THE METEOR MAN Champions Conscience and Community, Is Actually Quite Brilliant — New On Blu

The Meteor Man flew onto Blu-ray on October 27 from Olive Films.

Living on a US military base in Germany in the early 90s, access to home culture was a bit tough to come by, and filtered through military distribution channels — pretty much all shopping and even television came through the Armed Forces. This was before the Internet took off. So I primarily became aware of movies by browsing through the limited selection of VHS covers at the local PX or BX. (That’s military-speak meaning “Post Exchange” or “Base Exchange”, or what normal people would call a “store”). In those days, one cover that always jumped out at me was The Meteor Man, mainly because I was kind of transfixed by the all-star cast of actors and musicians involved, as advertised across the bottom of the box. Bill Cosby, James Earl Jones, and A.B.C. all in the same very campy looking superhero flick? Just what the heck was this movie?

Amazingly, in hindsight the cast is even more impressive than those credits indicate. Wallace Shawn, Biz Markie, Chris Tucker, and members of Cypress Hill and Naughty By Nature all show up in small roles, but the biggest surprise is a pair of relative unknowns named Don Cheadle and Tiny Lister as senior members of the villainous Golden Lords gang.

I never actually watched the movie, and for its part it seemed to have mostly faded into obscurity. So when a review opportunity landed in my inbox, those memories of intrigue came back and I went for it. I’m really glad I did, because The Meteor Man has surpassed my expectations in every way and I can’t wait to tell you about it.

Yes, it’s expectedly cheesy and steeped in early 90s style. But far from the mere superhero spoof that the artwork or trailer suggests, it is also a film with a lot on its mind. Even now when comic book films have become commonplace, The Meteor Man remains one of the most singularly unique superhero films in existence, and not just because the man in the cape is African-American.

Credit for this obviously goes directly to writer, director, and star Robert Townsend, no stranger to social awareness or documenting the black experience, as evidenced by his 1987 race satire Hollywood Shuffle. With The Meteor Man, Townsend uses the superhero construct to comment on such very real topics as black-on-black violence, social responsibility, community awareness, the importance of educators in positively influencing children, and the rise of gang-related subculture within African-American communities. Yes, all of that is packed into a cornball movie that looks like this:

And if Hollywood Shuffle was a lamentation of the dearth of positive roles and opportunities for black actors, then The Meteor Man is Townsend putting his money where his mouth is. The film features an almost entirely black cast in a film that promotes positive values.

Jefferson Reed (Townsend) is a feeble substitute teacher whose main traits are his pacifism and desire to be a good neighbor to the colorful characters who inhabit his street. As an educator, his tries to impart good values to students, but his attempts seem to gain little traction, as he’s merely a substitute. His timid demeanor stands in contrast to his father Ted (Robert Guillaume), a fiery community activist who wants to directly challenge the gangs that occupy the streets, particularly the most dangerous gang of all: The Golden Lords.

More than just a street gang, The Golden Lords are an army with ties to global organized crime and a desire to expand their territory. They’re identifiable by their sharp style (golden-dyed hair and accents complementing black formal attire), and they recruit young. Boys are seduced by the cool factor of these dapper gangbangers, and line up to be part of the clan. It certainly isn’t subtle, but rather a clear reference to the allure that gangs can have on impressionable youth.

Following a run-in (more of a “run-away”, really) with the Golden Lords, Jefferson is hit by a massive, glowing green meteor. After a miraculous recovery from the third degree burns sustained in the encounter, he discovers new abilities: not only comic book staples like invulnerability, x-ray vision, and flight, but also some some left-of-center stuff like the ability to speak to dogs or temporarily absorb knowledge from books by osmosis.

Unlike most superhero arcs, Jefferson’s abilities and alter ego are immediately known to nearly everyone, and his role is imposed on him by his parents and a zealous community eager to exploit his new powers. He only reluctantly takes on the mantle of “The Meteor Man” despite his reservations.

Meteor Man’s exploits highlight the sensitivity of his character and of Townsend as storyteller. Rather than literally fighting crime, this hero de-escalates situations and tries to make peaceful resolutions. Encountering (real-life gangs) the Crips and Bloods, he convinces them to put down their arms. Furthermore these amenable gangsters are played by popular rap stars. Townsend’s message seems clear: his antogonists are fictional because he wants to challenge the real gang members to step up and be a part of the solution. In another powerful scene that demonstrates this affirmation of life, Meteor Man quietly uses his super strength to transform the dumping ground of a vacant lot into a community garden.

This all exemplifies what I think is so revolutionary and unique about this picture. When you think about films with strong social messages (such as Do The Right Thing, as an obvious example), most come from a place of rage — and there’s nothing wrong with that. Anger has its place in the conversation. But Townsend seems to be coming from a place of love, and delivers this powerful message in a gentle, PG-rated superhero parable.

That’s not to say that it’s all just pacifism and preaching. One of the important aspects of Jefferson’s character arc is that he has to throw down with the bad guys in the end. Not everything can be solved peacefully, and his naivete in this matter is challenged.

And let’s not forget, this is a comedy. The film often has a corny vibe which I enjoyed, and seems to be actively aware of the over-the-top 90s fashions of the era. To this end, the supporting cast are a big part of the laughs. Eddie Griffin is perhaps a bit underused as Jefferson’s goofy but sincere best friend. Robert Guillaume and Marla Gibbs are humorously and relatably annoying as Jefferson’s overbearing parents, without being exhausting. Bill Cosby features in a small but important and funny role, but the biggest laughs come from James Earl Jones, who plays a bald friend of the Reeds who sports a series of riotous and age-inappropriate toupees. In one scene, emboldened by his hairstyle, he hits on two different much younger women within seconds of each other, culminating with the line, “You down with OPP? Yeah, you know me!”. It’s corny but it had me absolutely in stitches, and I think the line plays even better now with 90s nostalgia as a factor.

The result of this mix of humor, adventure, and social commentary is a film that doesn’t play at being important — it just is. Townsend’s sensibilities and philosophy permeate every inch of footage but also allow the comedy to breathe and the story to work its magic. I was entertained, charmed, and refreshed by this criminally forgotten and underseen gem that’s frankly a lot smarter than it looks.

Frequently clever and deeply conscientious, The Meteor Man is wonderful filmmaking.

Emphatically, highly recommended.

The Package

Olive Films released The Meteor Man last week in a new Blu-ray edition.

The disc is pretty bare but does include the original trailer in HD.

Special Features and Extras

Theatrical Trailer (1:15)

A/V Out.

Get it at Amazon:
 The Meteor Man [Blu-ray] | [DVD]

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