I routinely preface articles like this with the “you kids don’t know how good you have it” superhero movie disclaimer. I have no choice. Once upon a time, you were lucky to get one superhero movie a year and you were even luckier if that one was any good at all. And back in the day, not only were there NO genuinely good or successful Marvel movies, Marvel’s catalogue of characters was far more scattered to the winds than it was even in the darkest days of Sony’s Spider-Man hegemony. And for a good chunk of the 1990s, Columbia Pictures held the rights to make a Black Panther movie, and the man who was most likely to embody T’Challa on the screen was none other than Wesley Snipes.
Marvel wasn’t having much luck getting their properties adapted at the time. Howard the Duck was a disaster (which we love), the 1988 Punisher movie starring Dolph Lundgren went straight to video (although we love that, too), the 1990 Captain America movie was not only pulled from its planned Spring 1990 theatrical release, but it didn’t even get a video release for a few more years (although I also have a soft spot for that flick). And then there’s the Roger Corman produced Fantastic Four movie, which was never officially released (guess what? I love it). It was tough to get a faithful superhero adaptation made if your name wasn’t Superman or Batman.
But Wesley Snipes understood what made Black Panther special. It wasn’t just that black superheroes were even more woefully underrepresented than they are today. He specifically wanted to showcase Wakanda, and portray a vision of a technologically advanced African empire that hadn’t been seen on screen before (something which the new movie appears to have embraced).
“Many people don’t know that there were fantastic, glorious periods of African empires and African royalty — Mansa Musa [emperor of the West African Mali Empire] and some of the wealthiest men in the world compared to the wealth of today,” Snipes tells The Hollywood Reporter in a wonderful interview about the project. “That was always very, very attractive. And I loved the idea of the advanced technology. I thought that was very forward thinking.”
Snipes ran into trouble because when you say “black panther” in America, most people immediately think of the civil rights activists from the 1960s. Even one of the potential directors wanted to make that affiliation.
Snipes got as far as a meeting with Boyz n the Hood director John Singleton, who had a very different vision for the movie, though. “I laid on him my vision of the film being closer to what you see now: the whole world of Africa being a hidden, highly technically advanced society, cloaked by a force field, Vibranium,” Snipes tells THR, admittedly paraphrasing a conversation that took place over 20 years ago. “John was like, ‘Nah! Hah! Hah! See, he’s got the spirit of the Black Panther, but he is trying to get his son to join the [civil rights activist] organization. And he and his son have a problem, and they have some strife because he is trying to be politically correct and his son wants to be a knucklehead.'”
Other directors that were considered for the project included Mario Van Peebles and John Singleton. Former Marvel Editor-in-Chief Tom DeFalco was particularly fond of an “incredible pitch” from Road Warrior and Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome scribe Terry Hayes which would have captured the regal, technological utopian feel that Snipes was hoping for. Unfortunately, it never came together.
As for the costume, it wouldn’t have been anything as elaborate as what Chadwick Boseman wears in the current film. All Snipes expected was “A leotard with maybe some little cat ears on it. I would have to be in shape and just be straight bodied up. I never imagined anything more than a leotard at the time, which I didn’t have a problem with because I started out as a dancer.” To be perfectly honest, it would be nice to see superhero movie costumes go back to that kind of simplicity.
Snipes, of course, went on to find superhero movie success of a very different kind with Blade in 1998, which spawned two sequels. And the Ryan Coogler directed, Chadwick Boseman starring Black Panther movie from Marvel Studios is currently burning up the box office, and is bound to spawn some sequels of its own.