for his audacious, up by the bootstraps directorial debut Hollywood Shuffle, succeeds.

[caption id="attachment_301316" align="alignnone" width="700"]THE METEOR MAN, Robert Townsend (center), with rap group 'Another Bad Creation', 1993, (c)MGM Photo: MGM[/caption]

Jefferson Reed’s obvious vulnerability is one of the elements that makes this movie endearing and valuable. Further, Townsend is talented enough to pull it off without emasculating or dumbing down the character. First, there is the warm relationship between Jefferson and his parents played by the late great Robert Guillaume (Benson) and Marla Gibbs (227, The Jeffersons). There is also the affection that his neighbors have for him and he for them, his close friendship with his witty and girl crazy but nerdy and fashion-challenged best friend Michael, played by Eddie Griffin (Undercover Brother, Scary Movie 3). Some of the funniest (and fuzziest) scenes are between Jefferson and his dog Ellington, named after the famed Washington, D.C. born jazz musician. The antithesis of the testosterone-fueled alpha man, Jefferson, like many superheroes, is reluctant to take on the responsibility of his powers. However, love for his family, friends and community gives him the courage to take up the mantle and answer his calling. His ironic fear of heights, which gets in the way of his new ability to fly, creates a path for the viewer to identify with him even as they chuckle at this improbable superhero weakness.

For Townsend, the film was always intended to be for young children. In an interview with Shadow and Act for this article, he recounts that about four years before the premiere of The Meteor Man, he had an exchange with his nephew when he went back home to Chicago for a visit. It was around Halloween and he recalls, “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 Spiderman. He’s like six or seven years old and he says, ‘Well I can’t be them because they’re white.’” Townsend was taken aback. “I was like, ‘whoa!’. I had never watched television with a prejudiced eye but he had a certain lens where he saw limitations.”  A light bulb went on. He says, “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 Spiderman.” That conversation was the catalyst for the making of Townsend’s The Meteor Man. It is one of the twenty-plus films being shown this month as part of Brooklyn Academy of Music’s Fight The Power: Black Superheroes on Film. The series consists of over twenty films highlighting mythical and iconic black screen heroes.

Some of the criticism aimed at The Meteor Man when it came out seemed to stem from a lack of understanding who the film was being made for and what Townsend aimed to do. “I think when we created something that was totally different,” he says, “some people didn’t know how to take it because we hadn’t had a kids movie.” He was, however, driven by a desire to provide a form of entertainment sorely needed and desperately scarce in the black community at the time. There were adult dramas and stories about complicated characters caught up in crime in America’s inner cities but no family-friendly fare. Still, some black filmgoers, yearning to see themselves represented in outsize fashion, flocked to the theater for those arguably inappropriate films and sometimes took their kids along.  “Other than The Wiz,” Townsend observes, “there were no other movies for kids. Parents would take their kids to see New Jack City or parents would take their kids to see Menace to Society. They just wanted to have an experience but there was nothing where they could take their children.”  For Townsend, it was well worth the trouble he encountered. “I got a lot of pushback because people were asking me why I was doing a kids movie. I just remember replying ‘Well, because kids of color have no movies.’”

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It took two years and about thirty revisions for him to get the script he wanted. Then there were another two years getting the funding to make the picture. In the end, The Meteor Man’s budget was a respectable thirty million dollars. For reference, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles III and Robocop were both also made in 1993 and cost $17 million and $22 million respectively. Townsend remembers, “I had to pitch really hard to sell the vision. Funding was difficult because a black superhero film hadn’t been done before.”

There is much to love in The Meteor Man. Black resistance and black agency is often denied by mainstream media. The Meteor Man pushes back against that myth, displaying a community actively attempting to come up with solutions to combat structural weaknesses. Marla Gibbs and Robert Guillaume gave spirited performances as proud parents with renewed hope for the neighborhood and even the world. At one point, Jefferson’s father urges him to take Meteor Man “international and get involved with South Africa.” Actor and D.C. native Ryan Sands (Marvel’s Runaways) remembers being excited when the film came out. “It was cool because Robert Townsend had made such a name for himself because of Hollywood Shuffle. Seeing my hometown and seeing a black hero was an event. It was exciting to see this black superhero do something that other people couldn’t and to stand up for his community. We needed to see images of people who looked like us. It was important and it was groundbreaking.”

Comedian Sinbad is hilarious as overnight hotep Malik/Bernard suddenly full of passion for blackness, who just started dating his first black girl. There is Maxine Waters before she reclaimed her time, gracing the cover of an issue Jet Magazine in Jefferson’s house. Characters wear Howard University sweatshirts at a time when many people were still unaware of the significance of HBCU’s (The Cosby Show notwithstanding). Jefferson gets treated at a post-segregation, pre- Shonda Rhimes hospital full of black doctors.The idea to dress the villains in platinum blonde dyed hair wearing coordinated black and gold outfits was inspired. Menacing though they may be, they come off not unlike a boy band. Their smooth attire also conveys the deeper message that yes, sometimes villains are seductive and are sexier and slicker than the good guys but that regardless, they are still the enemy. There is also Frank Gorsham, who played the Riddler in the original Batman series, which Townsend loved as a child. “It was just a joy to have someone who was a part of my childhood be in the movie,” he exclaims.

The Meteor Man also skillfully avoids the misogyny so rampant in popular superhero films. Professor Gayle points to Blade as an example. “Blade is undermined,” he states, “by considerable misogyny against black women in the film.” There are women of all ages and colors in The Meteor Man and Townsend didn’t fall back on the lazy stereotypes about, or objectification of black women characters. From Gibbs as his mother, to Nancy Wilson as the high school principal, Jenifer Lewis as concerned and annoyed parent, Lela Rochon as the attractive yet assertive nurse, Marilyn Coleman as his elderly landlady and a community leader, or Stacy his pretty co-worker with a passion for her job, all are given agency and are written as valuable as human beings. It is more than can be said about many popular superhero films and Townsend should be given credit for that.

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The Meteor Man is a film with faults as well. A feature of many black superhero stories that gives us a view of just how ingrained is the white supremacist mindset is that they tend to be very, very local. There are few white superheroes who see themselves as simply protecting their own neighborhood. White superheroes, it is implied, protect and/or fight all of humanity. Black superheroes seem bound to their neighborhoods or at least black neighborhoods unless their function is to support the agenda of a white superhero. In the case of Black Panther, he is bound by a country inhabited by those who are racially just like him. It’s the superhero version of “stay in your place”. Gayles agrees and sees the same tendency in The Meteor Man. “The storyline was a rather heavy-handed anti-drug “everyone can be a hero” tale situated squarely in “the hood” - and not an inch further.  I think this speaks to the degree to which the imagined threat that black men represent can be symbolically mitigated by confining them to “their” neighborhoods. In my film, White Scripts and Black Supermen: Black Masculinities in Comic Books, it is clear that in the earliest African-American superheroes engage street-level villains while other superheroes are afforded the privilege of fighting villains that pose an existential threat to the universe itself.”

It is the constant battle of many, though not all, black creatives. You want to entertain but you must also enlighten, uplift, educate, refute stereotypes and convince non-black people of black people’s essential humanity all at once and often with limited resources. There is always the danger that in making room for the message, the story gets lost or confused, or is rendered inadequately. This may be partially the reason for some of the weaknesses in The Meteor Man. There is no question the movie would have benefitted from using some of its many high profile stars in a more substantive way or just not using them at all. There are appearances by James Earl Jones and singer Luther Vandross but they add virtually nothing to the story. The superhero costume choice is a bit puzzling. Jefferson’s mom is so excited to find out about his powers, she makes him a superhero suit. In fact, there is a stream of prototypes. A lot of time and attention and love go into making the costume but it ultimately comes off as a joke that doesn’t land quite well. The obvious fake muscles were an unnecessary distraction especially when you take into account that the film had a $30 million budget.

There are soft detractors of black superhero films as a whole like James Pappas who is Associate Professor of Transnational Studies at University at Buffalo. Though Pappas doesn’t have an issue with blacks in film per se, he doesn’t believe superhero films are efficient tools for solving the issues that confront black society. He states, “While to some, superheroes are a remedy for those who are lacking in self-identity, the idea of a black mythic hero translates into a cathartic to replace the real heroes who are hard working African-Americans. What we need is exposure to real people with real stories.” Townsend rebuts this saying, “Here’s the thing, we have to teach the kids at very young ages about what it means to get involved, what it means to fight back, what it means to have a voice. You can’t always hit them over the head. You can't have kids who are seven years old watching a Black Panther documentary. So you educate them with a little honey and sugar. We all have a role so who is to look and say this is the only way?” Townsend explains there is nothing that he would do differently in retrospect. “When you make a movie, you use what you have at the time and there’s only so much knowledge that you know or you think you know and  I just accept the adventure. I love the movie to this day. I’m really happy I think there are some amazing performances and I think it’s magical in  its own way.”

by Nadine Matthews on February 8th 2018
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