For the first time, Snipes pulls back the curtain for The Hollywood Reporter and shares the tale of how his version of the beloved superhero never quite came to fruition despite his efforts and ambitious vision, which very much mirrored what the character has become.
“I think Black Panther spoke to me because he was noble, and he was the antithesis of the stereotypes presented and portrayed about Africans, African history and the great kingdoms of Africa,” Snipes tells THR. “It had cultural significance, social significance. It was something that the black community and the white community hadn’t seen before.”
Created in 1966 by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby, Black Panther was revolutionary as the first African superhero in mainstream comics. The king and kick-butt protector of Wakanda had it all: brawn, brains, wealth and advanced technologies.
Snipes was hooked in an instant when he and his then manager, Doug Robertson, were approached by Marvel for the project. Feeling that Africa, save for the unique animal population, was too commonly shown in film as a depressing, desolate land, Snipes yearned to show its beauty and lush history.
“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 explains. “That was always very, very attractive. And I loved the idea of the advanced technology. I thought that was very forward thinking.”
At the time, Marvel was hardly the Disney-backed powerhouse that it is today. After years of hemorrhaging money, the company declared bankruptcy in 1996. While competitor DC Comics had enjoyed big-screen success with hits such as Tim Burton’s Batman movies and Christopher Reeve’s Superman franchise, box-office hits eluded Marvel.
“Our major competitor was owned by Warners, and they were coming out with Superman movies and Batman movies…. We were out there struggling,” recalls former Marvel editor in chief Tom DeFalco (1987-94), who suffered through critical and commercial failures like Howard the Duck (1986), Dolph Lundgren’s The Punisher(1989) and a 1994 Fantastic Four movie so bad it never even came out.
Snipes, on the other hand, was red hot, having just starred in a string of hits including New Jack City, White Men Can’t Jump, Passenger 57, Rising Sun and Demolition Man. More than just his next picture, Snipes says he saw the Marvel superhero project as a cultural movement.