During a nighttime robbery at an Ocean City bank the police show up to find that the robbers are frozen in suspended animation. Television reporter Yuri Barnes (Bobby Hosea) gets a hold of a tape showing the frozen robbers being taken away. Word on the street is that it is the work of a vigilante known as MANTIS. Yuri thinks that the chief of police, and mayoral candidate, Frank Stark (Francis X. McCarthy) is experimenting with a crowd control drug. He talks to the assistant medical examiner Dr. Amy Ellis (Gina Torres) to see if she knows anything about it. She doesn’t. She also doesn’t believe that there is a vigilante named MANTIS that is responsible for it. At least not until she sees him in action.
The police department calls in the brilliant Dr. Miles Hawkins (Carl Lumbly) to find out why the robbers are frozen. Miles is a wealthy biophysicist who is paralyzed from the waist down. He was shot in the spine during a riot while trying to help a child. He claimed a police officer shot him. He filed a lawsuit against the city but lost. Miles is supposedly researching what happened to freeze the robbers. In reality he's the one who invented the drug.
Miles also invented an exoskeleton he calls a Mechanically Augmented Neuro Transmitter Interception System. M.A.N.T.I.S for short. The exoskeleton allows Miles to walk. In addition it gives him superhuman power. Miles is the vigilante fighting crime in the city. In addition to his suit Miles has an assortment of superhero toys including an underwater lab and a hovercraft called the Crysalid that can convert from a car to an aircraft to an underwater vehicle.
But there is more going on in Ocean City than just regular crime. Two gangs, the 10K and the Dragons have a very tenuous truce going on. Anything could set off a war between them. Antoine Pike (Steve James) and Cornell (Obba Babatunde) run a youth athletic center trying to keep any sparks from flaring. Chief Stark is running for mayor on a law and order platform but there are those that think Stark has darker plans for the city.
“M.A.N.T.I.S.” was released in 1994 and was directed by Eric Laneuville. It is an American science fiction movie that was created as a pilot for a television series. The series aired for only one season on the Fox Network between August 26, 1994 and March 3, 1995. The original movie pilot was produced by Sam Raimi and Sam Hamm. One of the special things about M.A.N.T.I.S. is that he was a black superhero.
After the series was ordered a media watchdog group leveled charges of racism against the show’s new producers Bryce Zabel and James McAdams complaining that the ethnic makeup of the cast was reduced and the tone of the television series was radically changed from the pilot to de-emphasize the African American flavor and to attract more white viewers. The charges were denied by the new producers and network executives. They maintained the changes were for creative reasons.
In the pilot M.A.N.T.I.S.’s assistants were two young African students with accents who dressed in traditional African clothes. The other two main black characters were a female assistant coroner and a television reporter. All four were replaced for the series by three new and different characters, two of them white. The location of the series changed as well. It moved from a gritty New York City style location to a multicultural west coast city called Port Columbia.
Fox Network executive Bob Greenblatt felt the pilot was too grim and too realistic and wanted to bring out the fantasy element of the story. Whatever that means. He also said that there were holes and inconsistencies in the story and there were problems with the characters and actors. Again, whatever that means. He also felt that the African students didn’t provide a way to bring new story ideas to the series. I could be wrong but my guess is that the reason story ideas for African Americans were difficult is because the story writers were all white people.
I haven’t seen the television series but the movie was good. As far as being too grim and too realistic it was a lot tamer that shows like NBC’s “Hill Street Blues” 1981-1987 or ABC’s “N.Y.P.D. Blue” 1993-2005. The pilot, at least, is worth seeing. Perhaps it’s not the best superhero movie but it being one of the first to showcase a black superhero is one for the history books.