It’s not exactly a secret that audiences love superhero movies. Since 2012, they’ve made a combined total of more than $1 billion each year. Worldwide, they grossed more than $4.75 billion in 2016, more than $5.25 billion in 2017, and more than $8.25 billion in 2018 (Box Office Mojo). 2019 is already off to a start for superhero movies, with M. Night Shyamalan’s “Glass” grossing more than $160 worldwide in its first two weeks, and it wouldn’t be surprising if all three Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) movies made at least $1billion internationally. In addition, two DC movies, two standalone X-Men movies and an R-rated Hellboy movie are to be released in 2019, prompting me to believe that superhero movies will make even more this year than they did last year.
In any case, I thought it would be interesting to balance the plethora of modern superhero movies with a review of a superhero film from more than four decades ago: “Abar, the First Black Superman.” What makes “Abar” interesting in comparison to most if not all superhero movies that came after it is the fact that, while it’s a superhero movie in technicality, it’s hardly a superhero movie at all. The majority of the movie focuses on the residents of the film’s setting rather than any superhero, and with only the just treatment of local people at stake, the scale is nowhere near as large as that of most superhero movies. The character who becomes a superhero does not do so until the last half hour of the film, and he’s not the protagonist.
“Abar” takes place in an unnamed Southern location occupied by white racists. The titular character Abar (Tobar Mayo) believes that “blacks” who live in ghettos must rise up against the white racists in order to have justice. Meanwhile, Kincade family (J. Walter Smith, Roxie Young, Gladys Lum and Tony Rumford) become the only black family in their neighborhood, and their neighbors treat them with unimaginable cruelty, picketing their house, referring to them by racial slurs, spreading false rumors about people of color—and that’s when they’re at their nicest. At their worst, they emotionally and physically assault the family. Dr. Kincade insists upon staying in the neighborhood, as it is within proximity to a lab where he can create a serum to give a living being superpowers. Abar happens to be physically strong enough to take it, and the First Black Superman is born.
As a superhero movie with a superhero only in the third act, “Abar” starts out as a mixture of ups and downs; conflicts and character accomplishments that push the story along are interesting, but some conversation scenes are boring, and some scenes could be cut from the film entirely. In terms of both continuity and logic, multiple parts of the story do not make sense. Thankfully, the film does become more interesting as Dr. Kincade makes progress with his invention—and seeing a character get to his or her goal is always intriguing.
With that in mind, I must view “Abar” not only as an unconventional superhero movie but as a movie in general, and as a movie in general, it certainly has its drawbacks. One must go into “Abar” knowing it is a B-film. It is so blurry that pixels are visible, and the shaky cam additionally hurts the film’s look. Most of the movie is poorly framed, and even in a shot with good composition, color and lighting, the shaky cam and/or pixilation prevent it from looking great.
Unfortunately, cinematography is far from the only flaw of this movie. One fight scene is poorly choreographed. The film’s score is either unoriginal or cookie cutter. Much of the dialogue feels tacky, inauthentic, forced or just unfitting, and people talk in a flat manner reminiscent of a 60s film, if not an earlier one. The words “cardboard,” “monotone” and “emotionless” could properly describe the acting at many points in the film. For the most part, I didn’t mind these shortcomings, as the film is clearly low budget and one can tell the actors wanted to do a good job. The bad acting is sometimes entertaining, in fact. However, a scene that is supposed to feel heart-breaking lacks emotion due to the under reactions of characters, unrealistic dialogue and by-the-books music that isn’t nearly sad enough.
“Abar” does have its assets, though; ruined ghetto houses of suffering black families are powerful imagery. One scene does a good job creating tension, another creating suspense. There is one edit I liked, and as I said before, there are a few shots that, aside from blur and sometimes shaky cam, look good.
That said, the superhero part of “Abar” is easily the best part of the film and ultimately the reason it exists. Without giving too much away, using editing rather than on-screen effects to show Abar fixing a city is a clever low budget move, and seeing the white racists who tormented the Kincade family get the punishment they deserve is undoubtedly funny, satisfying and entertaining.
In conclusion, “Abar” isn’t for someone who wants to see a blockbuster. It’s for someone who wants to see individuals try to capture the essence of a blockbuster with little at their disposal. The film’s story does have genuinely hooking moments, and once the film gets intriguing, it not only stays intriguing but becomes more intriguing. Not an essential movie, but one worth watching if you want to see a failed attempt at making a low budget blockbuster. Additionally, one may want to watch this because it’s the first black superhero movie.
Cal Sylvia can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org