In the mid 1990s, while riding a wave of box-office hits that propelled him to superstardom, Wesley Snipes undertook a bold initiative: make a film about the Marvel Comics character Black Panther.
The African superhero is now a household name thanks to the juggernaut Marvel film franchise including him in 2016's Captain America: Civil War. Star Chadwick Boseman's work as T'Challa (Black Panther) quickly became a fan favorite, which helped launch the character's first self-titled feature film, opening Feb. 16.
Hype for the Ryan Coogler-directed movie, also starring Lupita Nyong'o and Michael B. Jordan, is at a boiling point. Pre-ticket sales broke a Fandango record, and the film is projected to open to $100 million-$120 million and could become the biggest launch for a Marvel Cinematic Universe hero's first standalone movie. Not to mention that buzz for the film after Monday night's Hollywood premiere set social media ablaze.
Yet, some 25 years ago, it was a much different story. Snipes' uphill battle was plagued with script re-writes, director uncertainty, storytelling clashes and inadequate CG capabilities needed to truly bring the marvelous fictional African nation of Wakanda to life.
There have always been rumors about the defunct project — which would ultimately lay a road map for 1998's Blade (the first hit film based on a Marvel character) — but the details have remained murky, until now.
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.
"Black Panther is an iconic character who much of the world was unfamiliar with and the communities that I grew up in would love," Snipes says. "Look, from the days of William Marshall playing Blacula in the 1970s black flicks and the fervor you found inside the black and Hispanic communities, it never crossed my mind that the audience wouldn’t be down with it."
With Stan Lee's blessing ("He was supportive of the Black Panther project at the time."), Snipes was ready.
But right off the bat, there was an issue. The initial struggle, as Snipes explains, was explaining to the uninitiated that he was trying to make a movie about the comic book superhero Black Panther, not the 1960s civil rights revolutionaries. "They think you want to come out with a black beret and clothing and then there’s a movie," he says, sounding exhausted.
With Columbia locked in as the film's studio, it was time to find a screenwriter and director. Neither search would be simple.
"We went through three different scripts and a couple of different director options — very interesting director options at the time," Snipes says, chuckling.
Mario Van Peebles was on the short list, as was John Singleton, who made a big splash in the industry at the age of 23 with his 1991 film Boyz n the Hood. "They were trying to find the young, up-and-coming black directors," Snipes says.
Snipes would never chat with Van Peebles about the project, but he did have an unforgettable meeting with Singleton.
"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 begins. "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.' "
Laughing, Snipes continued, "I am loosely paraphrasing our conversation. But ultimately, John wanted to take the character and put him in the civil rights movement. And I’m like, 'Dude! Where’s the toys?! They are highly technically advanced, and it will be fantastic to see Africa in this light opposed to how Africa is typically portrayed.' I wanted to see the glory and the beautiful Africa. The jewel Africa."
Snipes, somewhat intimidated by Singleton's interpretation, says he was unsuccessful in fully laying out his vision. But that wasn't a bad thing.
"Thank God," Snipes proclaims. "I love John, but I am so glad we didn’t go down that road, because that would have been the wrong thing to do with such a rich project."
Recalling the costume idea leaves Snipes in hysterics.
"Actually, I figured it would be a leotard," he says. "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."
DeFalco, who sat through dozens of pitches for Marvel properties during those years ("Most of them I think I was fighting to stay awake"), recalls taking a trip with Marvel brass to Los Angeles for a flurry of meetings, during which they had a dinner with Columbia execs and screenwriter Terry Hayes. The screenwriter "gave this incredible pitch" from beginning to end for Black Panther, which began with a battle in Wakanda, and baby T'Challa being put on a river in a basket to be saved. Years later, T'Challa is a grown man living somewhere else, going about his life. Suddenly he's attacked in an elevator in an elaborately choreographed fight scene — and the story goes from there.
"I just remember as the writer was describing the scene, I could see it in my mind," recalls DeFalco. "[I thought], 'If this is our Black Panther movie, sign me up!' He really had a terrific handle on the character, on the action, on the stakes and everything else."
After some time, and a great deal of Snipes' effort, the project stalled.
"Ultimately, we couldn’t find the right combination of script and director and, also at the time, we were so far ahead of the game in the thinking, the technology wasn’t there to do what they had already created in the comic book," Snipes says.
But the action star didn't dwell on the missed opportunity. Rather, he took what he learned from the experience and applied it to his next superhero project: Blade.
"It was a natural progression and a readjustment," Snipes says. "They both [Black Panther and Blade] had nobility. They both were fighters. So I thought, hey, we can’t do the King of Wakanda and the Vibranium and the hidden kingdom in Africa, let’s do a black vampire," he says, laughing.
Blade, based on the vampire hunter character created in July 1973 by Marv Wolfman and Gene Colan, would go one to be the first hit film based on a Marvel property, giving the company a much-needed win as it licked its wounds from bankruptcy woes. Blade earned $131 million worldwide for New Line Cinema and spawned two sequels, with its success helping to pave the way for Marvel hits like Fox's X-Men (2000) and Sony's Spider-Man (2002).
Black Panther, meanwhile, soon found greater prominence in the comics after the Snipes project stalled. Writer Christopher Priest and artist Mark Texeira reinvigorated the character with the launch of a 1998 Marvel Knights line, which offered a more modern take on T'Challa. Jimmy Palmiotti, who along with Joe Quesada edited the line, both confirmed to THR that despite internet rumors to the contrary, they were never tapped to work on a Black Panther movie in the '90s. But Palmiotti is thrilled to see Boseman's interpretation of the character 20 years after he first worked with T'Challa.
"Diversity with characters has always been what comic books were about, and it's just taking the rest of the world time to catch up on a lot of the things that have been done for years in this medium," says Palmiotti.
Snipes says that over the years, people have told him how much they appreciated Blade, which helped put Marvel films back on track.
"Remember, during that time, Marvel was going through a liquidation and there were concerns that the whole company might fold," he says. "And it is my understanding that film was a catalyst to its resurgence and the empire we see now."
As for what Marvel Studios has become, Snipes says some of the films he really enjoys, and others not as much.
"I think the real shift is when they started bringing real character actors into the projects, people who are capable of creating three-dimensional characters and story and nuance, like Robert Downey, " he says. "I think that is also what made Blade a success. I had a theatrical, classically trained stage performer background, and all of those skills I brought to the character of Blade. I am always supportive of the actors. I think that is the key to some of the pillars of success we see at Marvel."
As for Boseman's Black Panther, Snipes could not be more thrilled, he says.
"Even though I am not a part of this particular project, I support it 1,000 percent, and I am absolutely convinced that it will be a catalyst for change and open other doors and other opportunities," he says. "And we need that kind of diversity and different flavor now. He is a young, talented actor, and I think he is going to make it his own. I hope they give him a great opportunity to really come into the fullness of the character."
And, yes, Snipes — whose upcoming projects include Beetle, an action thriller; Namigo Blu, an action comedy; Arson, a crime drama; and the supernatural thriller Talon of God!, among others — would step back into a Marvel film, if it made sense.
"I am very much open to all of the possibilities," Snipes says. "If Blade 4 comes along, that is a conversation we can have. And there are other characters in the Marvel universe that, if they want to invite me to play around with, I am with that too. I think the fans have a hunger for me to revision the Blade character, so that could limit where they could place me as another character in that universe."